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Following the critical and monetary disappointment of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range Disney announced the doom of their traditional, hand-drawn animation department, and took to producing 3D, computer animated films instead in an effort to match the efforts of studios like Pixar (who was distributing through Disney), Dreamworks and Blue Sky. The results were middling, and worst yet, utterly generic. When Disney officially acquired Pixar in 2006, head John Lasseter was made head of animation at Disney (along with Ed Catmull), and immediately announced the studio would be re-opening the 2D department. The first of this ‘new wave’ of 2D productions is The Princess and the Frog, a retelling of ‘The Frog Price’ set 1920s New Orleans.

Princess and the Frog, The
The prince in this story is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), who is visiting New Orleans in search of a rich Southern belle to marry. Naveen is tricked by a scheming voodoo magician named Dr. Facilier (Keith David), and turned into a frog, while his servant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) is sent out in his guise. Naveen sticks to his plan, and escapes to a party where his doppelganger attempts to woo Charlotte La Bouff (Jennifer Cody).  The Frog Prince mistakes one of Charlotte’s friends, a girl named Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), for a princess based on her attire, and demands she kiss him to break the spell. Since she is not an actual princess Tiana turns into a frog herself. Together, Tiana and Naveen take to the Bayou in search of voodoo Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), who according to a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), should be able to turn them both back into humans.

Perhaps even more important than The Princess and the Frog’s return traditional, hand drawn animation styles, is its return to traditional classic story adaptation, which if we’re not counting the live-action hybrid Enchanted goes all the way back to 2002’s Treasure Planet. The film is also the first period piece since Brother Bear, and most importantly is the first return to the musical format since 1998’s Mulan. The directors aren’t just toeing the waters here, this is a full bore musical from top to bottom, very much in the Disney animation tradition. Setting the film in New Orleans is pretty brilliant from a musical point of view, and offers up a large cross-section of styles, including various subgenres of blues, jazz, Dixie Land, Zydeco, and gospel. Hiring Randy Newman to right the music was brilliant from the standpoint of expectations, but could’ve been a disaster considering the composer’s dulling work with Pixar (I really think his music held the studio’s early films back, even if it’s an unpopular opinion). Things workout because the directors had the foresight to not let Newman sing any of the songs himself. The music re-introduces the conceptual strangeness of characters breaking into song to a possibly forgettable audience without making a joke of the situation by playing a narrative role in the film (for the most part).

Princess and the Frog, The
As a whole film, thinking outside of the contextual significance of the first Disney 2D musical animated feature in five years, The Princess and the Frog is more than a modest success, probably the studio’s best non-Pixar animated production since 1999’s Tarzan, which would be a classic had it not been for Phil Collins’ crap songs, or 2000’s Emperor’s New Groove, which is perhaps a little too silly to be compared directly to stuff like Beauty and Beast or Sleeping Beauty. The characters are mostly strong and well formed, the pacing is breathtaking, the animation is flawless, and the performances are solid. The lessons and morals are expectedly heavy-handed, in the normal Disney fashion, but there are some sophisticated grey areas, culminating with a truly memorable villain, the most impressive since James Woods’ Hades, and a heroine with a real sense of humour. This is a much more naturally funny film the film has made in a decade. The story itself is a bit scattershot, episodic, and is missing a strong middle act, but other shortcomings are mostly related to lamentable comparisons. The film takes on a referential approach to the story, and much of what makes it a special film to adult critics is hidden in jokes at the studio’s expense (all in good fun). Unfortunately, a lot of the most effectively subversive was already covered in Disney’s aforementioned Enchanted, and frankly Enchanted did it a little better.

Video


Hundreds of millions of dollars and something to prove make for a very clean, crisp and colourful 1080p presentation. There’s nothing to complain about here. The transitions are smooth and soft, unless, of course, they’re meant to be harsh and sharply edged, in which case they’re perfectly contrasting without any edge-enhancement. The sharpness and unfettered details apply to every frame, every animation style, and every plane, from front to back. There is a clear difference between the character animation, which feature clean, flat colour elements, the detail heavy painted backgrounds, and the digital augmentations. The character animation embraces the two dimensional style, and feature super clean hues, spiked with soft, slightly fuzzy highlights. The background paintings are likely the transfer’s most impressive element, including a mix of shades and colours, and tiny intricacies like brush strokes. The CG elements tend to stand out a bit, but often blend nicely into the mix, and also feature an incredible colour quality. The ‘Friends on the Other Side’ song scene (the villain’s song) is the disc’s most incredible visual moment, and a good choice to show off your particular set. My second choice would be the ‘Dig a Little Deeper’ song scene, which culminates in a massive celebration of colour and light.

Princess and the Frog, The

Audio


And to match the beautiful visuals, Disney gives us a beautiful DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack. Big bulky sections of the film are almost exclusively frontal assaults, which is a little disappointing. The majority of the sound effects come from the center, while the music mostly warms the stereo channels. Though the party scene is pretty full-bodied, the first really noticeable rear channel effects come during the villain’s song, which features a menacing chorus. Until the leads start running away from swamp creatures in the rain, things remain pretty frontal, but the post-frog stuff features a relatively aggressive amount of direction stuff, mostly out of the scale difference between frogs and humans. The bayou is alive with stereo and surround work throughout, but it’s all pretty subtle. Basically any scene featuring the supernatural gives off the most aggressive sound. Music is the clear reason to celebrate the DTS-HD sounds uncompressed status, and I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed by these rich and warm compositions, with appropriately punchy LFE support. Again, the villain’s song gets my vote for the biggest highlight, but the differing musical styles lead to some lovely aural contrasts, including big, bassy rhythms, massive gospel choruses, and sharp, surround sound horns.

Extras


The extras begin with a commentary track featuring co-writers/directors John Musker and Ron Clements, and producer Peter Del Vecho. The fellahs are with-it, and keep the information coming steadily throughout. The tone tends to lean more toward the sentimental than I’d prefer, but the behind the scenes factoids are consistently fascinating, such as the film’s origination throughout Disney and Pixar’s history. Like other effective commentary tracks throughout the decades this one makes the audience appreciate the film on another level, even if that requires a whole lot of time consuming name dropping. There were many people on this production. The only behind the scenes aspect avoided is the politically correct controversy that plagued the production in the early stages.

Princess and the Frog, The
Next up are four deleted/alternate scenes, with introductions from the writer/directors (11:40, HD). The scenes are presented in storyboard form, occasionally with scratch track dialogue and temporary music. Under the ‘Music and More’ tab viewers can find a sole music video, ‘Never Knew I Needed’, by Ne-Yo (4:00, HD). The ‘Bringing Animation to Life’ tab features two explorations of the animation process, including live action reference, rough pencils, and final animation, all with director commentary (8:10, HD). ‘Magic in the Bayou: Making a Princess’ (22:10, HD) is the EPK, which I’m guessing aired on television. It’s solid and informative, if not a bit fluffy, covering pre-production, animation, story writing, voice casting, art direction, New Orleans as a setting, music, live action reference choreography, and digital augmentation. ‘The Return to Hand Drawn Animation’ (2:40, HD) starts a series of brief interview segments (possibly also made for TV), and is followed by ‘The Disney Legacy’ (2:30, HD), which includes some HD shots from as yet unreleased animated films, ‘Disney’s Latest Princess’ (2:50, HD), ‘The Princess and the Animator’ (2:30, HD), ‘Conjuring the Villain’ (1:50, HD), and ‘The Return of the Animated Musical’ (3:10, HD).

The extras are finished out with a series of art galleries (Visual Development, Character Design, Layouts and Backgrounds, and Storyboards), a ‘What Do You See: Princess Portraits’ game (aimed at the little ones), and Disney trailers.

Princess and the Frog, The

Overall


The Princess and the Frog isn’t quite the ‘triumphant’ return to form some may have been expecting from Disney’s first hand drawn, animated musical in more than a decade, but it’s also far from a disappointment. I know I was afraid of the studio dropping this particular ball, and there are a few grandstanding moments, not to mention a fantastic villain (I love you Keith David!). It’s actually more of a testament to the quality of animation in 2009 that the film wasn’t a best animated film Oscar frontrunner, than a statement on the film’s overall quality. This Blu-ray release looks and sounds positively perfect, including rich, vibrant colours, and big warm music. The extras aren’t outstanding, but the disc does feature a solid commentary track from the filmmakers. I recommend a rental even to adult readers without children, you may be surprised at how much you enjoy yourself.

Reviewer Note: The images on this page do not represent the Blu-ray's image quality.


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