When I first heard about The Princess and the Frog, I was very skeptical. Though I knew movie trailers often present a distorted view of a movie, nothing about the film impressed me. The animation was stylized, but not very unique or detailed. The voices didn't grab me. But most of all the conceit didn't seem like it was good enough for a traditionally animated Disney movie.
I didn't see the movie in theaters. But around this time, I heard a lot different positive comments about the film. Some thought the jazz music and the New Orleans setting was particularly unique. Other's commented on the double twist in the conceit; The main character is not a princess, and after kissing the frog prince, she transforms into a frog. Others applauded Disney for not only centering the film around a black female character, but also for putting her in a interracial relationship. For the most part, all of these comments are true. But when I heard someone claim that The Princess and the Frog was the best Disney film since The Lion King, I looked to this new Disney entry more critically than ever.
Now that I've watched the film for myself, I can confidently say that it is not very good. In fact, Bolt is better. My disappointment is so complex, it can only be communicated through the following points...
- There are a lot of cliche contrivances frequently used to move the plot along. I can accept Charlotte and her father visiting the restaurant to eat some of Tiana's specially made food which results in her going to the ball. But everything from the frog prince being let free (a scene mysteriously absent from the movie), Naveen making it to the balcony, getting launched out the window from a rocking horse, and flying away on balloons seems far to heavy handed and/or orchestrated. Coincidences and out of the blue happenstances are fine when used sparingly, but not as the major element that drives plot.
- More examples include how the characters were separated and joined back together so easily. After the Crocodile jumped into a thorny bush, though I find it highly unlikely that the little thorns could prick the tough animal scales, I find it ridiculous that the particular "extractification" process was going to take so long that Tiana and Naveen felt it necessary to continue on on their own. Seriously, there were at most 20-30 embedded thorns that take Ray about 5-10 seconds to pull out each. That's not a lot of time to wait. And couldn't the frogs help?
- The characters run/crash into things a lot. I expect such antics in a much more cartoony production. But because of the realistic setting and plot (that only introduces real magic later on) Tiana's clumsiness feels out of place.
- The film as a whole depends too much on dialog that explains and tells rather than telling the story and doing characterization through significant action. Using a bit of expository dialog is fine for the start of a film to quickly get the ball rolling. But throughout The Princess and the Frog, characters continue to explain themselves, their back stories, and their desires openly, artificially, and uncreatively.
- Action is trivialized in the film. Tiana's major struggles as a character involve evolving her dream to include new important people in her life, realizing that a static dream can be restrictive, and learning to let loose every once in a while. These struggles are difficult to show in action, and the film does a poor job creating situations to externalize Tiana's internal struggles. As a foil to Tiana, Naveen is too carefree. His transformation involves learning to work for something and to prioritize self respect and love over a leisurely lifestyle. Choosing not to marry Charlotte is the main action that signifies this transformation, but the pressure of this decision is far removed from much of the immediacy of the film.
- The side characters from Ray, the trumpet playing crocodile, to Charlotte are very flat and one dimensional. I found it interesting that Charlotte recognized Naveen and Tiana's true love at the end of the film. However, none of the side character's influence on the plot or characters does much to help develop the main characters or the major conflict of the film.
- The frog transformation is greatly undermined. If found that the highly anthropomorphic actions of nearly all the animal characters extremely uncreative. Instead of figuring out how a frog would move or how a frog would move when its soul is human, the animators/writers treated the frog characters like humans with green skin. They walked on two legs, slept like humans, and even managed to find little tools to cook like humans. What's the point of being physically transformed and forced to go on an enlightening journey, if the struggles on the journey aren't very difficult or unique because of the transformation?
- The Japanese respect action and transformation to the highest degree I've seen in creative works. Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle are great examples of how characters are defined subtly through their actions and struggles that are contextualized around the transformations.
- What's worse is that the songs are not well integrated with the major action or conflicts of the film. Not only are there quite a lot of songs, but they seemed to come and go without much impact. Songs are used as a backdrop as opposed to characters expressing their inner struggles/thoughts.
- There are many plot holes in the film. Naveen losing his nerve when he planned on proposing didn't make sense. What about Tiana's confession to pursue her dream made Naveen second guess that he wanted to help her pursue her dream? The miscommunication in this part of the film is used as a means of heavy handedly separating the characters again. Such a plot move makes the climax and major conflict so much more banal. I keep saying to myself, "if only they had a straight conversation." It felt like I was watching a simple drama on public television.
- More plot holes include the fact that Tiana was so easily fooled by the sight of the fake prince when she knew that there was an imposter running around, and the lipstick that magically disappeared from frog Naveen's face after Charlotte repeatedly kissed him.
- Finally, for some reason I couldn't help but think that the characterization of many of the "black" characters was greenlit because they were represented as animals. Though I don't know enough about New Orlean black people in those times, the presentation of black characters is very "vanilla." Tiana especially seemed like a generic Disney princess with brown skin. Her "excuse me" lacked soul as did most of her musical performances.
- As a final side note, I wanted to talk about the visuals in the film. The hand drawn, fluid, lively characters are animated at a very high quality. The shadow monsters are especially captivating. However, this talent is contrasted with the ho hum direction/cinematography. The scenes consisted of very standard shots and simple visual compositions. And with the heavy use of computers to render the backgrounds, the film isn't a splendor to watch.
Ultimately, instead of going on a journey, the Princess and the Frog took me on a cheesy amusement park ride with lackluster elements all along the way.