Disney has changed over the past few decades. To many fans, this company, once lauded for its high quality and artistic innovation, has become a shadow of its former self.
There can still be a lot to love with modern original Disney films… and a lot that leave something to be desired.
We’re looking at the highs, lows, and mehs of modern Disney. Welcome to Disneytober.
Tiana, a young woman who dreams of opening a five-star restaurant, finds herself forever one step away despite all her hard work. Prince Naveen, on the other hand, has never had to work a day in his life; and even though his parents have cut him off from the family fortune, he doesn’t plan to start any time soon. His solution to poverty? Find a rich woman to marry, and quick.
But Naveen isn’t the only one in search of riches, and he soon finds himself a victim of voodoo practicioner and conman Doctor Facilier, who turns the prince into a frog.
Naveen frantically searches for a princess to break the spell. But his attempts to restore his human form go awry when he mistakes Tiana for a princess: a single kiss turns Tiana into an amphibian too. Together they must venture to Mama Odie’s home in the bayou to find a way to break the spell before they’re doomed to remain frogs forever.
Today we’re talking about The Princess and the Frog.
I couldn’t have been more excited when I heard The Princess and the Frog was in the works. The news came during a terrible Disney animation drought: the studio’s last hand-drawn animated feature, Home on the Range, had come out a whole five years previously; and for a studio that put out a new film almost every year1 and had won its laurels from its captivating 2-D animated stories, this was remarkable, to say the least.
Remarkable and painful for a fan like me. I’d grown up on lovingly hand-drawn Disney movies about princesses and fairytales. But princess movies had started to feel like an extinct species; we hadn’t seen one of those since the 90’s, twenty years previously.
So when Disney announced it was making a hand-drawn, 2-D animated retelling of the classic fairytale The Princess and the Frog, I was ecstatic.
That excitement lasted until about halfway through the film as my thrill was slowly swallowed by a dark sinkhole of disappointment. Characters I’d enjoyed so much in the beginning felt wasted by the end. Some of the subplots were overly-complex and confusing. And the romance—the biggest thing a hopeless romantic like myself seeks—was paced poorly. I felt so cheated out of what could have been my new favorite Disney film, I never watched it again.
When I picked out The Princess and the Frog to review, I was prepared to rant. But I remembered little about the film except my crushing disappointment. And since ten years of dusty memories does not a fair review make, I sat down to rewatch the film before releasing any critique.
During my second viewing, I was shocked and humbled to find a film I’d been far too hard on. The Princess and the Frog contains a metric ton of fun and charm, all of which I’d totally forgotten. The Princess and the Frog was a financial success,2 and rightly so. It has so much going for it. This film wasn’t the disaster of a movie I remembered; all it needed was a little bit more time to cook to produce a truly delectable dish.
This post will contain spoilers for
The Princess and the Frog
The characters, of course, were the main course for me.
Tiana is a criminally-underrated Disney protagonist and one of the best role-models out of the Disney princess crew. Her work ethic and determination are inspiring as she chases her dream; she’s optimistic but grounded. Her adoration for her father and close relationship with her mother make her even more endearing. Her gentleness and patience are unparalleled; but she’s kind without being unrealistically sugary-sweet. For instance, even though her friend Charlotte La Bouff always gets what she wants, Tiana is never bitter or resentful toward Charlotte. For this quality alone, Tiana is truly admirable.
Speaking of Charlotte, she may not do a lot in the film (more on that in a bit), but I also really appreciated that she wasn’t your typical rich snob. She may be somewhat shallow and very spoiled, but she still tries to be a good friend to Tiana. For instance, When Tiana finds herself at her lowest point, Charlotte immediately comes to Tiana’s rescue.
All the side characters are memorable, entertaining, and quirky. You’ve got the trumpet-playing alligator Louis, the lovestruck lightning bug Ray, the voodoo queen Mama Odie—everyone has a distinct personality, which makes this movie very engaging and lively.
However, the character who steals the show is the main villain, Doctor Facilier. Even the other characters proclaim how charismatic and charming he is.3 Despite being one of the slimiest Disney villains to date, Doctor Facilier has an almost MCU Loki-level of charisma. Whether he’s swindling suckers or making deals with his evil spirit “friends on the other side,” almost every line Doctor Facilier delivers is musical, lyrical, and pleasant to hear. The best parts of this film are almost always when Doctor Facilier is on screen. Look no further than his excellent Disney villain theme, “Friends on the Other Side,” which certainly recaptured the magic that makes so many classic Disney villains memorable.
But Facilier’s song wasn’t the only catchy tune on the soundtrack.
This film’s soundtrack stands right alongside the rest of the classic Disney library, thanks in no small part to The Princess and the Frog’s return to the Disney Renaissance’s biggest inspiration: musical theater.4 5 Even with a more classic Disney sound, however, the soundtrack also cooks up a unique identity thanks to its Louisiana flavor, including Cajun bayou songs; jazzy swing tunes; and, my particular favorite, Tiana’s big band number “Almost There.”
While some of the soundtrack’s lyrics may prove lackluster, each song successfully builds the setting, maintains the aesthetic, and emphasizes the film’s themes.
The First Theme
One of the film’s main themes is presented through Tiana’s philosophy: “If you work hard, you’ll make fairytales happen.” This is constantly contrasted by other characters who try to—or seem to—get everything they want without working at all.
However, the film insists this is true and rewards Tiana for her hard work: not just by giving her a restaurant in the end, but also by allowing her to stand firm for her convictions.
In the climactic end of the film, Tiana clutches the seat of Facilier’s power in her hand: a talisman that, if broken, will undo his magic and destroy him. Facilier needs that talisman back, so with a little magic dust he creates a vision of Tiana’s dream: her restaurant in all its glory. He promises to fulfill her desires if she’ll only give him the talisman.
She’s earned it, he argues. She’s worked hard to get this far. She’s almost there; she just needs to make one last little choice to get there—or else she may never get it at all. After all, the building she’d been saving up for eons was getting snatched away by another buyer. How else would she ever realize her dream if she didn’t cut a deal with Facilier?
But Tiana refuses. She won’t take the easy way out. And this conviction—this theme—is rewarded in the end: her hard work does pay off; she does end up with her restaurant after all.
And the film doesn’t just maintain this theme with Tiana: other characters must learn the same lesson. Charlotte, who only ever wanted things handed to her with wishing and magic, doesn’t end up marrying the prince like she’d thought. Nor does Prince Naveen end up with what he wants without a lot of hard work: life-threatening and life-changing experiences to teach him the true value of what he’s been given.
I was stunned by how much I found deliciously entertaining and well-made in The Princess and the Frog upon this second viewing. This wasn’t an utter failure of a film—though it did have a few burnt spots that robbed the dish of five-star status.
The relationship between Tiana and her father was one of the most heartwarming things in any Disney film to date—but it only gets about two minutes of screentime. This is a tragedy. This relationship shaped Tiana into who she is. And by killing off her father so early in the film, we lost the heart of what made this movie unique: the same problem that plagued Frozen.
And Tiana’s dad isn’t the only one who gets a disappointingly small amount of love.
Alas, poor Charlotte. It’s ironic how a character played for laughs really only existed to advance the plot. Whether operating as a false plot point or as one of the many foils to Tiana’s philosophy, Charlotte serves as little more than a cardboard caricature rather than a well-developed ally to Tiana.
Charlotte also creates a plot hole. Considering the film sets up that she and Tiana are such good friends, I wondered why Tiana didn’t ever just ask Charlotte for a loan. We can infer Tiana’s hard work and pride kept her from doing so under normal circumstances (though this is never addressed in the film). However, when Tiana runs the risk of losing the building for her restaurant, it would make sense for her to turn to Charlotte in desperation.
But these issues are small compared to my biggest problem with the film and what initially turned me off from The Princess and the Frog altogether: its romantic pacing.
Poor Romantic Pacing
Modern Disney films tend to poke fun at themselves for characters falling in love in a matter of days, but what about over the course of three scenes? This is exactly what occurs in The Princess and the Frog; a true disservice both to the characters and the themes of the film.
Tiana and Naveen are still snipping at each other long past the halfway point in the film, no closer to understanding each other than they were in the opening credits. Then, one rescue later, they’re suddenly best friends, joking with each other and teasing and laughing. One self-cooked meal later, and they’re suddenly dancing under the moonlight, falling in love.
Three scenes and their entire relationship has changed! I couldn’t help but feel they were falling in love without even knowing each other.
The Competing Second Theme
Tiana’s “work hard” theme gets overshadowed by the film’s second theme: “Find and pursue what you really want instead of what you think you want.” Tiana thinks she wants to open a restaurant; Naveen thinks he wants money. But Mama Odie tries to get them both to realize that what they truly desire is love.
This theme is fine by itself, but the way it’s presented, it ignores the importance of why Tiana wants to open a restaurant. Owning a restaurant wasn’t just Tiana’s dream; it had been her father’s dream first. It’s Tiana’s way of memorializing her father and thanking him for all he’d done. It’s her way to create a place that would bring people together, and, more importantly, it’s a way for her to reconnect with her father—the man who meant more to her than anything else. So when Mama Odie tells Tiana that opening a restaurant in and of itself won’t make her happy, it presents a confusing message. Is it wrong to pursue one’s dreams just because you’re not sharing it with a significant other?
With both these themes competing for time and attention, they end up contradicting one another, leading to confusion. But Doctor Facilier’s plans were more confusing still.
As much as I adore Facilier, there are some pretty key flaws in his plan.
#1: The Plan is Overly Complicated
Facilier turns Prince Naveen into a frog. Then, using Naveen’s blood, Facilier casts a spell that makes Naveen’s mistreated servant, Lawrence, look like the prince. Lawrence must marry Charlotte, kill her, get her family fortune, and split the money with Facilier.
This plan has too many moving parts. Why can’t Facilier just transform himself? Why have the middle-man, Lawrence?
#2: The Magic System’s Rules are Arbitrary
According to the film, Facilier can’t conjure any magic on himself. But why? No reason is given; the rule is simply arbitrary.
And this arbitrary magic system provides further complications at the end of the film, when Tiana breaks the talisman that holds Naveen’s blood. The talisman’s destruction allegedly stops Facilier’s plans, causing his evil spirit “friends” to come to collect his debt, which—considering Facilier had promised them all the souls in New Orleans they could want—Facilier can’t pay.6 The voodoo spirits take his soul as compensation, resulting in his ultimate demise.
#3: It’s a Bad Deal
The progression of Facilier’s deal with the evil spirits is entertaining, but its logic falls apart upon inspection.
Facilier forms this deal using logical leaps neither he nor the spirits seem to notice. Facilier assumes he can control New Orleans if he gains enough money. He promises that once he has half the La Bouff fortune, he’ll grant the evil spirits “all the wayward souls your dark little hearts desire.”7 But simply having money does not automatically mean he’ll rule New Orleans; it’s not as though there’s some law that signifies that the man with the most money runs the town. This is also assuming the one in charge of a group of people has the authority to promise their souls to the evil spirits, since it’s established souls must be given to the evil spirits; they can’t freely take whatever souls they wish.
This deal is not only begun on false premises, but it ends on them too. When Tiana breaks the talisman containing Naveen’s blood, the evil spirits arise and settle their score with Facilier by taking his soul. But why does breaking the talisman seal Facilier’s fate? What’s stopping him from getting another magical item from the evil spirits to pursue a new plan? Just because the scheme with Naveen didn’t work out doesn’t mean Facilier can’t come up with another way to get more souls. The spirits never gave Facilier an ultimatum; there’s no time limit or any other restriction on his scheme. There’s no reason why, just because this plan failed, the evil spirits should consider Facilier unable to fulfill his end of the bargain.
#4: Not Established Enough
Facilier’s goal, summed up nicely on The Disney Wiki, is “[t]o become the wealthiest and most powerful man in New Orleans.”8 His parlor tricks aren’t power enough; Facilier believes “the real power in this world ain’t magic; it’s money. Buckets of it.”9
But why is this his goal? Facilier’s motive is only “briefly implied to be a result of a poor upbringing” and financial struggles which led to social snubs by the wealthy elites, who “either treated him with disrespect or ignored him altogether.”10 (The Disney Wiki).
But this motive is not established enough. We never directly see the rich sneering at Facilier, and we don’t see the rich persecuting him at all.
You may argue that, rather than seeking revenge for persecution, Facilier’s real motive is that he’s jealous of the rich and feels he’s not getting the respect he deserves. But if this were the case, they should have shown Facilier deeply coveting wealth, power, and respect. However, all we see is Facilier shooting two grimaces in Big Daddy’s direction. That just don’t cut it for establishing a motive.
#5: Not the Right Fit
Finally, a thirst for power isn’t the best fit for Facilier’s character. Facilier’s strengths come from his slimy but charismatic personality; he works best as a supernatural-based trickster who enjoys messing with people. Having his main goal be obtaining power (that is, ruling New Orleans) hardly complements that. The earthy drives of greed and social status contrast too much with his supernatural basis (the aspect that sets him apart from many Disney villains), and the way Facilier paints ruling New Orleans as a “take over the world”-type goal feels far too cliché and big-picture, wasting Facilier’s potential as a villain. He’s not built to be a domineering ruler; he’s built to schmooze and swindle people.
All these problems mixed to spoil this Disney classic in the making. But despite these issues, this film only needed three simple changes to combine its high-quality elements into one harmonious, flavorful whole.
But more on that next week!
Notes and References:
- “List of Walt Disney Animation Studios Films,” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, October 4, 2019, accessed October 4, 2019.
- “The Princess and the Frog,” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, September 25, 2019, accessed October 2, 2019.
- Prince Naveen; The Princess and the Frog; Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker; Screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, and Rob Edwards; December 11, 2009; Walt Disney Studios.
- “The Princess and the Frog,” Wikipedia.
- Sideways, “What Makes Disney Music Sound Nostalgic,” YouTube video, 20:51, June 30, 2019, accessed October 4, 2019.
- Doctor Facilier; The Princess and the Frog; Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker; Screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, and Rob Edwards; December 11, 2009; Walt Disney Studios.
- “Dr. Facilier,” The Disney Wiki, Fandom, August 18, 2019, accessed October 4, 2019.
- Doctor Facilier; The Princess and the Frog.
- “Dr. Facilier,” The Disney Wiki.
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The Princess and the Frog and all related terms are the property of Walt Disney Studios. And I am not affiliated with them.