The Walt Disney Company announced that Disney+ will be getting an animated series titled Tiana based on the heroine in the animated feature film The Princess and the Frog (2009). Of course, this is just part of business synergy with the Disney theme park ride Splash Mountain now being re-themed to the film.
When the movie was first released, I was not particularly impressed when I saw it in the theater. I didn’t think it was a bad film, just not memorable. However, over the years and repeated viewings, I have come to appreciate its charm much more.
In fact, I think many of the Disney animated films made within the last two decades that were considered unsuccessful on their initial release may be due for a re-evaluation of their worth.
The animated feature was very loosely based on the 2002 novel The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker where the princess kisses the frog and turns into one herself. It began production under that working title in 2006.
Disney immediately changed several key elements to the film after receiving numerous complaints of racial insensitivity. Besides re-titling the picture to avoid the implication that the first African-American Disney princess was somehow ugly or an animal, the lead character’s name changed from “Maddy” (a nickname for “Madeline”) to “Tiana”, since “Maddy” sounded too much like “Mammy.”
A subplot about the heroine working as a chambermaid, her love interest being non-ethnic and other things were also dropped to avoid negative stereotypes. In addition Oprah Winfrey was hired as a technical consultant and later given a voice role as Tiana’s mother.
The film avoids any questions about segregation and racial injustice during that Jim Crow era and implies that Tiana’s difficulties in opening her own restaurant is the result of her being poor (only having the down payment for the sugar mill while another buyer can pay the full price) and being a single woman in a white male dominated society.
Some things that are racially related are implied including the fact that the band performers and Tiana are not masked at the masquerade, reflecting local New Orleans law at that time that prohibited blacks from covering their faces. Dr. Facilier has broken the law by hiding behind a white Janus-faced mask so he is clearly a villain.
Disney attempted to establish a “color blindness” since it is just a romanticized fairy tale and not a historical documentary. Charlotte has no hesitation wanting to marry Prince Naveen even though an interracial marriage would have been illegal at the time. Even the close friendship between Charlotte and Tiana would have been out-of-the ordinary during that era.
While with the release of Home on the Range (2004), the Walt Disney Company had announced it would cease producing 2D hand-drawn animation, ironically the arrival of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull from Pixar to take over the animation department resulted in them insisting that this new film be produced in 2D hand-drawn animation to maintain the Disney heritage of such animation.
Pixar had been working on a film with the working title The Spirit of New Orleans: A Pixar Ghost Story because of Lasseter’s fondness for the city and some of that work was incorporated into the final film. He brought back Ron Clements and John Musker who were part of the Disney animation renaissance but had left the studio when hand drawn animation was eliminated to co-direct the film. The directors spent ten days in Louisiana before starting to write the film.
It was decided to make the film an “American fairy tale” set in the 20th Century with the inspiration for the New Orleans scenes to be Lady and the Tramp (1955) and the scenes in the bayou to be The Rescuers (1977).
“Because hand-drawn animation was gone, it was almost like building the studio again,” Clements said. “Some of the 2D artists had become 3D stars, but many had just left altogether. Yet, just about everybody who did draw wanted to come back. We put together an all-star team of animators.”
In addition to current and former Disney animators, the production crew, which topped 300 at its peak, included recent graduates from the California Institute of the Arts. “They had studied hand-drawn animation without knowing if they’d have a place to apply their learning, and they blossomed into real talent,” Musker said.
Clements added, “With this type of animation, you have to work with a mentor to learn how to do it and get proficient. It’s a craft and an art that requires a lot of dedication. But, there’s an intuitive connection about drawing, from the brain to the hand to paper, that people miss with computer animation. With just the flip of a pencil, you can change an expression. That casual interaction is much tougher with 3D.”
For the first time, the directors used something that was common at Pixar: layout animatics. They filmed the storyboards and added the dialog track to see the film but also added staging and lighting.
“We took the storyboards to the next step,” Musker says. “We added camera moves and compositing. We wanted to know if the composition was strong enough to carry the idea quickly, so we composed all our shots in black and white to see the values. Being able to evaluate that in real time, with real lights and darks, was a valuable step.”
The animatics were created using Harmony and Photoshop. In-house tools then linked individual scenes created in those programs to entire sequences. Effects artists also worked directly with Harmony; however, layout, character animation including all the in-betweens, and cleanup all originated on paper.
“We wanted this film to look handcrafted,” said Marion West, visual effects supervisor. “But there are some fireflies and some vehicle wheels that are 3D, and some 3D doors open and shut in Maya. But, it’s a very, very understated use of 3D.”
“The background paintings were ninety-nine percent handcrafted. They were done in Photoshop, but they were drawn or inked or painted one stroke at a time. The painters applied every brush stroke as they would with a regular painting.”
The film went on to gross $104.4 million in the United States and Canada, and $271 million worldwide, making it a box office success but it was perceived as a failure because it did not “ignite the box office” like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin.
It out-grossed the fairly recent films including The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range.
The title of the film made the potential audience think it was just a “little girl’s film” and Disney marketing did nothing to alleviate that misconception. Audiences that did go to see it gave it favorable ratings although surveys showed that people thought it was “old-fashioned”. The film was also overshadowed by the release of James Cameron’s Avatar a week after it debuted.
Unfortunately, what the Walt Disney Company thought they learned from the experience was that hand drawn animation was not popular with current audiences and so future films should all be computer animated.