When I heard that Disney would be venturing into New Orleans for their first hand-drawn piece in over five years, the excitement could barely be contained. All of the novelty present within the city's '50s era culture sent spirals of ideas in my mind about what the creators could concoct, whether it would be sumptuous capturing of the French Quarter's garden district or the creepy ways that these masters of family-friendly eeriness could paint up voodoo. The result is The Princess and the Frog, a cheerful take on that familiar amphibian-smooching "Frog Prince" story where a leap of faith results in storybook romance. Though the number of grand musical numbers might be too dense for non-brassy Disney lovers, it's a buoyant, dazzling piece of work due to its glowing illustration of Jazz-age Louisianan culture and the sheer amount of cheeky fun had within its fanciful story and atmosphere.
This, to Aladdin directors John Musker and Ron Clements' credit, is more than the typical mawkish kiss-and-pray story; it's still about a girl who places her faith in a slimy little green creature she hopes will turn into a prince, but it's also about realizing her dream -- and it's a lot of fun seeing her realize it in such a lavish setting. The girl in question is Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress in N'Orleans who's saving up for her own restaurant. At first, we see her as a young child embraced by the warmth of a loving -- albeit financially downtrodden -- family, dashing her father's scintillating gumbo with hot sauce for good measure. Later, this lust for food, and love for her father, feeds into her life as a double-and-triple shift waitress saving for "Tiana's Place", dodging social invites from her friends and rolling her eyes at the squawking of her childhood friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), daughter to the town's rich socialite "Big Daddy" Le Bouff (John Goodman).
The Princess and the Frog sets itself up as an embellished take on the Disney "princess" formula, invoking vibrant music into an optimistic beginning to Tiana's story. Musker and Clements cram in several of Randy Newman's feisty musical numbers at the beginning, seeming like it's going to be a bit more spectacle than fluid storytelling. Song and dance cues paint up Tiana's determination and concoct the right rhythmic tone for New Orleans, introducing us briefly -- and in comedic form -- to the town's voodoo doctor (Keith David) and the recently arrived, disavowed Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) as he jumps in with the music of the streets. This carries us along with an electric mood until we reach "Almost There", a musical number that transplants us into an in-motion art deco poster. With Anika Noni Rose's vocals blurting out a tone of tangible hope for Tiana's voice, the lyrics accompany a lustrous '30s-inspired visage that beautifully paints up her dreams.
That all happens long before the plot's big voodoo-infused twist, a reversal on the "Frog Prince" story -- loosely taken from E.D. Baker's "The Frog Princess" -- that instead transforms Tiana into a frog and drops her deep in the New Orleans bayou with a prince plagued with the same juju-concocted problem. After a peculiarly charming meet-cute between our Frog Prince and Tiana, done up in sparkly garb to make her out to be a "princess", we're treated to a riff on the fable that's constructed in blaring Disney fashion; swirling magic, flying beignets, and a huffy Louisianan belle eager to marry a wealthy prince lead us into Tiana and Naveen's trip through the swamps. Disney then begins to throw their gauntlet of staples in our direction, from a trumpet-playing alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) to a sleepy-eyed, snaggle-toothed lightning bug named Ray (Jim Cumming), and their journey to solve the magic dilemma is just as rhythmically motivating as the beginning.
However, it also sets in motion a sloppily-built romance between Prince Naveen and Tiana, one that's driven by stars in the characters' eyes but vaguely improbable due to their personality differences. It's partially due to the overpuffed "enamored" swooning of Prince Naveen, which comes across as more cheeky than charming. Sure, Tiana romantically teaches Naveen to cook and Naveen teaches Tiana to dance, all as frogs, but there's something unbearably easy about how their connection builds. It's almost as if the storyline wishes for us to possess an in-built affection for the two and assume, through their adventures together, that they can fall in love "blindly", without an outlined image of who they truly are. Is that something that should be appreciated, especially when the first half of the picture adamantly builds our affection for Tiana as a strong individual? However, we're able to overlook that trouble-free lapse, glazed over for ease in storytelling, for the sake of indulging in vibrant atmosphere and easy romance.
What makes The Princess and the Frog a bona fide experience is the Disney animation team's return to hand-drawn glory, dreaming up a throw-back style to classic animation that's as enchanting as its ancestors. Musical numbers can be too tightly packed together for those who don't favor Broadway-style productions as Tiana and Naveen coast through murky waters, but this whimsical portrait of New Orleans' bayous still sweeps us up on sumptuous imagination and takes us back to carpet rides and places where the "seaweed is greener". The ubiquitous lush greenery hearkens to several other Disney productions, such as Sleeping Beauty and Bambi, only with a contemporary spin on a deep, earthy color palette. As the crew encounters fireflies and Mardi Gras in all its glory, it carries nearly as much magic as witnessing season fairies and prancing hippos in Fantasia. Voodoo sequences swirl in neon-colored magic, and its flavorful blacklight-looking tenacity is exactly what was expected -- with dashes of The Black Cauldron sparking its dark yet playful sequences. Don't worry; the whole film's not even close to THAT dark.
Chock full of down-home cooking, black magic, superb music that'll get your feet tapping and undeniable warmth, The Princess and the Frog is all about style and gusto -- and having a heck of a lot of fun in telling this fairytale. Instead of carting us away to some land far, far away, it rustles together a wealth of magic in a real-world environment that, though labeled with a time due to its clothing, automobiles, and such, still exists as both a timeless and enchanted place. What it aims to do in this location swings more on dazzling our eyes and slapping a grin on our faces, all while giving Tiana -- the first black princess in Disney's run -- a determined drive to achieve her dreams. And it does just that, building into nearly 100-minutes of captivating excitement that should ensure the place of Disney's dreamy animation for years to come. It might not be quite the same quality blend of grand narrative and vivacious demeanor that John Musker and Ron Clements have become famous for, but the inspired rendering of its location and the sheer joy created still carry on the lineage of Disney animated greatness.
Video and Audio:
In a word -- WOW.
The Princess and the Frog arrives from Disney in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC image that, within its replication of color and precision of detail, shows exactly why hand-done animated films benefit massively from Blu-ray technology. Every ounce of the radiant animation oozes with high-definition extravagance, from an amazingly broad color palette that seems like it almost literally hit every color of the rainbow to the sublime rendering of brush strokes in the backdrop and along the characters' bodies. Motion between each drawn piece is incredibly fluid, never distorting with motion for even a second. The New Orleans landscape, both in the French Quarter and the bayous, radiates with aged beauty and lush, properly-handled fluctuations in contrast, color gradation, and shimmering delight. Not a single element is out of place, building into a knockout visual presentation that both carries the natural disposition of real artwork and stunning high-definition beauty. Simply beautiful.
Step for step, the DTS HD Master Audio presentation matches the stellar visuals. Robust activity shoots in all directions, especially spanning from high to low frequencies during the jazzy music. Trumpets blow, drums pummel, and percussion rattles the sound space, keeping our heads nodding and legs moving along as the story coasts. Clarity of the vocal recordings, either for the music or the dialogue, is of the highest accord -- showcasing a breadth of verbal gumption as Anika Noni Rose and Keith David's voice showcase the upper and lower quadrants of middle ground -- with no distortion. It's an enveloping soundtrack too, as surround elements swirl around us to create a thorough atmosphere, from ambient bugs to distant music. On top of that, the lower-end of the sound spectrum also gets quite a workout between healthy water splashes and the punchy lows of the musical numbers. There's really nothing to mark against this track, as it's pretty close to high-definition perfection within its thorough vigor. French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, along with English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
Audio Commentary with with Co-Writers/Directors John Musker, Ron Clements, Peter Del Vecho:
There's always quite a bit to discuss about an animated feature, which usually results in a quality discussion in audio commentaries. This one's no exception: Musker, Clements, and Del Vecho dive into a dense exposition on the many moving parts within creating The Princess and the Frog. They elaborate on pitching the story to Oprah, who voices Tiana's mother when she's young, as well as their creation of a Garden District "synthesis". Creating an "wistful, old-world" film receives their attention, as well as discussing specific characters and their roots.
Magic in the Bayou: The Making of a Princess (22:11, HD):
This somewhat lengthy piece discusses the directors and the participation of their head honcho, John Lasseter, in the construction of the film. They elaborate a bit on the hand-drawn animation, as well as discussing the "twisted" nature of this fairy tale.
A large number of featurettes focus on specific topics, most of which range between 2-3 minutes in length and only give us a brief glimpse into the animation, characters, and production of the film. They bubble along with chipper music and quick glimpses into behind-the-scenes action for each, including a portrait of Anika Noni Rose as the voice of Tiana and a sketch of Keith David as the voodoo doctor. Some of the features, The Disney Legacy and The Princess and the Animator specifically, give us a few savory high-definition snippets of Disney animated films -- Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. Here's a listing of the individual pieces: The Return to Hand-Drawn Animation (2:43), The Disney Legacy (2:31), Disney's Newest Princess (2:51), The Princess and the Animator (2:26), Conjuring the Villain (1:50), and A Return to the Animated Musical (3:13).
Also available are a wealth of gorgeous Art Galleries for Character Design, Layouts and Background, and Storyboard Art, six Deleted Scenes (11:43, HD) in storyboard format with introductions from the filmmakers, Live-Action Reference Footage (8:08, HD) for "Dig a Little Deeper" and "The Proposal", and a music video for Ne-Yo's "Never Knew I Needed You". And, to top it off, we've also got an Interactive Game entitled "What Do You See: Princess Portraits".
Disc 2 is a silver-topped DVD version of the film, which comes with a few of the special features from the Blu-ray on-board -- only ones of note being the audio commentary and the deleted scenes. Disc 3 is a Digital Copy of the film, usable for iTunes and Windows Media Player. The main feature Blu-ray disc has also been activated for BD-Live via Disney's interactive Blu-ray network.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Princess and the Frog, more for its artistic achievements than its thematic content. It contains what could possibly be my favorite musical number in a Disney animated film -- "Almost There" -- within a large cluster of potentially exhaustive musical numbers, all within stunning animation that infuses this classic Disney take on New Orleans with a sumptuous modern palette. Its romantic angle might be a bit easy and the balance it strikes between Broadway musical and page-flipper storytelling might be skewed, but the amount of beauty and life it brings to the screen more than make up for its lackadaisical, lavish missteps. With that said, Disney's high-definition presentation is an unquestionably radiant rendering of this hand-drawn beauty, with stunning (some might say reference level) audiovisual attributes and a slate of very strong extras. Highly Recommended
Note: Screenshots in this review are from the DVD included, and do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray disc.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site