This was Disney’s next attempt to recapture the magic of its renaissance era after Enchanted set the new template, and if it fails to match the sheer splendor of such later efforts as Frozen and Moana, it is still on the whole a delightful and touching film. The film featured Disney’s first Black heroine in a feature film, and they had to go through an absurd amount of wrangling in creating their plot due to political correctness concerns, but the end result is both very effective and a genuinely sensitive portrayal, so perhaps it was all for the best.
The film, in its finished version, tells the story of a hardworking-to-a-fault Black waitress named Tiana in early-20th-century New Orleans who dreams of owning her own restaurant, and a happy-go-lucky but terminally irresponsible Prince named Naveen who has had his funds cut off by his royal parents. The plot is extremely complex and convoluted for a Disney film, which some have complained about, but I’d argue this is what makes the film unique and enables it to stand out from its peers in the Disney canon. The short version is that both our leads get turned into frogs by a machinations of an evil Voodoo magician working for some vaguely-defined evil forces he calls his “Friends on the other side”, and have to find a way to become human again before the Prince’s disguised servant can marry Tiana’s wealthy best friend.
The film’s most touching scene involves the heartbreaking death of a Cajun firefly named Ray after he is literally squashed under the villain’s foot. Ray had been in love with the evening star, whom he called Evangeline and believed to be “the most beautiful firefly in the sky”. Tiana, being the voice of practicality, was openly skeptical of this, but just as Ray dies, another star appears in the sky right next to the evening star, and everyone watching the film presumably cries their eyes out.
Much has been made of this film’s being one of the last traditionally animated Disney movies (the only one since has been the 2011 Winnie-the-Pooh film), but I think the loss has been somewhat overstated. Of course, I don’t take much of an active interest in animation for its own sake, but CGI animation was inevitably going to become predominant sooner or later, simply for economic reasons, and blaming it on a few failed or underperforming hand-drawn films is missing the big picture. In any case, the other neo-Disney Renaissance films that succeeded The Princess and the Frog used exactly the same conceptual, story, and musical models that it did, and even altered their animation style to resemble the look of hand-drawn animation more than any CGI film ever had, so the difference seems pretty incidental in the long run.
The voice cast is uniformly strong, and everyone does a fine job of bringing out the emotional resonance of the film’s drama. Anika Noni Rose’s touching performance as Tiana and Keith David’s scintillating turn as the villainous Dr. Facilier are particularly memorable. As for the music, Randy Newman has written a fair number of instrumental scores and theme songs for animated films, but this is his only full-scale animated musical to date. With a few exceptions (such as the almost universally beloved “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2), Newman’s themes for kids’ movies tend to get a lot of carping from people who see them as bland pablum, but nearly every time anyone else tries to copy his style it immediately becomes clear how good he actually is at it (for instance, Justin Timberlake’s vacuous “Can’t Stop the Feeling” from Trolls or Sia’s boring “Try Everything” from Zootopia).
Here, Newman provides a perfect taste of the Bayou flavor, and digs much deeper into the dramatic content than he normally does on his movie songs, as would be expected in a musical. The thrilling anthem of ambition “Almost There”, the mystical, spine-tingling villain song “Friends on the Other Side”, the exquisitely lyrical ballad “Ma Belle Evangeline”, and the insightful psychoanalysis-through-magic rouser “Dig a Little Deeper” show how good a job Newman did of capturing these characters in song.
This film also introduced the device of the delightful unexpected plot twist to the Disney handbook, as would be seen later in Frozen, Moana and Coco. Before that, Disney animated movies, however delightful, tended to be quite predictable, with more emphasis on colorful execution of a familiar story formula than actually surprising the audience. This was arguably the core breakthrough of the second Disney renaissance, and it was this film, not Enchanted, that really pioneered it, which underscores this work’s importance and influence on Disney’s current creative era.