THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG – Avoiding the Easy Path in the Big Easy

The Princess and the Frog is a triumph for Walt Disney Animation Studios. The words “classic” and “timeless” are thrown around so much when describing the latest Disney Animated Features (and animated features generally) that the words seem to have lost all meaning. However, this film is both of those things and more.

This movie is more than just a movie. It is a true work of art. Every element fits together seamlessly, leaving very few bumps. It celebrates the culture of New Orleans and captures a truly unique American story. With strong characters, amazing animation, great songs and truly opulent artwork, it is a joy to watch. It contains essential technical elements from today’s successful animated features, and also calls back to the story quality of the features Walt Disney and his first team of animators created.

What makes this movie stand out from most of the current Disney Animated Features is its very firm moral bearings. The story is a masterful morality play – a wonderful teaching tool about dreaming, working hard, and avoiding the easy road.

Going down the bayou… SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Good

The Princess and the Frog has two qualities that all good Disney Animated Features have: timelessness and subtlety. This film will play just as well fifty years from now as it does today. It is set in the 1920s and stays firmly in that time period. There’s no modern slang or current pop culture references to be found, which was wonderful and very refreshing.

The subtle storytelling is a drastic change from the typical animated feature today, which slaps the audience over the head with story, spelling out every point. Longtime animation directors John Musker and Ron Clements adhered to the well-known filmmaking mantra of “show, don’t tell.” There is storytelling in the visuals – like the fact that James, Tiana’s father, was killed in World War I. Tiana herself never said that explicitly; it was explained in the visuals of the photograph and medals on her dresser.

That sort of care and detail tells me that this movie will last, transcending its own time like the true classics Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Pinocchio.

The quality of the animation is amazing. One of my favorite bits of animation was very short: the flashback sequence told by Louis, when he tried to join a band and it “didn’t end well.” The comedic timing of Louis’ performance was impeccable. His open mouth and darting eyes filled with anticipation sold the character to me, and always elicits a laugh. Louis’ supervising animator Eric Goldberg has always had a flair for comedy performances, having animated many funny characters at Disney – from the Genie in Aladdin to Rabbit in the most recent Winnie the Pooh feature.

Musker and Clements have a knack for echoing back to the old days of animation. The gags in this film come fast and furious, but they are not gags that appeal to the lowest form of humor. They are thinking gags – jokes that have multiple steps and a hilarious payoff, or they rely on a clever turn-of-phrase. The physical humor involving the three Cajun trappers was particularly clever, harkening back to the bumbling antagonists of many Bugs Bunny shorts from the 1940s.

The animation is not just about exaggerations, takes, pratfalls and sight gags. All the main characters are strong and have well-rounded personalities. So many animated films nowadays have just one-note, flat main characters. Mark Henn’s masterful take on Tiana is a great lesson in subtlety in animation acting. Even the villain Dr. Facilier (animation supervised by Bruce W. Smith) has a bit of nuance to him.

Adding to the strength of these characters is the impeccable voice casting. Anika Noni Rose and Bruno Campos were delightful as Tiana and Naveen, respectively. They play off each other very well. Keith David has always been one of my favorite voice actors and his performance as Dr. Facilier was tremendous. Who knew the voice of Goliath from Gargoyles could sing?

In terms of pure artistry, nothing compares to the “Almost There” sequence. That scene is Disney Animation at its finest. It captures Tiana’s optimistic spirit in a fun and kinetic way, as if we are privy to a glimpse into her imagination. It is also delightfully stylized – a tribute to the art nouveau style of the 1920s. The colors are bright and the characters, though flat, still move in a very fluid, realistic way.

The music and songs (like “Almost There”) are wonderful. Randy Newman delivers a stellar musical accompaniment to the impressive art and animation. I have to admit that I was a bit perturbed when Disney announced that Newman was going to replace seasoned Disney songwriter Alan Menken on this project. But after seeing the finished product, I understand why. Newman hails from New Orleans, and he understands the city’s musical heritage, pulling styles like Dixieland and zydeco into the score with ease. His songs do what all songs should do in good musicals – keep the plot moving and examine character motivations, preferably at the same time.

The Not-So-Good

As much as I adored Louis’ animation in the one flashback scene, and the character generally, his placement in the storyline had a lot of questions for me. The character was inconsistent for the world he inhabited. In a world where animals still acted like animals, and only talked to each other (except for Tiana and Naveen, who are human), it was difficult for me to believe an alligator could not only talk to humans, but play the trumpet as well.

Though Louis did learn a lesson from Mama Odie at the end about being true to himself, it was a strange lesson when put in context with the other characters’ journeys. It would have made better sense to me if Louis was another victim of Dr. Facilier – a human wanting to be a world-class jazz musician and turned into an alligator so no one would hear him play, thereby folding the conflict into Facilier’s “got what you wanted, but lost what you had” theme of the magic.

Themes and Thoughts

Like most fairy tales, The Princess and the Frog is at its core a morality play – teaching a lesson to the viewer that does not require a lot of nuance. The meta-narrative of this film was was full of biblical truths, namely that taking the easy path to happiness is never easy, and will not lead to fulfillment. Seeking fulfillment through material things will leave one susceptible to temptation by nefarious forces.

“Won’t you shake an old sinner’s hand?” Dr. Facilier

The catalyst for the characters’ temptations in this story was Dr. Facilier. He is very human, but possessed many attributes of Satan himself. His strength came from his ability to manipulate and trick people into giving into their sin. His musical leitmotif even contains a snake hiss and rattle – conjuring images of the enemy’s form in the Garden of Eden. Ironically, Facilier was a victim of his own sins of greed and envy.

When Naveen escaped after being turned into a frog, we got a glimpse into the heart of the Shadow Man when he posited to Lawrence with a disdainful sneer, “Aren’t you tired of living on the margins, while all those fat-cats in their fancy cars don’t give you so much as a sideways glance?” Facilier saw the true power in the world as money, and the greed in his heart propelled him to have hatred for those he felt did not deserve their wealth.

Envy and greed have been problems for the human heart since the very beginning of time. It was envy that caused Cain to murder his brother Abel (Genesis 4). It was greed for power that caused Lucifer’s fall from grace (Ezekiel 28). Some see the prosperity of others and fill their hearts with hate, relentlessly pining after people’s wealth. They do not want to work for it because they feel entitled to it – they “deserve” it. They would prefer an easier route.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Matthew 7:13-14

It is very poignant that Facilier’s name is derived from “facile,” the French word for “easy.” Satan offers the “easy road” to what many think is happiness and fulfillment. People often want to take the easy road to what they feel is happiness and prosperity.

Jesus Himself was tempted by Satan to take the easy way, as described in Matthew, Chapter 4. During His forty days in the desert, the enemy offered up to Jesus everything he thought Jesus wanted, without having to suffer on the cross. Adding to his persuasive attempts, Satan quoted Scripture to emphasize his points. Jesus rebuked the enemy’s temptations, proving His sovereignty.

Tiana was tempted in a similar way by Facilier. The Shadow Man gave Tiana the opportunity to have all her dreams come true, if she would just give up the talisman upon which his power depended. He let her see what her life could be like if she gave in – her restaurant completed and prosperous, herself clothed in an elegant evening gown and presumably wealthy. The talisman was an interesting parallel to the way Satan’s power works. Satan only has power over us if we let him, or if we are not equipped to face his temptations. Through God’s sacrifice, we are able to smash the enemy’s “talisman” over us, so to speak.

A sluggard’s appetite is never filled, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied.” Proverbs 13:4

Tiana has amazing character, and is a great role model for young girls. She never saw herself as a victim because of her circumstances, or looked on the rich with envy and disgust. She just simply worked hard, made her way and followed her dreams with a laser-like focus. However, her dreams of personal achievement (or even something as noble as completing her father’s dream) had the capacity to blind her to what was really important.

“All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty.” Proverbs 14:23

In stark contrast to Tiana, Naveen started out as an immature man-child – all talk and nothing to show for it. He admitted that he had never had to do anything for himself his whole life. Naveen had no strength of character and focused on feeding his ego, his extravagant lifestyle, and his nonstop desire for pleasure. He was a perfect sucker for Facilier’s promises of the easy way.

Both Naveen and Lawrence let their greed momentarily take control and ended up being scooped up in their sin. This is how the devil ensnares his victims. They come willingly, hoping in the promise of the easy life. Naveen eventually hopped his way out (quite literally), but Lawrence became ensnared in a web of dark “voodoo madness,” and ended up going to jail because of it.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon laments his empty pursuit of wealth, possessions and pleasures, comparing it to “chasing after the wind” (1:14). If Naveen had continued on that path, his desire for more would have been insatiable, leading to a miserable existence. Filling one’s heart with material things will not make one eternally better off.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” Matthew 6:19-21.

The spiritual narrative came to a head when the characters encountered Mama Odie. She taught the characters to “dig a little deeper” within themselves to discover what is truly wrong with their situation: “Y’all want to be human, but you’re blind to what you need.”

Both Tiana and Naveen looked for spiritual fulfillment in the wrong place – Naveen with wealth and pleasure, and Tiana with hard work and personal achievement. These goals made them both succeptible to Dr. Facilier’s temptations. Satan often perverts even the noblest of goals to get us off of the narrow path – just like Facilier’s attempt to get Tiana to give up the talisman to give her father “everything he ever wanted.”

However, Tiana realized something in that exchange that solidified her resolve to take the narrow path: “My daddy never did get what he wanted. But he had what he needed. He had love! He never lost sight of what was really important, and neither will I!”

Conclusion

The Princess and the Frog is an amazing animated film – a testament to the wonder of hand-drawn animation, defying the notion that CGI is the only way to make a truly touching animated film nowadays. I have a feeling that this film will be appreciated more and more as the years pass. The firm moral base and superior technical aspects make this movie a joy to watch over and over.

The personal struggle between wants and needs in our lives can be excellent fodder for Satan’s temptations. The enemy tempts us in many ways to get on the wrong path – the wide and “easy” path. What all of us need, first and foremost is God. As Christians, and God’s creation, we must never lose sight of Him. Tiana and Naveen both realized that love and everything that comes with it – hard work, sacrifice, dedication – was what they needed. That’s what we need too, which means that we need God – for God Himself is love (John 4:8).

The road may be narrow, the gate small, and “blue skies and sunshine” are not guaranteed, but the eternal effect is worth every step, for they are steps toward God and His perfect love.

The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Walt Disney Pictures / Walt Disney Animation Studios
Starring Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley,
Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett and Jennifer Lewis
Written by John Musker, Ron Clements and Rob Edwards
(from a story by John Musker, Ron Clements,
Greg Erb, Jason Oremland and Don Hall)
Based on The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker
and The Frog Prince by the Brothers Grimm
Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements

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2 thoughts on “THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG – Avoiding the Easy Path in the Big Easy

  1. Pingback: Review | Moana | Reel World Theology

  2. Pingback: MOANA – God Knows the Way | The Film Avenger

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