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February 4, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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The Princess and the Frog

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It’s been a decade and a half since Pixar burst into the hearts of cinema audiences everywhere with the brilliant Toy Story, and since then, they’ve maintained an almost unmatched record of excellence. While it’s hard to pin Pixar’s success to any one person, there is one man who could lay a none-too-considerable claim to having a large part in it, one man who has overseen the creation of every single Pixar film since Toy Story and before—John Lasseter.

While Lasseter was directly responsible for the studio’s worst film, having directed the slightly bland but still watchable Cars, the man still has a glittering array of work under his belt as both a director and an executive producer. So it was no surprise that, when Pixar was bought out by Disney in 2006, Lasseter was made Chief Creative Officer of both Pixar’s and Disney’s animation studios.

His work in the role up to this point has been mixed, to say the least—while two of Pixar’s best films, Wall-E and Up, have been made and released since then, Walt Disney Animation Studios released the unremarkable Meet the Robinsons and the anaemic Bolt in the same time-frame. However, Lasseter’s work with Walt Disney Animation Studios has all been building up to this year, with the release of the first hand-drawn animation from the studio since the failure of 2004’s Home on the RangeThe Princess and the Frog. And my, what a return to 2D it is.

The Princess and the Frog follows Tiana, a hardworking girl who has dedicated her life to making her and her father’s dream come true by opening her own restaurant. Her culinary talents and hardworking nature run counter to the laziness and materialism of Prince Naveen of Maldonia, a spoiled young royal cut off from his parents and down to his last pennies. However, when the two are turned into frogs, they must work together to stop evil voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier and Naveen’s jealous servant, before they become stuck as frogs forever.

As is obvious, The Princess and the Frog does come packaged with a fairly standard Disney narrative, but, as with the best Disney films, it’s told in such an enchanting and endearing way as to easily overcome that problem. The animation is fantastic, containing welcome stylistic flourishes typical of 1950s Disney animation while creating an impressive and vibrant setting in 1920s New Orleans.

The characters are all fun and likable, the film is directed with energy and style by Aladdin directors Ron Clements and John Musker, and the musical numbers are as memorable and catchy as any in the history of Disney animation, infused as they are with flecks of native New Orleans musical styles (the funereal dirge of the exceptional villain song ‘Friends on the Other Side’, the Cajun bluegrass sound of ‘Gonna Take You There’, the jazz-inspired ‘When We’re Human’).

However, what works best in The Princess and the Frog is that it isn’t a mindlessly cheery, shallow affair. Pixar’s innate understanding of Walt Disney’s mantra, “a tear for every laugh”, has been carried by Lasseter to Walt Disney Animation Studios. Bolt carried hints of that understanding, but it’s in The Princess and the Frog that the mantra is nailed for the first time in a 2D Disney film since the early 1990s. The humanity of the cast of characters gives the film an unexpected emotional depth, and the film is also surprisingly dark.

This is particularly evident in the silken-voiced villain Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David), one of the most memorable Disney villains since Scar and Jafar. While Facilier is a powerful voodoo magician, he’s also a desperate man in hock to forces beyond his control, and it’s almost time for him to pay up. He’s not evil per se, just betrayed by his ambition and looking for a way out, and the darkness that follows him is far more terrifying than the man himself. He’s a surprisingly potent villain because of what trails him, and his presence adds a sinister edge to the film that makes it far more palatable than if it were just candy-coated sweetness.

The Princess and the Frog may not be up there with the best of Disney’s Golden Ages of animation—it’s no Pinocchio nor Bambi, nor is it a Lion King nor Aladdin—but it is an excellent return to form for hand-drawn Disney animation. If anything, it’s on a par with the likes of The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and with its great animation, music, comedy and heart, it should act as an excellent herald of a third Golden Age of Disney Animation, if one does indeed arise from it.

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