If there is one thing Disney could use a little bit more of, it’s jazz.
That’s why The Princess and the Frog is so perfect. It takes all the modernity of 1920s America and combines it with the idiomatic harmonies of New Orleans. It mixes all the timelessness of princesses with the propulsive rhythm of frogs. It combines the contemporariness of working hard with the melodic freedom of being a prince from Maldonia. And it combines the popular poppiness of a Randy Newman song with the unconventional virtuoso of a Randy Newman song.
In short, The Princess and the Frog is a syncopated masterpiece.
Like any modern jazz standard, The Princess and the Frog is only as good as the instruments that comprise it and the characters that play them. A salt of the earth waitress. A racially ambiguous prince. A puffy dressed southern belle. An oddly proportioned valet. A delightfully voiced father. A cowardly boisterous alligator. A nearly toothless firefly. An entirely toothless voodoo priestess. A thinner than expected witch doctor. John Goodman. And a star named Evangeline.
At first glance this ragged lineup doesn’t seem all that captivating (a limp-legged, Cajun-talking toothless firefly, seriously?) but when brought together for our viewing pleasure they create something, dare I say, magical.
Hit it Juju.
The Princess and the Frog didn’t really stand a chance when it came out. Competing with Pixar at its peak with an animation style all but discarded thanks to stupid computers and the seppuku of Home on the Range (not to mention the word ‘princess’ in its title) was a recipe for disaster. It also carried a whole lot of controversy, but with a movie like this someone is bound to be offended or get salmonella.
However, it was by no means a failure and, though some may consider it too darkly themed and pants-wetting to stand the test of time, it is undeniably exceptional.
But who better to prove this than the stars of the show.
So without further ado, introducing the Firefly Five Plus Lou.
What’s not to love about the hard-working, reluctant frog kissing, art deco dreaming, deep digging, Charleston dancing, star light singing, tabasco adding, man-catching beignet making Tiana, princess of Maldonia and owner of the hottest restaurant this side of the Mississippi.
Save for maybe Mulan, Tiana has got to be the toughest of the Disney princesses. 1 And forget waiting for wishes made while looking at a star to come true like some stiff nosed puppet, Tiana doesn’t have time for that. That’s what her coffee tins filled with coins are for. She is also the most relatable and likable of all the princesses. Sure marrying a trust-fund prince so you never have to do another day of work in your life should be the goal of all self-respecting little girls, but it is nice to see someone who saves the day by making their own way. Not too mention doing it in style, dressed like a flapper.
And on that note, forget this side of the Mississippi, Tiana’s Place looks to be just about the coolest spot (take that Gusteau) in the Disneyverse, even more so because it completely ignores the laws of prohibition. Do yourself a favor Disney theme parks, take a cue from The Princess and the Frog and open up this restaurant (with alcohol).
Next comes the rug cutting, ukelele strumming, Newsie-hat wearing, Antonio Banderas sounding Naveen, prince of Maldonia and waiter at Tiana’s Palace.
For starters, Naveen is hilariously charming. It’s about time Disney created a prince named something other than Aladdin with a personality.2 On top of that he’s deep down an awkward romantic who just wants to live life to the fullest. At times aren’t we all a little Naveeny, second guessing ourselves, worried that we don’t know how to do anything at all, and then trying to overcome our concerns with a witty remark followed by a visit to the local witch doctor. But just like Prince Naveen, we too can prove ourselves wrong by marrying someone industrious and then living off of them by pretty much doing what we were doing before – only in a tuxedo. Now that’s a role model.
Just like Tiana, who breaks the mold of the damsel-in-distress princess, Naveen breaks the mold of the classic Disney prince who saves the day, by not saving the day.3 This leaves more time for ukulele playing and vegetable mincing. Best. Prince. Ever.
Make way for the snake strumming, shadow zapping, swing dancing, candy eating, gumbo brewing, flamingo hoarding, impromptu napping Mama Odie, 197-year-old blind lady and effective recycler of glass bottles.
This voodoo queen of the Bayou comes with a whole lot of zang and can conjure with the best of them. Other than Genie and Merlin who else has the power of Mama Odie? Forget your prissy Fairy Godmother, she ain’t got the sense she was born with compared to Mama Odie. When she’s atop her boat in a tree in the Bayou one would be wise to hush up and look at her gumbo to see the blue skies and sunshine that this joie de vivre spirit brings.
Besides having the best sense of humor, Mama Odie is the sage of this lot, teaching us the greatest lesson of this Disney movie: it doesn’t matter what you look like or what you wear, all that matters is whether you do well at the box office.
Don’t forget the badass of the group, the man with the power of hoodoo, that perennial voice of Jazz, the money conning, tarot card reading, dream enabling, human skull wearing, talisman toting, Baron Samedi looking Doctor Facilier, owner of the Voodoo Emporium and longest fingers ever.
There’s no need to disrespect this shadow man. He may not be as evil as the baby drowning, family burning, woman lusting Claude Frollo or as fear-inducing as the ruthlessly plundering hunk of mass Shan Yu, but he’s certainly a smooth talking, long faced, sinister smiling descendant of Scar and Jafar, whose resonating voice digs deep into the heart and soul. Strangely appealing and a fantastic dancer, Doctor Facilier might just be the most charismatic of all Disney villains.
No wonder he has friends on all sides.
Here come’s the toothless grinning, Cajun talking, lock picking, bottle cap playing, butt lighting, Evangeliene loving Ray, tiny defender of justice and insect I used to trap inside glass jars.
Ray is the resident Tinker Bell of this motley band, though far much cooler, wiser and less bratty, with one of the catchiest hooks ever heard in a Disney movie.
Forget Mufasa and Bambi’s mother, Ray’s demise beneath the foot stomp heard ’round the Bayou takes the beignet when it comes to tragic Disney deaths. Luckily Ray gets sent out to sea like a viking and will live on forever as the star to the left of Evangeline, where Peter Pan can high-five them while passing by.
Ray is the true hero of The Princess and the Frog. Endearingly romantic. Humbly hilarious. Heartwarmingly loyal. Courageously awesome. A bug’s gotta do what a bug’s gotta do.
Actually, scratch that. Ray is the truest hero ever, Disney films and beyond.
And last but not least is the horn blowing, riverboat riding, frog misdirecting, butt pricking, Mardi Gras jamming, jazziest of them all Louis, playing against type as a friendly alligator and featured headliner at Tiana’s Palace.
He’s got the sound of Armstrong, the education of Bix, the legacy of Oliver, the jelly rolls of Jelly Roll and, eventually thanks to Ray, the ferociousness of Bichet.
Louis might not have the depth of the other players, retreads on the age-old large-animal-that-ironically-lacks-courage-theme, and not really serve much of a purpose at all except to tell people how not to get to Mama Odie, but this jazz-devoted alligator has got some serious chops. And thanks to his energized playing, The Princess and the Frog gets a welcomed dose of upbeat big band swing.
If the Firefly Five Plus Lou aren’t enough there’s the rest of the gang, in particular the scene-stealing Lottie, who all my initial instincts tell me I should strongly dislike but instead find extremely enjoyable, especially since she has some of the best lines of the movie.
Despite any shortcomings it may have, one thing you don’t really hear anyone watching The Princess and the Frog say is: “I wish this looked more computery. ” Alas, Tiana unfortunately lost the litmus test to Rapunzel and hand-drawn animation has been crumpled up and thrown out the window at Disney.4 You would be hard pressed to find a more spectacular looking animated movie than The Princess and the Frog. Granted it used plenty of computers in crafting its imagery, but The Princess and the Frog is a hand-drawn feature at heart and if nothing else goes to show that a nice balance can be found between the two if only Disney would dig a little deeper and not kill off the one thing it owes all its success to.
Overall, it may lack that epic feel of some more popular classics and fall prey to convention at times, but The Princess and the Frog has more than enough charm and great music to make up for it, not to mention Ray.
More importantly, it is exactly what Disney needs – a more contemporary-set Fairy Tale packed with all the gusto of jazz that retains the spirit of the past. An inspiring movie based off inspiring people5 whose band of unlikely characters create a fun experience well worth paddling by.
Just like jazz and its home of New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog is one big bowl of gumbo (with a couple of shots of tabasco) which is to say it is just right and the bee’s knees.
Hit it Juju!
Can you imagine Cinderella surviving a day in the Bayou?↩
Simba doesn’t count. Neither does Flynn, he doesn’t exist yet.↩
Unless you count aggressively jumping on the shoulder of someone and then trying to kiss the daughter of a wealthy sugar baron saving the day.↩
I think I just heard Walt Disney cry.↩