The Princess and the Frog: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
It’s impossible to find anything truly bad in this film. After all, it’s a Disney Princess Movie, so we’re not exactly dealing with hacks here. The animation is gorgeous, the characters brilliant, and the story solid. As for ugly…well, even the Villain possesses a roguish charm.
Because the people behind this film are among the best in the storytelling business, I’m scrapping my original title in favour of ‘The Great, the Good, and the So-So’. It’s not as catchy, but I simply can’t bring myself to call anything in the Disney universe ‘ugly’.
As usual, this post contains spoilers, so if you haven’t watched P&F yet, then bust out the popcorn and DO IT. Trust me, there are worse ways to spend 97 minutes.
Know your theme
There’s a lot to like about this film, but where it really shines is thematic follow-through. Any competent storyteller can string a series of events together and create something resembling a tale; the hard part is giving it that something extra that lifts it head and shoulders above other stories in the genre. This is the sugar, the spice, the ‘magic’ in a story. It’s the Holy Grail of storytelling; it makes books fly off shelves and audiences flock to cinemas.
If you want to write a damn good story, then you need that ‘magic’. It can sometimes be difficult to establish just where it’s coming from, but in The Princess and the Frog, the recipe is pretty obvious:
- Pick a theme (the more resonant, the better)
- Associate theme with motif (draw upon existing cultural symbols, if possible)
- Touch upon motif regularly (but not too much)
- Tie motif into conclusion (nail that sucker down)
It sounds simple, but it’s not; if you’re too subtle, people will never notice, but if you’re too heavy-handed, you wind up with something resembling propaganda. Here’s an example of how to do it well.
The Star and the Firefly
First, the star. It’s the first star in the night sky – a Wishing Star – and makes its first appearance early in the film, when six-year-old Tiana wishes for a restaurant that she and her father can call their own. Although her father encourages her, he also tells her that wishes must be backed up with hard work. Straight away, we’re given a striking contrast between divine intervention and the real world, between fate and free will. That’s a pretty powerful theme, and you can be sure that Disney’s going to milk that ‘star’ symbol for all it’s worth.
But first, let’s switch to the firefly. Fireflies appear even earlier than the star (in a stunning opening scene), and are later given the spotlight when Ray comes on the scene. Ray is a Cajun firefly who hails from the bayou. He’s also besotted with the Wishing Star, who he calls Evangeline, and dreams of the love they might share. We’re meant to assume he’s a little touched in the head, but hey, everyone’s got their quirks.
It’s easy to think that Ray’s just another comical Disney sidekick, but he’s not. Take a look at the following:
- The very first time we meet Ray, he comes to the rescue. The frog-versions of Tiana and Naveen have literally tied themselves up in knots. Ray is the one who rolls up his sleeves, flies in, and untangles the mess.
- Ray’s next task is to illuminate the way to Mama Odie, an ancient voodoo priestess who can tell them ‘what they need’. This turns out to be quite different to what they want (need vs. want being another one of the film’s themes).
- When Tiana mistakenly believes her prince has married Charlotte, Ray refuses to take the information at face value. He seeks out the true prince, who is still a frog, and releases him from his prison.
- In the climax, when Tiana flees with the talisman, it is Ray who again rolls up his sleeves and holds off the enemy, thus buying her time to escape. This costs Ray his life.
I’d argue that Ray is more than just a plucky hero. Everything he does revolves around setting the couple on the right path. Taking it one step further, I’d say he’s a kind of Wishing Star himself. Ray might be small and ugly, but he represents a divine guiding force, helping Tiana to find ‘what she needs’.
If that sounds fanciful, consider what happens when Ray’s dead body is sent off by family and friends during his quiet funeral. A sudden brightness in the night sky causes the mourners to look up; to their joy, they see that a new star has appeared beside the original Wishing Star. We know it’s Ray, and we know he’s finally joined his beloved Evangeline. The star and the firefly are inextricably linked.
Now, I don’t want to get into discussions on sacrifice, resurrection and divinity, but I think it’s fair to say that the star and the firefly both represent illumination and the guiding hand of fate. Disney masterfully plays one off the other – a distant, inscrutable, unblemished star and an uncouth, flawed, in-your-face firefly – and in the end unites the two.
Attention to detail
I love this film’s attention to detail. The writers genuinely care about squeezing the last 10% out of the story, whether you notice it or not. Case in point…
This film is about a girl who works hard for everything she has. The whole point of Tiana is that she isn’t a princess (her best friend Charlotte fills that role just fine). So imagine my glee when I compared the name of Tiana’s dream restaurant…
with the name of the actual restaurant in the final scene:
Thanks to that sneaky little ‘a’, Princess Tiana gets her fairytale palace – but true to her character (and the message of the entire film), this palace isn’t filled with foot soldiers, ladies-in-waiting, and a dashing Prince to gaze at for the next fifty years; it’s a place of work. This is Tiana’s dream restaurant, where she and her loving husband will go on to make their mark on the world together.
And did you notice the fireflies spiralling up and away from the couple dancing on the roof? These guys don’t miss a trick.
There is so much good in this film that I simply don’t have the time to list them all. Here are a few of my favourites.
The Villain vs. Tiana
It may seem surprising, but Tiana and the Villain don’t even meet each other until their showdown in the climax. The Villain is actually Prince Naveen’s foil.
It’s an interesting choice. Instead of including a Protagonist/Antagonist conflict in the main storyline, the writers took two storylines – Prince/Villain and Tiana/Restaurant – and, like the hand of fate represented by Ray, carefully guided them towards a collision. These two storylines interweave and eventually merge at the climax…and without getting too Freudian, that’s a lot like our lovestruck couple. Thus I’d argue that the writers’ choice doesn’t just lend greater texture to the story; it gives a sense of ‘things coming together’, as though a master weaver is revealing his final work. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the writers chose this particular structure when one of the film’s basic themes is destiny vs. free will.
The climax also works because Tiana is presented with a CHOICE. This is one of the basic tenets of storytelling. If your Protagonist isn’t faced with a gut-wrenching choice in the climax, then, as a writer, you’d better be the kind of genius who can flaunt the rules of storytelling and get away with it.
In Tiana’s case, the Villain presents her with the requisite choice: her restaurant (delivered on a silver platter through voodoo magic), or Naveen’s freedom. At this point, Tiana believes that Naveen has already run off to marry Charlotte, so it’s a real test of her love. In a scene which provides resolution to another major theme (what she needs vs what she wants), Tiana chooses love over personal gain. It’s a Disney film, so no surprises there, but it nicely ties together a number of running themes, as well as delivering the moment of Tiana’s final maturation.
The Villain’s Demise
Because Tiana and the Villain aren’t mortal enemies, it would feel a bit weird (and not particularly satisfying) to have Tiana simply kill the bad guy. Instead, we’re treated to a Faustian bargain; the Villain, through his own nasty shenanigans, has sold out to his ‘friends on the other side’. When Tiana’s personal growth in the climax thwarts the Villain’s plans, he can no longer keep his side of the bargain. As a result, these ‘friends’ come for his soul. The Villain is therefore the tool of his own demise. I like that.
Okay, so there is one little thing that dragged this film down. The first half of the 2nd act – from the point at which the frogs arrive in the bayou, through to Mama Odie’s musical number – feels a bit slow. If you don’t remember, this is the part of the film where the frogs go from mutual annoyance to falling in love.
Now, I’m not saying that all romance should be replaced with fighting space robots, but this section is definitely longer than it needs to be. This isn’t just reflected in a disproportionately longer running time; it actually feels sluggish. One of the reasons for this, I think, is that we get three songs in quick succession; these songs are shorter than the others, and (in my humble opinion) somewhat weaker. This, coupled with the sheer number of different experiences and adventures, has the effect of chopping the action into small, bite-sized pieces. The scenes might be lively and fun, but overall momentum is lost.
I’m not the only person to point this out; in fact, it was probably the most common criticism of the film. There’s a lesson in this. Even if your story is solid, your characters brilliant, and your motifs exquisite, you still can’t afford to ignore pacing. People might miss your attention to subtle, clever details, but they will notice pacing. It sucks, but that’s just the way it is.
I had to seriously restrain myself from exploring all the things this film has to offer – there are at least 10 worthy topics that I could have focused upon – so if you’re at all interested in the art of storytelling, I cannot recommend this film enough. You’ll be mulling it over for weeks, and best of all, you’ll have fun doing it.