Long time readers will know that I’ve been doing the Disney Classics films in order, but I’m going to jump ahead to include this on my list of favourite movies.
This movie was Disney returning to their roots with a fairy tale inspired story rendered in traditional animation and introducing the latest Disney Princess. And it ticks a lot of boxes, boasting a quality soundtrack, a funny script, a great villain and an involving central story. On it’s own merits it would rank high on my Disney list but what makes it a personal favourite is a sentimental attachment.
This is the first movie that MWF and I watched together, before we were a couple and just friends. We’d hung out for the day chatting and then put this on as MWF insisted I had to see it. It would be a while after this that we got together, but the movie and the day we spent together when we watched it were when I started to genuinely fancy her.
The movie riffs on the traditional Frog Prince story, but gives it a clever twist. The old tale is retold in New Orleans, at the start by Eudora (voiced by Oprah Winfrey), a black seamstress to the daughter of her white boss and her own daughter, and the boss’ daughter dreams of meeting her prince. The seamstress’ daughter wants to run a restaurant with her father, but he reminds her that it takes hard work as well as wishing to get things done.
We then jump forward to the 1920s, and the seamstress’ daughter Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is now a young woman, still chasing her dream of the restaurant by working two jobs and saving every penny she can. Her social life suffers and her mother worries that she is failing to enjoy her life and is working too hard. An opportunity to get the money needed for the building she wants for the restaurant arises when her old friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) offers her a catering job as her wealthy father is hosting a big party.
Charlotte, still obsessed with landing her prince is excited as the party is hosting Prince Naveen, a handsome, suave young man.
Naveen (Bruno Campos) is a bit of a playboy and used to having money, although his parents have now cut him off. Arriving in New Orleans with his valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) he wants to live the high life but Lawrence reminds him he needs to settle down and get married if he wants to get back on the gravy train.
Naveen and Lawrence meet Doctor Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo witch doctor who reads their fortune and then tricks them into a bargain. His magic transforms Lawrence into Naveen, while Naveen becomes a frog who they lock away. Facilier plans for Lawrence to marry Charlotte, after which he will kill her father Big Daddy (John Goodman) and get his fortune and influence.
Naveen escapes and at the party meets Tiana, who has just been told her bid for the building has been rejected. Inspired by the story he tells Tiana she needs to kiss him, thinking she is a princess. She is reluctant to do until he promises to give her the money for her restaurant. When they kiss, however, it is Tiana who is transformed, becoming a frog as well.
Naveen realises that Tiana, despite her costume, is not a princess and that’s why it didn’t work. She in turn learns that he is broke. Both then get lost in the swamps and must try to find their way back in order to stop Facilier’s plan and return to their human form. Along the way they are assisted by Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) a trumpet playing alligator who dreams of playing Jazz and Ray (Jim Cummings), a cajun firefly. They are led to meet voodoo queen Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis) who they hope can help them.
The movie works because it’s got bucketloads of charm and a host of cool characters. And unlike a lot of Disney movies the leads are among the best characters on show here, with both Tiana and Naveen being very likeable. Their dynamic works brilliantly with the strait laced Tiana clashing with the laidback, pampered Naveen. Naveen oozes suave charm throughout and his carefree approach to life is fun, although he comes to learn that some things require work and that sometimes sacrifice is needed. In the same way he helps Tiana loosen up and realise that there are more important things than work and success.
Tiana is one of the better Princess heroines, as she’s shown to be smart, tough and hard working throughout. While she may need her priorities sorting out she is still a great heroine, being very proactive and swinging into action when needs be. She’s a very modern princess and works well, telling the audience that it isn’t enough to wait for good things to happen, you have to go out and make them happen.
The supporting cast are great, particularly Ray and Louis their guides in the swamp. Louis’ stupidity is endearing and his bizarre dream works well, and Ray is just flat out brilliant. With his bayou accent and spirit he is more than just comic relief and serves to educate the leads as to what love is about.
And Tiana’s loud, brassy friend Charlotte is a great character, full of life and chattering constantly she could easily be a simply ridiculous character, but the script gives her a chance to show greater depths of friendship, decency and kindness. All of this without diluting her over the top character.
Of course, all the best Disney movies have a great villain and here the film scores a big win with the sneaky, smooth talking Doctor Facilier, wonderfully voiced by Keith David. During his songs and speeches he delivers funny asides and is shown to be a smart, scheming foe. Distinctly creepy at times, it also works because Facilier doesn’t have power in a real sense, having received his gifts as part of a deal with his “friends on the other side”. It means that he too is under the cosh and the dark forces are kept at the fringes although they do make menacing appearances, and his main skill is reading and exploiting people’s weaknesses.
The plot flows well and the development works, with the relationship feeling real and the turns making sense. There’s also a gut punch in the final act which continues a Disney trend of actually sneaking in some dark moments into what people dismiss as cheesy and cheery kids films. Even as a grown man it left me with a lump in the throat.
Of course, it all ends well, and the ending is satisfying. It’s a very rewatchable flick and the music, influenced by the New Orleans setting is filled with some crackers, especially the villain song and Ray’s ode to his distant love Evangeline.
Fun, charming and well done this is one of my favourite movies and high on the list of my favourite Disney movies too.
Disney Score: 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.