"The Princess and the Frog" represents Disney's big comeback to feature-length, traditionally animated filmmaking. Granted, it's only been away for five years, but a comeback is a comeback, and I'll take any renewed interest in 2-D storytelling I can get. Playing it safe to rekindle the animated magic that once defined the Disney name, "Princess and the Frog" is a joyful lap around familiar Mouse House artistic elements, looking to help rebuild the kingdom brand name with a cushy tale of a princess, smooch-happy amphibians, and the grandeur of turn-of-the-century New Orleans.
Struggling to make her father's dream of a raging New Orleans restaurant a reality, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) works multiple jobs while the world passes her by. Offered a chance to earn the last pile of money she needs to make a down payment on a prime location, Tiana takes the job, making delicious beignets to celebrate the arrival of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos). Unfortunately, also heralding the prince's visit is the shadowy voodoo man, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who wants to use the new balance of power to his villainous advantage, turning Naveen into a frog. Now green and slimy, the prince labors to coax Tiana into helping him transform back to a human through the fairy tale convention of a single kiss. Instead of a return to normalcy, Tiana is also made a frog. As time ticks away and Dr. Facilier begins to realize his wicked plans, the two amphibians hop their way through the bayou, making friends and avoiding peril on the path to Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), a blind voodoo priestess who might be able to change them both back.
Not leaving anything to chance, Disney has brought back animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker to oversee "Princess and the Frog," to preserve whatever magic touch was left from the men who ran the show on "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin." After some experimentation with tepid adventuring ("Treasure Planet," "Atlantis") and mild comedy ("Home on the Range"), pictures that ultimately stuck a fork in the medium, "Princess and the Frog" is a vibrant return to the Eisner/Katzenberg years, putting on an enormous show of song, dance, and colorful characters -- a Broadway matinee riff that exudes joy out of every pore. The energy is infectious with this picture, which broadly attempts to reclaim what was lost to poor management and the rise of Pixar.
While working with slick CG tools, the animation positively leaps off the screen here. "Princess and the Frog" is a dazzling picture, and while the story is chained to the ground, the numerous animation styles and expressive character designs take on a special life. The New Orleans locations are ample inspiration for the production team, gulping down the flavors of French Quarter life, cheerfully animating the hot jazz, powdery beignets, and puffed facial features with palpable love. The picture romanticizes The Big Easy to a point of ache in this post-Katrina world. A regional highlight comes when the images from Tiana's beloved restaurant poster (the single image keeping her dream alive) are brought to life, pulling the dreamer into her dream world of graphic wonderment, spotlighting a few irresistible challenges the animators take on while working through the routine.
"Princess and the Frog" soon slips into creature feature mode, following Tiana and Naveen as they hurriedly hop through the backwaters to seek out Mama Odie. The duo is joined by Louis (voiced by Michael-Leon Wooley), a hulking alligator with a dream to play Dixieland jazz alongside humans. There's also a Cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings), a lovesick bug who pines for the brightest star in the sky. The comic relief fails to bring rolling waves of the funny to the feature, but their joviality flavors the film wonderfully, maintaining a solid tempo of humor that helps to pad out the proceedings.
Again, to help increase the odds of a home entertainment purchase bonanza, Disney has brought composer Randy Newman, a Pixar vet and Louisiana legend, to oversee the musical moods of the picture. The vitality of the numerous songs is undeniable, taking distinct zydeco, Dixieland jazz, and gospel cues to convey a specific time and pitch of culture. A few of the tunes are certainly tuneless, and most of the soundtrack relies on a personal appreciation for the New Orleans soundscape, forgoing the universally beloved act of show tune supremacy. The songs are handsomely performed by the cast, with special attention given to Rose, who both voices and musically conveys the determination of Tiana flawlessly.
Formula is a Disney staple -- a needed sense of repetition to help coax younger viewers into a sense of comfort. However, there's a strain of fatigue in "Princess and the Frog" keeping the material from truly exploding into greatness, or least Disney legend. There's an effort made in the animation and the songwriting to challenge the audience with distinctive sights and sounds reflecting a specific location and era, yet the story is pure princess exertion, building an inert love story between Tiana and Naveen that doesn't develop the sort of romantic traction as previous Disney classics have enjoyed. There's also the ineffectiveness of Dr. Facilier, a dreary villain agreeably voiced and drawn (with forbidding voodoo accouterments), but seems more of an afterthought than a fiendish roadblock our heroes must conquer. The Disney habits are an unnecessary drag and too calculated for comfort.
It's quite startling how well the AVC encoded image (1.78:1 aspect ratio) captures the flavors of the "Frog" animation. It's a crystal-clear presentation, with bold colors punching through the screen. Yellows and bayou greens are particularly sumptuous and evocative. Detail is concrete throughout the film, providing a semi-ironic 3-D image pop for a 2-D motion picture. The craftsmanship is on beautiful display, allowing the viewer an opportunity to enjoy the silly antics while pouring over the nuances of the animation. Shadow detail is excellent, never breaking the spirit of low-light sequences.
Audio: The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix follows the film's bold lead with a tremendously dimensional aural event. Dialogue is always discernable, juggling comedic shifts and Cajun accents well, but the majority of the mix is set aside for the musical numbers, which ring out with dynamic fidelity, bursting in to elevate the feature's energy. The tunes are flawless, with a rich bassy sound and crisp horn work. Atmosphere is equally as delicious, with various locations offered superb surround response and directionality. LFE comes into play during the more aggressive acts of villainy -- a subtle rumble to help the tension along. French, Spanish, Portuguese, and DVS tracks are offered.
English SDH, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are included.
The feature-length audio commentary with co-directors John Musker and Ron Clement, and producer Peter Del Vecho fits comfortably in line with any other Disney Animation commentary. Listeners can expect a beautifully informative, good-natured conversation from participants in love with their movie. Delivered with humor and a profound knowledge of the medium, the trio digs right into the making of the film, breathlessly hitting all aspects of production (also pointing out a clever cameo from the directors). If you have any interest in the picture, this should be your first stop on the Blu-ray.
"Deleted Scenes" (11:43) present advice from Tiana's mother, an alternate look at Louis's introduction (more slapsticky and better than what made it into the film), a moment of bickering between Tiana and Naveen, and some romantic guidance from Ray. The scenes are presented in rough storyboard form and can be viewed with or without insightful intros from Clements and Musker.
"Bringing Animation to Life" (8:08) is a featurette covering the wonders of live-action reference footage. Given context through commentary by Clements and Musker, this wonderful sneak peek into this unique step in the animation process is a must-see stop on the Blu-ray.
"Magic in the Bayou: The Making of a Princess" (22:11) enters into the halls of Disney Animation, where the 2-D team reunited to bring traditional animation back to the screen. It's a reverential piece (of course) and surprisingly encompassing, interviewing cast and crew on the massive push of creativity it took to launch the story, from live frogs in the studio to the emotive voice and animation efforts.
"The Return to Hand Drawn Animation" (2:43) is a brief moment with the filmmakers, who share their excitement with the restored potential of 2-D animation.
"The Disney Legacy" (2:31) returns to the filmmakers, who recall their excitement working for the Mouse House, a few of them employed during the tail end of the "Nine Old Men" era.
"Disney's Newest Princess" (2:51) heads in a royal direction, discussing the conception and execution of Tiana, both as a character and as a potential role model.
"The Princess and the Animator" (2:26) chats with Mark Henn, the gifted supervising animator of Tiana, and a man who's worked on nearly all of the modern Disney Princesses.
"Conjuring the Villain" (1:50) heads over to Bruce Smith, supervising animator on Dr. Facilier, and actor Keith David. Here the conversation turns to the creation of a viable villain, with subtle physical and vocal moves to provide an appropriate threat.
"A Return to the Animated Musical" (3:13) covers the various tunes of the film, interviewing composer Randy Newman and the cast for their thoughts on the styles and dramatic intentions of the songs.
"Art Galleries" offer a look at Character Design, Layouts & Backgrounds, and Storyboard Art.
"What Do You See?" is a guessing game with Mama Odie, who uses Ray's firefly family to create vague princess portraits that match only one of six cards presented on the screen.
"Never Knew I Needed" (4:04) is a New Orleans flavored music video from singer Ne-Yo.
A Theatrical Trailer is not included.
While the demands of mass acceptance tend to spoil the fun, "Princess and the Frog" remains a skillful, enjoyable picture, helped along by a superb voice cast (which also includes John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, and Terrence Howard) and a sustained explosion of color, missing from the genre for far too long. If the picture signals a rebirth of Disney 2-D animation, that's a wonderful thing. However, there's no reason the company couldn't take a few chances for this new generation of hand-drawn entertainment. They may stumble across greatness once again.