For the 'Ultimate Disney Experience,' come to New Orleans.
For the first time in a long time, Disney has made a brand new animated movie in a way that doesn't involve a 3D modeling program, or the text "Pixar" tacked onto the end of the title screen. So whenever Disney does something so very iconically Disney, especially for the first time in a long time, it becomes rather intriguing.
However, for the first-time-in-a-long-time modern classic that this Disney movie is, it pushes a lot of envelopes. The first step is that the protagonist is a princess that is not physically a princess. Much to the point that it's actually set in the United States, a democracy. She's also black, which is completely unique to this Disney movie. Unlike the other Disney movies, her prince charming wasn't of the same nationality. He was actually a Prince from another country.
The setting in the United States isn't the first, as Lilo and Stitch was set in Hawaii. It was set in Louisiana, specifically New Orleans. This one was during the Wilson-era, and in the French Quarter. It meant that it was bayou-centric, occasionally cajun, and put the kind of cultures on display that you hardly see in the United States outside of the occasional broadcast of True Blood.
The story was very modernized for a Disney film, which did something unique for a Disney flick. The "When You Wish Upon A Star" moral was still present, but downplayed. The secondary reasoning was "Wishing upon a star is only a small step, you have to work hard for the rest of the way." This means that as much magic, wishing-upon-a-star, and fairy tale references within the movie, the movie drills the moral "work hard." It means that the delivery and morals are unique in presentation, which is a breath of fresh air.
The narrative took an interesting pace, staying on-point and with good direction throughout the film. While it speaks well for the pacing, the culture and setting were sometimes a little bit unusual. The villain is a voodoo warlock after riches, and he's using everyone's greed and avarice to further his own riches. His voodoo magic is put on-display throughout the movie, and is the hinging point for the entirety of the villainy in this movie. Problematically, it manages to come off as completely villainous.
For too long, animated movies have leaned completely unapologetically on stereotypes. Princes marry princes, wishing on a star will produce fairies, godmothers, both, or genies, and villains are purely villainous. This movies breaks up the status quo by changing the prince to marry a plebeian, exchanges instant gratification for earning one's dream through hard work and toil, but the antagonist is still nothing but antagonistic. It's so disappointing to see the movie hold itself to such an unshakable standard of novelty only to drop the ball on characterization. Which is arguably one of the most important parts of the story.
However, the atmosphere of the movie manages itself rather capably regardless of how stereotypical the set-pieces are. As far as representations of Louisiana in media goes, this film handles itself rather well. The music is primarily contemporary jazz, although zydeco and even cajun-based jazz, are the major music styles brilliantly displayed, making this a Disney musical primarily unlike most seen in movies like these.
The architecture is bright and blatantly Orleans-inspired, which when not displayed in the urban environment, showed a lot of blue and green that only the bayou can fully display. Even though what amounts to a swamp is not really photogenic, especially not for an overwhelming majority of a movie. However, using the power of fireflies, bright voodoo magic, and flowers, everything worked despite all of that. The only complaint that could come from the setting is that it all worked out a little too well. Not that the stereotypes were inaccurate, just that they lacked variety. It needed just a few more non-stereotypical characters.
Regardless of that, though, the sheer number of the accurate stereotypes on display was rather amazing in the end. When joined together with a fairly unique standpoint, unusual music that is surprisingly functional while still abnormal, and a setting that is almost entirely unique, everything worked out in a surprising way.
Disney may or may not be rusty when it comes to animating, but tried and true managed to sink in the mud while this entire film has somehow managed to thoroughly disarm my preconceptions both about Disney and animated films in general. It's hard to say that this film managed to push my preconceptions of animated films or Disney films enough. It did, however, push the envelope surprisingly far.
Bottom Line: I have to say that I'm rather impressed with how well The Princess and the Frog handled itself, the source material, and the setting. If only it had managed to push the envelope a little bit further...