Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. The Princess and the Frog.

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Princess and the Frog

Year: 2009

Source materials : Based on The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker and The Frog Prince by the Brothers Grimm

Budget: $105 million

Box office: $267 million

Plot: In 1912 New Orleans, a girl named Tiana and her friend Charlotte La Bouff listen to Tiana’s mother read the story of The Frog Prince. Charlotte finds the story to be romantic, while Tiana proclaims she will never kiss a frog.

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Fourteen years later, Tiana has grown into an aspiring young chef who works as a waitress for two local diners, so she can save enough money to start her own restaurant, a dream she shared with her deceased father.

Prince Naveen of Maldonia arrives in New Orleans to better his financial situation. After being cut off by his parents, Naveen intends to marry a rich southern belle, and Charlotte is the perfect candidate. Eli “Big Daddy” La Bouff, a rich sugar baron and Charlotte’s father, is hosting a masquerade ball in Naveen’s honor. Charlotte hires Tiana to make beignets for the ball, giving her enough money to buy an old sugar mill to convert into her restaurant.

Meanwhile, Naveen and his valet, Lawrence, meet the voodoo witch doctor Doctor Facilier. Inviting them into his emporium, Facilier convinces them that he can make their dreams come true, but neither man gets what they are expecting; Naveen is transformed into a frog, while Lawrence is given a voodoo talisman that makes him resemble Naveen. Facilier intends for Lawrence to marry Charlotte, after which he will kill Big Daddy and claim his fortune.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG

At the ball, Tiana discovers she may lose the mill to a higher bidder. Tiana then meets Naveen, who, believing her to be a princess because of her costume, asks her to kiss him and break Facilier’s spell. In exchange for the money needed, Tiana accepts, but when she kisses Naveen, she is turned into a frog herself.

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A chase ensues, and Tiana and Naveen escape to a bayou. In the bayou, Tiana and Naveen meet Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator, and Ray, a Cajun firefly. Louis and Ray offer to lead Tiana and Naveen to the hoodoo priestess Mama Odie, whom they believe can undo the curse. During the journey, Tiana and Naveen develop feelings for each other.

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Meanwhile, Facilier makes a deal with the voodoo spirits, offering them the souls of the people of New Orleans; in exchange, the spirits grant Facilier the services of a host of shadow demons, whom he orders to find and capture Naveen.

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When the four find Mama Odie, she tells them that Naveen must kiss a true princess in order to break the spell. They return to New Orleans to find Charlotte, who is the princess of the Mardi Gras Parade, but only until midnight. Naveen tells Ray he loves Tiana and is willing to give up his dreams for her, but before he can tell Tiana, he is captured by the demons and brought to Facilier.

After Ray tells Tiana that Naveen loves her, Tiana goes to parade to find a human “Naveen” marrying Charlotte; but Ray rescues the real Naveen and steals the charm that disguises Lawrence. Ray finds Tiana, gives her the charm and attempts to hold off the demons so she can escape, but Facilier manages to wound him. Facilier then offers to make Tiana’s restaurant dream come true in exchange for the talisman. Realizing she would rather be with Naveen, and recognizing Facilier’s true intentions, Tiana destroys the talisman. The angered voodoo spirits claim Facilier himself as payment for his debts to them and drag him into the spirit world.

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As Lawrence is taken away by the police, Tiana and Naveen reveal their love to each other and explain the situation to Charlotte, who agrees to kiss Naveen. The clock strikes midnight before she can do so, but the couple decide they are content to live together as frogs. Tiana and Naveen are wed by Mama Odie; and because of Tiana’s new status as princess, they are restored to human form after their kiss. Later, the couple returns to New Orleans to legally get married and celebrate, and together they open their new restaurant.

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Background: Disney had once announced that 2004’s Home on the Range would be their last traditionally animated film. Ed Catmull and John Lasseter reversed this decision and brought back directors Ron Clements and John Musker.

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Musker and Clements thought that they could do an American fairy tale and chose New Orleans. They directors spent ten days in Louisiana before starting to write the film.

Changes from the Source Material: The film exists in a world where the original fairy tale is known, and therefore the characters have expectations based on that. The original tale has the princess kiss the frog transforming him back into a prince.

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In E.D. Baker’s book,1 the princess is named Emeralda, Emma for short, a fourteen-year old. Her aunt Grassina is a witch who gives her a braclet that, unbeknownst to Emma, reverses any spell placed upon her for her protection. When she meets the Frog, here named Eadric, the kiss that was supposed to turn him back instead transforms her into a frog as well. The two then journey into the swamp to find the original witch that cursed him.

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Animation: Looking back seven years later, Lasseter told Variety: “I was determined to bring back [hand-drawn animation] because I felt it was such a heritage of the Disney studio, and I love the art form … I was stunned that Princess didn’t do better. We dug into it and did a lot of research and focus groups. It was viewed as old-fashioned by the audience.”

Clements and Musker had agreed early on that the style they were aiming for was primarily that of Lady and the Tramp. The “Almost There” dream sequence was based on the style of Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas.

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Toon Boom Animation’s Toon Boom Harmony software was used as the main software package for the production of the film, as the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS) system that had become outdated. The visual effects and backgrounds for the film were created digitally using Cintiq tablet displays.

Songs: Randy Newman composed, arranged, and conducted the music for the film, a mixture of jazz, zydeco, blues, and gospel styles performed by the voice cast members for the respective characters while R&B singer-songwriter Ne-Yo wrote and performed the end title song “Never Knew I Needed”

  • “Down in New Orleans” (sung by Dr. John)
  • “Almost There”
  • “Dig a Little Deeper”
  • “When We’re Human”
  • “Friends on the Other Side”
  • “Gonna Take You There”
  • “Ma Belle Evangeline”

Voice Cast:

Anika Noni Rose as Tiana.2 Her big Broadway break was getting cast as Emmie Thibodeaux in Caroline, or Change. In 2004, she was awarded the Theatre World Award, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Featured Actress, and the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. She starred in Dreamgirls as Lorrell Robinson. In 2014, Rose returned to Broadway in a revival of A Raisin in the Sun, receiving a nomination for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. Bruno Campos as Prince Naveen. He is best known for his roles of Dr. Quentin Costa on the award-winning television show Nip/Tuck, and Massimo in the popular Brazilian movie O Quatrilho.

Michael-Leon Wooley as Louis. He made his Broadway debut in Five Guys Named Moe. Je returned to Broadway in 2000 as Olin Britt in the revival of Tje Music Man. He voiced Audrey II, in the 2003 revival of the musical Little Shop of Horrors. He played Tiny Joe Dixon in Dreamgirls. Keith David as Doctor Facilier. He played the roles of King in Platoon and as Childs in The Thing. He has appeated in Crash, There’s Something About Mary, Barbershop, and Men at Work. His voice over work includes the Halo series, Goliath on Gargoyles, Spawn/Al Simmons on Spawn Julius Little in the Saints Row series the Flame King in Adventure Time, the President of the United States in Rick and Morty and Solovar in The Flash.

Jennifer Cody as Charlotte “Lottie” La Bouff.3 She began her Broadway career in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats in the role of Rumpleteazer. She was featured in Grease, Beauty and the Beast, Seussical, Urinetown the Musical, Taboo, The Pajama Game, and Shrek the Musical. Peter Bartlett as Lawrence. He portrayed Nigel Bartholomew-Smythe on the ABC soap opera, One Life to Live from 1991 until the soap’s cancellation in 2012. He has worked with playwright Paul Rudnick, on Jeffrey, The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, and The Naked Truth.

Oprah Winfrey as Eudora. Maybe you’ve heard of her. She is best known for her talk show The Oprah Winfrey Show, which was the highest-rated television program of its kind in history. She starred in Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple as Sofia. 4 She starred in Beloved and A Wrinkle in Time. Terrence Howard as James. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in Hustle & Flow. He has appeared in Dead Presidents, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Winnie, Ray, Lackawanna Blues, Crash, Four Brothers, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Idlewild, August Rush, The Brave One, Prisoners, and Iron Man. He currently stars as Lucious Lyon in Empire.

Dee Bradley Baker as Juju. A prolific voice actor, his has voiced roles in American Dad!, Codename: Kids Next Door, Gravity Falls, Phineas and Ferb, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels, Ben 10, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra and The 7D, live-action series such as Legends of the Hidden Temple and Shop ’til You Drop, films such as The Boxtrolls and Space Jam and video games such as Halo, Gears of War, Viewtiful Joe, and Spore. Emeril Lagasse as Marlon. He is a chef, restaurant proprietor, and cookbook author. He has appeared on shows Emeril Live and Essence of Emeril.

Jim Cummings returns as Ray, Jenifer Lewis returns as Mama Odie, John Goodman returns as Eli “Big Daddy” La Bouff, Frank Welker returns as Stella, Kevin Michael Richardson returns as Ian.

Critical Reception: Both before and after the film was released, the film recieved a fair amount of criticism:

  • African-American critics disapproved of the original name for the heroine, “Maddy”, due to its similarity to the derogatory term “mammy”. The character’s name was changed
  • Maddy’s original career as a chambermaid,
  • The choice to have the black heroine’s love interest be a non-black prince, which upset opponents of on-screen interracial romance
  • The Frog Princess title was also thought by critics to be a slur on French people.
  • Critics claimed the choice of New Orleans as the setting for a Disney film with a black heroine was an affront to the Katrina victims’ plight.
  • The film created controversy among some Christians over its use of Louisiana Voodoo as a plot device.
  • The film’s treatment of Louisiana voodoo as a type of magic instead of a religion also drew criticism from non-Christian factions.

Legacy: The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and twice for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, but lost to Up and Crazy Heart, respectively.

Princess Tiana appears as a meet and greet character at the Magic Kingdom. Dr. Facilier appears in the Halloween parade. A live parade and show called Tiana’s Showboat Jubilee! premiered on October 25, 2009, at the Magic Kingdom

Tiana made a guest-appearance on Sofia the First. Tiana, Prince Naveen, Eudora, and Dr. Facilier appear on the seventh season of Once Upon a Time. Maldonia also appears as a realm in New Fairy Tale Land. Tiana will appear in Wreck-It-Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet.

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My take: I absolutely love the “Almost There” sequence and kind of wish the whole film looked like that. However the traditional animation is lush and they do a lot of great things with light and shade, particularly in the firefly sequence.

Charlotte is probably one of my favorite supporting characters of all time. Every appearance is just a scream. I could listen to Keith David read the phone book.

Oh and naming the dog Stella just to give Goodman a Streetcar shout out? Brilliant. Didn’t see it coming.

The music was just okay. Randy Newman is okay, but writing songs for a musical isn’t his forte. It makes you appreciate an Alan Menkin or a Stephen Schwartz. Nothing is really memorable.

Also, I don’t think I need to say how important representation is, and I have to say they didn’t shy away from the class struggle, although they specifically didn’t mention race. One of the bankers remarks on Tiana’s “background” as why owning a restaurant might be too hard for her, but they leave it up to us to determine if he meant economically or racially.

However this is definitely a sign of Disney Animation moving on an upswing. Their next outing is Tangled.

Next Week: We head back to Andy’s room one last time