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Disney princess movies revisited: The Princess and the Frog

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Disney's Frozen 2 arrives in Cineworld on the 22nd of November, and we're counting down the days by revisiting all the classic Disney princess movies in chronological order of release.

In honour of Anna and Elsa's imminent return, we're taking a nostalgic trip back through time. This week: we're returning to the release of 2009's The Princess and the Frog.

What's the story of The Princess and the Frog?

Young waitress Tiana slaves away in 1920s New Orleans, all the while dreaming of owning her own restaurant. Meanwhile, Prince Naveen of Maldonia has arrived in the city, having been ostracised from his family and cut off from their wealth. To that end, he intends to marry a rich southern woman to restore his fortunes.

Naveen is later tricked by evil voodoo practitioner Dr Facilier, who promises to make the former's dreams come true. However, Facilier and his 'friends on the other side' (black magic spirits) have a different plan. In reality, Naveen is turned into a frog and manservant Laurence is transformed into his master. This is so Facilier can trick Tiana's friend Charlotte into marrying the disguised Laurence, after which the villain will claim her fortune.

Naveen the frog believes Tiana, whom he spots dressed as a princess at a masquerade ball, will break the curse. However, given she's not really a princess, she then transforms into a frog herself. Both desperate to revert back to human form, Tiana and Naveen flee into the Louisiana bayou where they find they have the ability to communicate with other animals.

Working with their newfound friends, and all the while falling in love, our two heroes must learn to end the spell and defeat Facilier once and for all.



How did The Princess and the Frog get made?

In 1989, The Little Mermaid restored the fortunes of Disney animation and kick-started the much-loved 'Disney renaissance' period. These films, spanning The Little Mermaid through to 1998's Mulan, were characterised by lush animation, star-studded voice casts and memorable songs deriving inspiration from Broadway musicals.

In 2009, when The Princess and the Frog was released, the animation industry had undergone a number of seismic shifts. From 1995 onwards, Disney-Pixar led the charge for CGI animations with the likes of Toy Story and Finding Nemo. Pixar's blend of audience-friendly stories and artistic, Oscar-generating prestige helped initiate a popular new style of animation, which carried into films from other studios including Dreamworks (Antz; Shrek; Madagascar), Blue Sky (Ice Age) and Sony (Surf's Up).



The development of CGI-led children's tales emerged alongside increasingly sophisticated CGI visual effects movies like The Matrix and the Star Wars prequels. It therefore appeared that more traditional forms of hand-drawn animation were being sidelined amid technical developments within the movie industry. Had the format on which Disney made its name become quaint and outdated?

Apparently not, if we consider the hugely successful release of The Princess and the Frog. Although the movie had been preceded by the occasional hand-drawn Disney movie (Brother Bear; Home on the Range et al), this was the one that proved such forms of animation still possessed a comforting, nostalgic and vibrant charm of their own. Indeed, with CGI-fuelled kids movies threatening to become soulless and homogenous, the distinctive qualities of The Princess and the Frog stood out in a crowded family marketplace. 

The movie was a wholesale return to the techniques and conventions of the renaissance period. The story itself was derived from a classic fairy tale source, in this case The Frog Prince, which had been popularised by the Brothers' Grimm. (Previous fairy tale success stories had included Beauty and the Beast, based on the story by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, and Aladdin, which was drawn from Arabian Nights.)



The movie would also be a musical, using songs to drive the narrative forward a la The Little Mermaid and its descendants. And it would be directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who had scored an enormous success in 1992 with Aladdin, but who had been absent from the Disney stable since 2002's box office disappointment Treasure Planet. The two were picked by John Lasseter, then chief creative officer of Disney Animation Studios, and already well established as the director of the first two Toy Story movies.

Barring 2007 live-action/animation hybrid Enchanted, starring Amy Adams, The Princess and the Frog was the first Disney movie in the best part of a decade to have a princess in the central role. However, the project made history by sculpting hero Tiana as the first-ever African-American princess in the Disney canon. The story's topical themes of representation were indicative of more progressive 21st century attitude, and meshed effectively with the conventions of hand-drawn Disney movies that stretched back for a century.

However, alighting on the exact tone and depiction of the characters wasn't easy. The tale's original title The Frog Prince was intended for use in the film, but was changed to The Princess and the Frog after it was claimed the name was derogatory towards French people. More significantly, a March 2007 shareholders' meeting, in which elements of the project were made public for the first time, threw into question the project's representation of African-American people.



Directors Clements and Musker were therefore forced to go back to the drawing board. Oprah Winfrey was brought on as a technical consultant, and later voice artist, giving warmth to the role of Eudora, Tiana's mother. Winfrey worked with writers Don Hall and Rob Edwards to craft a narrative that wouldn't feel tokenistic or patronising. (There were also concerns in the post-Hurricane Katrina period that a Disney movie set in New Orleans might prove offensive to those affected by the disaster.)

Edwards described The Princess and the Frog as "a princess movie for people who don't like princess movies". Hall said he intended the movie to be "twisted enough that it seems new and fresh", and that it would subvert conventions by presenting the prince character as a "knuckle-headed playboy".



The fight for the central role of Tiana came down to two actors from musical Dreamgirls: Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson (also famous for American Idol), and Anika Noni Rose. The latter eventually secured the part, and proved excellent casting: Rose had the sort of extensive background in stage musicals that befitted her emotive role in The Princess and the Frog. These included her Tony Award-winning appearance in Caroline, or Change, a mash-up of musical genres that begins in America's Deep South.

The Thing's Keith David was cast in the role of the scheming Dr Facilier, transforming him into one of the all-time great Disney villains. The actor described the character as "delicious", and animator Bruce Smith incorporated many of David's subtle vocal gestures and mannerisms into the character of Facilier.

Clements and Musker drew on the skills of many veterans within Disney's animation ranks, including Andreas Deja who had designed cackling Aladdin villain Jafar. Deja explained: "I always thought that maybe we should distinguish ourselves to go back to what 2D is good at, which is focusing on what the line can do rather than volume, which is a CG kind of thing. So we are doing less extravagant Treasure Planet kind of treatments. You have to create a world but [we're doing it more simply]. What we're trying to do with Princess and the Frog is hook up with things that the old guys did earlier. It's not going to be graphic."

At the same time, The Princess and the Frog subtly incorporated CGI elements into the environment, and also used digitally painted backgrounds, a la the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast. The CAPS software system used for Disney animations in the 1990s was no longer fit for purpose, so this was upgraded to the Toon Boom Harmony Software used by Canada's Toon Boom Animation.

Such technology helped propel the use of paperless animation, with visual effects and backgrounds instead created digitally on tablets. The movie was therefore a bridging point between the old and the new. Atlantis and the Lost Empire animator Marlon West says he and the team were enthusiastic about a return to so-called '2D' animation – however, the skills required were in need of refreshment, and also needed to mesh with the requirements of a burgeoning digital environment. 

"[Clements and Musker] had this bright idea to bring back hand-drawn animation," he explained, "but everything had to be started again from the ground up. One of the first things we did was focus on producing shorts, to help us re-introduce the 2D pipeline. I worked as a VFX supervisor on the Goofy short, 'How to Hook Up Your Home Theatre'. It was a real plus for the effects department, so we went paperless for The Princess and the Frog." 

Directors Clements and Musker, along with Lasseter, cited Lady and the Tramp as the primary visual influence on the movie, calling it "the pinnacle of Disney's style". The heart-wrenching Bambi was also used to inform the stylised look of the bayou sequences, while the 'Almost There' dream sequence was based on the art deco style of Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas. 

The end result is a visually sumptuous Disney fairy tale that honours the spirit of the classics while demonstrably belonging to a bold new era. 



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What songs are on the soundtrack for The Princess and the Frog?

The Louisiana locations of The Princess and the Frog were a boon to soundtrack composer Randy Newman – this was the opportunity to draw on a host of disparate musical genres, from Cajun to jazz. 

Newman was an inspired choice of composer – his association with Disney stretched back to 1995's Toy Story, and prior to that he was established as a witty vocal satirist with the likes of song 'Short People'. He therefore possessed both the wholesome and the humorous qualities needed to do justice to this story.

Newman had also been nominated for multiple Oscars for both his song and score work, including 'You've Got a Friend In Me' from the first Toy Story. This was reprised in 2019's Toy Story 4. (He wouldn't, however, receive his first win until 'If I Didn't Have You' from Monsters, Inc.) His awards pedigree added further prestige to the soundtrack for The Princess and the Frog.



Apart from his animation and comedy work, Newman was also an established dramatic composer off the back of 1990's Oscar nominated Avalon, directed by Barry Levinson. (He had also composed a score, ultimately rejected, for 1997 Harrison Ford action movie Air Force One.)

Any discussion of the soundtrack for The Princess and the Frog must begin with brilliant villain's number 'Friends on the Other Side', performed with relish by a sensational Keith David. This is surely one of the greatest bad guy numbers in any Disney movie, audaciously incorporating dark notions of voodoo into a family-friendly template and juxtaposing the turbulent themes against a rambunctious melody.



There is, of course, a grand tradition of Disney villains stealing the show through song, and this piece secures Dr Facilier as one of the best (and most menacing) Disney antagonists. However, that's not to say the rest of the soundtrack lets the side down.

Anika Noni Rose's heartfelt vocals adorn scene-setting prologue tune 'Down in New Orleans', treated to a later variation from late New Orleans jazz artist Dr John. This local flavour extends throughout the rest of the songs, including jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard's influence on 'When We're Human'. (Blanchard is the favoured composer of BlacKkKlansman director Spike Lee.)

Later, on the track 'Dig a Little Deeper' (performed in the movie by Jenifer Lewis as Mama Odie), we hear the performance of the Pinnacle Gospel Choir. This gumbo of influences helps inform the tone of Newman's eclectic score, which in the manner of his work for Pixar, skims around hither and thither while intelligently incorporating the song melodies.



Noted film music critic Jon Broxton observes that Newman makes "liberal use of guitars, accordions, harmonicas, fiddles and trumpets alongside a traditional orchestral complement, and as such remains rooted in the musical conventions of the location". This is most apparent in the final cue 'This is Gonna Be Good', a classic cathartic number that wraps up the story in emotive style.


How successful was The Princess and the Frog?

On its release, The Princess and the Frog was positively received. Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly acclaimed the movie for "uphold[ing] the great tradition of classic Disney animation". And Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter praised Walt Disney Animation for "rediscovering its traditional hand-drawn animation" and for "a thing called story".

Against a $105 million budget (considerably more expensive than prior Disney princess movies), The Princess and the Frog went on to gross $267 million worldwide. That's not, perhaps, the most sensational Disney sum, but the movie was an artistic success with several Oscar nominations, including Best Animated Feature, Best Original Score and two nominations for Best Song ('Down in New Orleans' and 'Almost There').

However, the movie lost in the score and song categories to Slumdog Millionaire and 'The Weary Kind' from Crazy Heart, respectively. Nevertheless, the reputation of the soundtrack has weathered well: in 2010, it was named one of the 10 greatest Disney and Pixar soundtracks by online music subscription service Rhapsody.

Somewhat poignantly, The Princess and the Frog, along with 2011's Winnie the Pooh, was (to date) the last hand-drawn animation made by Disney. Although the movie generated a significant amount of nostalgic goodwill, it was never going to be able to stem the CGI tide, although it's heartening to see that such traditional forms of entertainment have thrived under the likes of Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away; The Tale of the Princess Kaguya), while independent features like Chico and Rita, a romantic drama set in Cuba, have also met with much acclaim.

As recently as 2014, there were talks of reviving Disney's 2D animated fortunes courtesy of a proposed 'steampunk' movie named Hullabaloo. However, it remains a work in progress.

If The Princess and the Frog remains Disney's penultimate hand-drawn movie, it will surely endure as a valuable historical artifact that encapsulates the history and beauty of the world's leading animation powerhouse.


What is the next Disney princess movie?

Frozen, released in 2013, is the next movie in our Disney princess retrospective. Keep your eyes peeled on the blog for a full breakdown.


When is Frozen 2 released in the UK?

Frozen 2 is released on the 22nd of November, so check out the trailer and tweet us your favourite Disney princess movies @Cineworld.