Note: strict criticisms and unpopular opinions below.
A long time ago, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, John Musker and Ron Clements became household names with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, two instant classics that helped shape the Disney Renaissance. Later, they would make Hercules, which did not reach the status of its predecessors but was still successful enough. Then, in 2002, they would hit a wall with Treasure Planet, a colossal bomb that is only remembered by a small cult following.
At this point most directors would probably move on to another studio (when Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant bombed, he no longer made films for Warner Bros. and went on to work with Pixar), but John Musker and Ron Clements are still with Disney and their reputation remains untarnished. This year, they will release their first CGI animated film, Moana, which looks like it’s going to be another instant classic. And in 2009, they made what is considered to be the real stepping stone from the second dark age to the second renaissance for Disney, The Princess and the Frog.
At the time, this movie was pretty revolutionary. It had gorgeous 2D animation (a welcome break from the bad CGI animation that Disney was churning out without Pixar), it was the first Disney Princess movie since the 1990’s, and it was the return to the classic fairy tale formula that we all know and love (or love to hate) from Disney.
I remember, when I first saw the trailers for the movie, I was a bit skeptical. When the movie came out, I decided to see it, if not for the movie itself, then at least to help keep hand drawn animation alive. After I saw it I was…kind of underwhelmed?
I liked it, for sure, but I don’t remember thinking to myself, “holy shit, this is fantastic, a new fave” like I did with Up or Coraline. One of the things that bugged me the most was how underused the villain was. Beyond that, this movie was…alright. I hesitated to get the DVD but caved in for the sake of the special features.
Since then, I’ve only watched it a few times, and each time, I remember thinking afterwards, “this is good, but not great”. But now, I have a new attitude: I don’t think it’s that good at all.
I’ve made my stance on the whole “main characters spend the majority of the film as frogs in a bayou” quite clear, and I still stand by that. Not only is it racist, but it makes it very hard for me to relate to the characters or get involved with their story. I don’t generally like talking animal films, so to see two (very gorgeous and likable) human characters turn into talking animals was so frustrating, and the set piece is not very compelling either.
The other characters (save for maybe the villain and Tiana’s mother) aren’t very memorable, and the animal sidekicks aren’t very cute. I remember Lottie got so much attention for being ‘a great friend’, but it’s pretty clear that she and her father don’t see Tiana and her family as equals (if they did, they would’ve helped her out more to get her restaurant).
In relation to that, this movie has no idea if it wants to take place in the real world or a fantasy world. Most of the movie feels so grounded in reality, complete with racism and segregation, that the magic aspects feel so jarring. Are we supposed to believe Tiana’s restaurant will close down during the Great Depression or that she’ll be happy and successful forever?
And in Tiana’s pursuit of her dream, people always try to bring her down, saying “you need to lighten up” and “you really oughta get married”. There’s an entire song basically telling Tiana she’s focusing too much on her dream (and when she says she’s going to work even harder to get her restaurant, everyone is SO disappointed). It would be one thing if the movie said “Your dreams are important, but you need to look after your wellbeing first” (which would be SO important), but the movie basically says that Tiana’s ultimate goal should be to land a man first, then her restaurant. So, you can be ambitious, but not TOO ambitious without a man by your side!
The songs are really not that memorable. Except for “Friends on the Other Side”, I cannot catch a tune. As far as I’m concerned, Randy Newman has written and performed ONE truly memorable and great song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.
But really, all this pales in comparison to this one simple thing I find about this movie: it’s BORING.
The Little Mermaid has a shark chase, a ship getting wrecked in the storm, Ariel’s voice being taken and having to rise to the surface without drowning, a race against the clock, and an epic battle between the hero and villain. Aladdin had a collapsing Cave of Wonders, a rescue from drowning, and a showdown between an all powerful sorcerer while the princess was trapped in an hourglass running out of time. Hercules had a fight against the Hydra, the Titans causing chaos, and two scenes where it looks like both heroes are going to die for good. Treasure Planet has a star gone supernova and a planet that’s about to explode and the heroes having little time to escape. In all these movies, there’s a very real sense of danger for the characters, and the stakes are high. I never got this impression with The Princess and the Frog. There are very brief scenes of Dr. Facilier’s minions and other animals after the heroes, but not enough to sustain tension. The climax does have stunning visuals, but there is never any impression that Tiana’s life is at stake. The only scene that gives us some impression that the heroes lives are threatened is when the frog hunters come…and it’s an inept, slapstick scene with hideous, ableist, classist caricatures as ineffective baddies. Really.
And overall, compared to the the films that Disney’s been releasing since, The Princess and the Frog really doesn’t hold up. The later films are much more exciting and entertaining, and include more heartwarming scenes.
The ONLY thing I can really praise about this movie is Tiana herself. She is so important; she’s a beautiful black woman working hard to have her dream come true and doesn’t let anything get her down. But, I said this before, and I’ll say it again: she CANNOT be the only black Disney Princess, let alone black female lead. I find it really dangerous of fans to latch onto The Princess and the Frog as much as they do. They keep talking about this movie and how it needs to have a sequel or live action remake and more merch and I’m like…can’t Disney just make more films with black main characters? Why does Tiana have to be the ONLY role model for black children? Why are we so fixated on a movie that honestly isn’t that good?
I’m not really sure of what I would do to fix this movie without throwing out the entire fairy tale aspect. I would have made it more of a contemporary, realistic story about a woman working hard in the 1920’s, finding romance, and facing adversaries, accompanied by jazz music. Maybe you could have a side plot of dancing frogs or something. I don’t know, which basically goes to show how underwhelming this movie is.
Overall, a disappointment. But to be fair, this came out at a pretty tumultuous time for Disney, so all things considered, it’s not the WORST thing to come out of the company. It’s better than some of their other films. I don’t think it’s the BEST thing either. Hopefully Moana will be a vast improvement, and hopefully we’ll have more and better films of black heroines.