Film 101: The Princess and the Frog (Ron Clements and John Musker, 2009)
Thursday, January 16, 2014
Film 3: The Princess and the Frog
Method of viewing: I watched this on my laptop, having rented it online.
(Spoilers for the film appear throughout the entire essay below. Sorry!)
Have I seen it before: Nope! The obvious reaction is disbelief: I have a well-documented affection for animation and for Disney films, and yet had never seen this one. Well, now I have. And you know what? It was pretty good.
Tiana is the (black) daughter of a working-class dressmaker, who makes a reasonable living making princess gowns for the spoiled (white) daughter (Lottie) of a sugar magnate (Big Daddy) in Jazz-Age New Orleans. Tiana and her family live in a comfortable but poor working-class neighborhood, where we learn that she has a flair for cooking and that her father dreams of opening a swanky restaurant. Fast forward some years; Tiana is now an adult and working long hours to save up for the building her (now deceased) father planned to turn into his restaurant, an abandoned sugar factory. No one except her mother believes she'll get the money in time, or that her ambitions matter much anyway. Adult Tiana is so hard-working that she never takes time off to have fun.
Her spoiled childhood playmate Lottie is now a spoiled adult puffball and still entirely obsessed with all things princess. When she learns that an eligible young bachelor prince is about to hit New Orleans while touring the US, she hires Tiana to cook for her royal masquerade ball - which she and her father have set up to capture the heart of the young prince.
Fortunately, this young prince, Naveen of Maldonia, is as willing to be married by a rich young woman as the rich young woman is intent on marrying a prince. Happy days! Naveen, we learn, has been disinherited by his (still apparently rich) parents as punishment for his laziness, and is significantly more interested in marrying money than learning his lesson. Unfortunately for him, Naveen has a valet who envies him and winds up making a deal with Dr Facilier, (whom the characters all know as the Shadowman), a voodoo witch doctor who a) wants to be rich and b) has some sort of debt to pay off to his 'friends on the other side.'
So Naveen and his valet fall into Facilier's clutches and Facilier takes a drop of Naveen's blood, turning Naveen into a frog and the valet into fake-Naveen. Naveen can be turned back - if he can convince a princess to kiss him. The fake Naveen woos Lottie while the real Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him (fooled by her costume for Lottie's party into assuming that she's a princess). For whatever reason, this turns Tiana into a frog. The two get tangled up in a balloon boquet and carried away into the bayou while fake-Naveen is left a-wooin' in New Orleans. But the deception can only be carried out as long as there's a ready supply of real-Naveen's blood (grim!) to effect the transformation, so Facilier sends his shadow-minions out into the bayou to get Naveen back.
Meanwhile, out in the middle of swampy nowhere, Tiana is appalled by the lazy Naveen, while Naveen is reasonably taken aback by Tiana's ridiculous work-ethic. While the audience is beaten about the head with the importance of both hard work and having fun, the two are joined by Lou, a trumpet-playing aligator, and the firefly Ray, a horrifying charicature of a Cajun redneck who's in love with the evening star (which he calls Evangeline and thinks is a distant firefly). Naveen falls in love with Tiana reasonably quickly and decides to tell her by proposing to her (yes, as a frog), but doesn't. It takes Tiana a while longer to discover that she feels the same.
Eventually they get back to New Orleans in time to defeat the villain and transform - a kiss from Lottie before midnight should do the trick. As the daughter of the 'Sugar King of Louisana,' Lottie's apparently princessy enough to meet the conditions of the curse. In a reasonably sweet subversion of the usual story, Naveen explains to Lottie that he needs to kiss her to change back, but he can't marry her because he loves Tiana; Lottie agrees to kiss them both but doesn't do so in time, and Naveen and Tiana remain unchanged. But the two decide to get married anyway... as frogs. Once they're married, however, Tiana's officially a princess and their kissing breaks the curse. Tiana buys the sugar factory (wonderfully, she's shown doing so with her savings rather than Naveen's riches) and they open her restaurant and there happy-endeth the movie.
Okay. So. There's a lot to unpack in this film. But let's start with what the film gets right. First of all, it's delightful that the movie is set in New Orleans; I'm sick unto death of pseudo-European, 16th-19th-century-inclusive-ish Disney settings. I love fantasies in a non-European setting, and the streets of New Orleans and particularly the cypress swamps of Louisiana make a wonderful, magical setting, full of rich, evocative colors and sounds.
Secondly, people of color. The film refuses to confront the issue of race head-on, (we'll get to that presently) but it's wonderful, and still sadly unusual, to see an animated film (or, really, any film) featuring so many characters of color. While Naveen's ethnicity is never explicitly stated, he's definitely not white; he's voiced by a Brazillian actor, and his name is Hindi for 'good news'. So, you know. 'Of color.'
And Naveen is actually pretty great. His character owes a lot to the Shrek franchise's Puss in Boots, but he's a charming, funny, likable guy with a lot of personality; as far as Disney princes go, he's right up there with the best of them.
And the animation. My goodness, the animation. It's traditional cel-animation, which is a terrible weakness of mine, and it's so beautifully done: the musical interludes particularly, which twist the traditional animation of the narrative by introducing brighter colors, more stylized art, and more inventive camera-angles. It's very nicely done. (The stand-out is 'Almost There,' which was based on different art from the rest of the film and created using a slightly different animation technique.)
But The Princess and the Frog is not all sunshine and light. I was extremely troubled not by Naveen's journey (he discovers the value of hard work) but by Tiana's. She's initially presented as industrious to the exclusion of everything fun and frivolous, which is fine. But, over the course of the film, Tiana never really learns that it's okay to have fun; that you can be focused and driven and still take a day off now and then, which is what the Naveen/Tiana character dichotomy is clearly setting up. Instead, she just... falls in love, which is used as as shorthand for her learning that there's more to life than working and saving. And falling in love (and getting married) is presented as the crashing conclusion of her character arc, the happy ending for which the film is sprinting. And that sucks. Tiana deserves better.
And then there's the race thing. On the one hand, as I mention above, the film is great about presenting a world where white isn't the default. On the other hand, it skirts nervously around the fact that it takes place in a real historical moment, in a real historical setting; there's a single overt reference to race in the whole film, and it's a euphemism. And then there's the fact that the first Disney film to feature a black princess has that same character spend more than half the movie as a frog.
The internet has some opinions.
And do we discuss the crazy awful caricatures of the cajuns?
Well, there's this:
and also this:
I couldn't get a screengrab of the other two characters in this scene, but they were snaggle-toothed, sharp-nosed, heavily-accented, frog-eatin' swamp critters, let me assure you.
So let's take the discussion as over. (Though there's plenty to read about the various Princess and the Frog controversies, if you're up for it.)
Overall, there's a lot I really liked about The Princess and the Frog: gorgeous traditional animation, strong female characters, a really superb prince, (I like a guy with a sense of humor, and Naveen's dead funny), an unusual setting, and some strong writing. But only some; the film backs away from anything approaching controversial, which is disappointing, and which ultimately deflates the production - just a little, but enough - as a whole. And, ugh, Tiana's character arc. Boo.
Hookers, Victims & Doormats: If it weren't for that stupid 'falling in love and getting married as shorthand for learning there's more to life than work' thing, I don't think I'd have much to say here. Alas.