THE HOUSE OF MOUSE PROJECT – ‘The Princess and the Frog’

The one that started the second Disney Renaissance.

Since the revival of Disney animation in the late 1980s, the studio had (occasionally) strived towards crafting animated films featuring more diverse characters to juxtapose the decades of exclusively white narratives of Disney’s past. While the animation studio had delivered their first Asian and Native American heroines in Mulan and Pocahontas respectively, the studio had yet to produce an animated feature film headlined by an African American, either male or female.

To put it mildly, Disney’s history with its depiction of people of colour was far from stellar (Song of the South, anyone?), yet the studio still hadn’t made any inroads with correcting the mistakes of the past. When Disney launched its wildly popular Disney Princess merchandise line in 1999 (which originally featured Esmerelda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame until she was unceremoniously dumped in 2004 due to poor sales), it was obvious the range of products lacked one important element; a black princess. It would take another decade before her arrival.

In 2002, then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner announced the end of the studio’s commitment to producing traditionally animated feature films, with 2004’s Home on the Range intended to stand as Disney’s final film created in the classic “hand-drawn” style. Animators were fired or retrained in computer animation. Equipment was dismantled and sold off. And fans mourned the painful loss of an art form Disney had defined 65 years earlier.

But when former Disney chairman Roy E. Disney’s “Save Disney” campaign successfully removed Eisner from power in 2005, many hoped incoming CEO Bob Iger might feel differently towards Disney’s tradition animation legacy. When Roy returned to the studio as a creative consultant, he begged Iger to allow the animation department one more attempt at resurrecting traditional animation. In 2006, newly-minted Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Feature Animation John Lasseter agreed with Roy and convinced Iger to reverse Eisner’s decision.

With the traditional animation department reinstated, Lasseter rehired many veteran Disney animators who had left the studio in recent years, including Eric Goldberg, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja, Bruce W. Smith, and Chris Buck. As fate would have it, both Disney and Pixar were currently developing projects adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Frog Prince. However, Disney’s adaptation was based on E.D. Baker’s 2002 children’s novel The Frog Princess, in which the titular princess kisses a prince-turned-frog and becomes a frog herself.

Lasseter decided to cancel Pixar’s project and greenlight Disney’s adaptation and began the hunt for someone to direct the studio’s return to hand-drawn animation, with his sights firmly set on a pair of directors who had fled Disney one year earlier. After the cataclysmic failure of their 2002 big-budget animated space adventure Treasure Planet, directors Ron Clements and John Musker had resigned from Disney in September 2005, after then-president of Walt Disney Feature Animation refused to greenlight their next project, Fraidy Cat.

While Treasure Planet was an unfortunate misstep, Clements and Musker had directed two of Disney’s most successful animated films in The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and Lasseter was keen to bring the pair back to the studio to co-write and co-direct The Frog Princess. When they both agreed, Lasseter offered them the choice of producing the film in either traditional animation or CGI, with the duo unsurprisingly choosing the former.

While the majority of Disney’s princess films were set in Europe, Clements and Musker wanted to craft an American fairy tale, with the directors choosing to set the film in New Orleans as a tribute to the city and its magical qualities. In Baker’s original novel, the titular princess was named Emma, but the directors felt a New Orleans “princess” would work best as an African American female, thus creating Disney’s very first black princess in the form of a chambermaid named Maddy.

At The Walt Disney Company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in March 2007, Clements and Musker presented early story concepts, sketches, and songs for The Frog Princess, which were met with immediate criticism from African-American media outlets. Many felt the name Maddy was too similar to the derogatory term “mammy,” which was the racist stereotypical archetype applied to female black slaves who worked for white families in the early 20th century. This was only further compounded by Clements and Musker’s decision to have Maddy work as a maid. Some journalists also questioned if it was appropriate to set a film in New Orleans in the wake of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. And some even felt the title could be misconstrued as a slur on French people.

While Disney rarely bowed to feedback from outside its studio walls, Clements and Musker understood the project needed to be reworked to avoid facing further backlash over the concept. As such, the title was changed to The Princess and the Frog and Maddy’s name was altered to Tiana, who would now be a hard-working waitress and chef, with dreams of one day opening her own restaurant. The pair even hired television legend and equal rights activist Oprah Winfrey as a technical consultant in a bid to avoid further racial problems with the film’s narrative and setting.

To combat the negative reaction to the New Orleans setting of The Princess and the Frog, Clements and Musker became determined for the film to stand as a loving tribute to a city struggling to recover from its darkest moment. By portraying Tiana as a talented chef, the duo were able to focus heavily on the concept of “soul food” bringing people together, which was a staple of both New Orleans cuisine and African-American culture. It also gave the directors the opportunity to create a Disney heroine whose goal in life has nothing to do with finding a man to sweep her off her feet.

While the film would feature a burgeoning love story between Tiana and the playboy-prince-turned-frog Naveen, the heart of Tiana’s journey lay with her determination to achieve her goal of owning her own restaurant by working as hard as she possibly can. In a curious twist on the classic “when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true” message of Pinocchio, Clements and Musker spun the idea on its head by having Tiana’s father inform his young daughter wishes only come true through hard work. It cemented Tiana as one of the most grounded, intelligent, and realistic Disney princesses in the studio’s history.

Clements and Musker also wanted The Princess and the Frog to pay tribute to the rich music history of New Orleans, and, thus, made the decision for the film to stand as Disney’s first true animated musical since Mulan in 1998. The characters of The Princess and the Frog would actually sing the film’s original songs through extravagant musical numbers, which only further strengthened its connection to the beloved traditionally animated musicals of the 90s.

To write the film’s original songs and score, the directors enlisted composer Randy Newman, who had been a stalwart of the Pixar studio since 1995. With a lively fusion of jazz, zydeco, blues, and gospel styles, Newman wrote seven original tracks for the film, including a yearning “I Want” song for Tiana entitled “Almost There,” a menacing song for the film’s villain Dr. Facilier called “Friends on the Other Side,” and a vivacious showstopper entitled “Dig a Little Deeper,” to be performed by the film’s “Fairy Godmother” figured, Mama Odie.

Once the film was announced and it became evident Disney was on the hunt for someone to voice its first black princess, the studio was inundated with offers from black female actors and musicians to fill the role. Music superstar Beyoncé contacted Disney and asked to be considered for the role. However, when she refused to audition for the part, Disney politely declined her request. Everyone from Alicia Keys to Tyra Banks was considered for the part, but it came down to Dreamgirls co-stars Anika Noni Rose and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson.

While Hudson had the vocal chops for the role, the studio felt Rose (whose vocals were equally impressive) perfectly captured the heart of Tiana in her audition and offered the actor the part. In a later interview, Rose called the opportunity to bring Disney’s first black princess to life “a dream I never thought would come true.” Mark Henn was assigned as the supervising animator for Tiana’s with the animator incorporating Rose’s trademark dimples into Tiana’s design. At Rose’s suggestion, Henn also made Tiana left-handed to match her voiceover artist.

For the role of the film’s voodoo bokor villain Dr. Facilier, Clements and Musker hired veteran actor Keith David to bring the antagonist to life. The character’s design was crafted by Bruce W. Smith, who described the villain as the “lovechild” of classic Disney villains Captain Hook from Peter Pan and Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians. For the role of the scene-stealing Cajun firefly Ray, the filmmakers turned to veteran Disney voiceover artist Jim Cummings, the voice behind iconic characters like Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. Cummings grew up in New Orleans and was able to easily create an authentic Cajun accent.

After initially joining the production as a creative consultant, Winfrey was the natural choice to voice Tiana’s doting mother, Eudora. Veteran Broadway performer Jenifer Lewis was cast to voice Mama Odie, a blind, 197-year-old voodoo priestess, who helps Tiana and Naveen on their quest to return to human form. Mama Odie was partly inspired by iconic New Orleans storyteller Coleen Salley, who consulted on the film until her death in late 2008. Lewis based her eccentric performance on American stand-up comedian Moms Mabley. Animator Andreas Deja was assigned the task of creating Mama Odie and based her character designs on Mabley and, strangely enough, Star Wars icon Yoda.

The studio’s return to traditional animation proved a major problem for the animation team, given Eisner had dismantled and sold every piece of equipment Disney animators used to create 2D animation. That included the Computer Animation Production System (CAPS), which had been assisting animated productions since The Little Mermaid in 1989. To combat this issue, the animators utilised the Toon Boom Harmony software, which was the animation system used by the Disneytoon Studios, who were responsible for straight-to-DVD animated sequels like Bambi II and Kronk’s New Groove.

The software was augmented to mimic CAPS-like processes and effects to assist the veteran animation team who had only ever used CAPS in the past. While many of their animation colleagues were creating through fully-digital methods, the animators of The Princess and the Frog used the traditional method of first sketching out their drawings with pencil and paper, which were then scanned into the computer systems to be edited using digital software.

For the film’s overall visual aesthetic, Clements and Musker were inspired by the designs of Lady and the Tramp, which they felt was the pinnacle of Disney’s style. The 1955 film heavily influenced the visuals of sequences on the streets of New Orleans, particularly its cityscapes, with the directors seeking to recapture the lush beauty of classic Disney animation of the past. For sequences set in the Lousiana bayou, the animation team used Bambi as the template for the painted backgrounds, with the animation team attaining the original animated cels from the Disney archives to use as a stylistic reference.

While the majority of The Princess and the Frog was crafted in the classic Disney animation style, Clements and Musker sought to create something wildly different for the “Almost There” musical sequence. The directors turned to animator Eric Goldberg and designer Sue Nichols, who designed an Art Deco-inspired sequence, inspired by the art of 1920s painter Aaron Douglas. The animation was drawn entirely on paper and scanned directly into Photoshop, where it was enhanced to mimic the appearance of painted strokes and combined with backgrounds and special effects created using Adobe After Effects.

The Princess and the Frog was released on December 11, 2009, to generally positive reviews from critics. The Los Angeles Time felt the film had “gotten just about everything right and was “beautifully executed,” The Hollywood Reported praised Disney for “rediscovering its traditional hand-drawn animation” and for “a thing called story,” while Roger Ebert raved, “No 3D! No glasses! No extra ticket charge! No frantic frenzies of meaningless action! And…good gravy! A story! Characters! A plot! This is what classic animation once was like!”

On a modest budget of $105 million, The Princess and the Frog was ultimately a financial success for Disney, grossing $104 million in the U.S. and a further $162 million internationally for a respectable total of $267 million worldwide. This made the film the highest-grossing traditional Disney animated feature since Lilo & Stitch in 2002, though its total did pale in comparison to the staggering results of early 90s films like The Lion King and Aladdin.

While the film ultimately turned a profit, The Princess and the Frog was still deemed somewhat of a disappointment for the studio. After an impressive U.S. opening weekend result of $27 million, the film was quickly overshadowed by the release of box office colossus Avatar just one week later. While Avatar was not inherently a children’s film, it was drowning the competition by dominating multiplexes and essentially killing the box office chances of those films unfortunate enough to be released at the same time. Disney executives also believed placing the word “princess” in the title was ultimately a mistake, as it essentially detracted young boys from the film.

After the release of The Princess and the Frog, Disney initially considered releasing one new traditional animated film every two years, beginning with Winnie the Pooh in 2011 and an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, which was currently in development. But when The Princess and the Frog underperformed, Winnie the Pooh flopped, and The Snow Queen was retitled Frozen and became a computer-animated production due to complexities with its visual elements, the plans for the revival of traditional animation were shelved where they remain to this day.

We will never know what the future of Disney animation may have looked like if The Princess and the Frog had been a major box office success (thanks, Avatar). While it was now abundantly clear audiences weren’t interested in traditional animation, The Princess and the Frog was (and still is) a deeply special film for Disney fans, as it provided one final “hand-drawn” masterpiece to add to Disney’s animation canon. You can tell the very heart and soul of Clements, Musker, and their team of animators went into the production of this film, and the results speak for themselves.

The animation of The Princess and the Frog is simply gorgeous and perfectly recaptured the beautiful majesty of Disney’s animated films of the past. From the breathtaking backgrounds to the spectacular character designs, this film practically bursts off the screen, particularly during the musical numbers, which are some of the best Disney has ever produced. With its mix of jazz, blues, and gospel sounds, Newman’s soundtrack is a work of art, with several truly memorable tracks to get your toe tapping.

But the true success of The Princess and the Frog lies with its endearing protagonist, with Disney finally creating a black heroine, which, let’s face it, was long overdue. It’s truly unfathomable it took the studio this long to get there. What a monumental moment it was for young black girls and boys to finally see themselves represented in a Disney animated film. And not just as the comical sidekick or a nameless background character. A black female was the star of the show. In terms of representation, this was another landmark moment for Disney animation.

Tiana broke the mould of what constituted a Disney heroine in so many ways, and not just by virtue of her skin colour. This was a Disney princess who believed in the “American Dream” so deeply, she would work two jobs just to achieve her goal. Tiana isn’t concerned with finding a man or heading off on an exciting adventure, like so many of her Disney princess counterparts. She just wants to make her late father proud and is keenly aware of the value of hard work. She is perhaps the best example of a Disney character young ones should aspire to be.

Sure, Tiana’s character arc also involves a gushy love story, but it’s a romance rooted in conflict, tolerance, and understanding, where our two star-crossed lovers ultimately learn their differences provide them with the opportunity to evolve and become more rounded people. Naveen teaches Tiana to enjoy life, while Tiana teaches Naveen to take responsibility for his life. Their romance blossoms over the course of the film, which is a genuine rarity for Disney animation, where the two lovers generally take one look at each other and it’s instant love. In terms of Disney romances, The Princess and the Frog is up there with the best.

What’s also wildly refreshing about The Princess and the Frog is the complexities of practically every single character in the narrative. The fact Clements and Musker were able to infuse evolving character arcs into supporting roles like the trumpet-playing alligator Louis, Dr. Facilier’s nefarious henchman Lawrence, and lovesick firefly Ray is some form of a cinematic miracle. In other Disney animated films, these characters would be nothing but throwaway roles who serve as little more than exposition posts for the plot. But you’re ultimately just as invested in their character journeys as you are Tiana and Naveen’s.

This all concludes with one of the most heartbreaking moments in Disney animation history that quickly becomes one of the most joyful. No spoilers here, but, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what I’m referring to. Surely I’m not the only one who sees a bright star in the night sky and instantly think of Evangeline? The film even manages to subtly tackle deeply important issues like racism, sexism, and class inequality, without ever feeling preachy or what we’d now refer to as “woke.” It has a message to prove and it does so without young ones even realising it.

It’s a mighty shame The Princess and the Frog didn’t get its moment in the sun, as it’s a truly special film that ultimately marked the end of an era for traditionally animated Disney musicals. It echoed back to the past, while also pushing towards the future. It gifted the world with a black Disney princess who stamped her claim as one of the greatest heroines in animation history. And it provided endless entertainment that dazzled the eyes and touched your soul. If nothing else, at least traditional Disney animation went out with a marvellous bang.

Is The Princess and the Frog a Disney Classic? It may not have succeeded at revitalising the world of traditional animation, but it proved it was an art form still worthy of admiration. A groundbreaking work that kickstarted Disney animation’s second renaissance, The Princess and the Frog is undoubtedly a Disney Classic.