Exclusive photo: Tiana and Prince Naveen in "The Princess and the Frog."
It's been quite a while since Disney treated audiences to an animated classic without the glitz and glam of CGI and 3-D. Don't get me wrong—technology is great, but when it comes to that nostalgic feeling of watching cartoons from the good ol' days, there's nothing like classics such as Beauty and the Beast and Lady and the Tramp to dig up those treasured childhood memories.
The makers of Disney's Princess and the Frog
have leapt at the challenge of returning the studio to the warmth of the hand-drawn genre, collaborating closely with Disney/Pixar head John Lasseter and acclaimed musical composer Randy Newman. Fandango got a chance to sit and chat with directors Ron Clements and John Musker (who wrote and directed Aladdin
and Little Mermaid
). Their history and synergy was evident as they talked over and finished each other's sentences. If their forthcoming feature is as successful as their past projects, count on Disney to churn out more hand-drawn films every 2 to 3 years.
Q. How did this project come about?
Clements: Disney has actually been trying to do something with this story for years and years going all the way back to the Beauty and the Beast. They bought the rights to a children's book called The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker. It was kind of a fairy tale with a twist. The princess kissed the frog, and instead of him turning into a prince, she turned into a frog. And then the two went on an adventure together. Disney explored versions of it with [other] writers.
Musker: Parallel to that, Pixar had been exploring The Frog Prince as a possible CG film.
Clements: Their story was more about a rock star. It wasn't a fairy tale, it wasn't a musical. It had elements of voodoo. There were multiple versions of the story…We put our own stuff in and came up with our version: An American fairy tale with an African American princess, taking place in the 1920s in the Jazz Age. We pitched it as a musical with Randy Newman.
Q. How was New Orleans chosen for the location?
Musker: At first it was set in Chicago in the 1930s, and then John Lasseter suggested New Orleans during the development because he loves it. It's his favorite city. John said, "Before you write the script, you gotta go to New Orleans and soak up the atmosphere." So we went down to New Orleans for about a week.
Clements: It's a little bit of a "Disney gumbo" in that it draws from a lot of different elements. Gumbo is a popular dish in New Orleans, but it's also a metaphor for the city. So many different cultural elements are all fused together. It's certainly the most European city in the United States – French influences, Spanish influences, and African influences all just kind of mixed together. The music itself, which is such a big part of the city, is kind of gumbo music that draws from ragtime and African music – different styles that come together with jazz.
Q. Did any of the previous Disney animations help you when you were researching?
Musker: Bambi and Lady and the Tramp were two of the principle ones.
Clements: We looked at some of the artwork that had been done for New Orleans square at Disneyland. We went for a classic Disney look – we felt that was correct for this story.
Musker: What's old is new again in a way.
Q. What were some of the driving aspects in fleshing out the villain, Dr. Facilier?
Musker: Our villain Facilier has greed as a strong motivation. He isn't trying to take over the world, which some of our villains have tried to do. We wanted it to be a little more localized. The whole aspect of him having magic at his disposal was fun for us, but there are limits to his magic.
Clements: His smoothness, con-man aspects, showmanship, and his theatricality was a fun thing.
Musker: We called him the Shadow Man in early versions of the script. [Artist] Sue Nichols did drawings of him with other shadows, like his army of shadows, before we wrote the script. When we wrote the script, we incorporated that idea into it.
Clements: There's one shadow that's his sidekick. More shadows in the movie-kind of shadows from the other side-help him along the way.
Q. How were you able to humanize the story involving Princess Tiana and her father?
Musker: Earlier, her father wasn't as much in the picture, [but] it really seemed to ground the story emotionally that it was his longstanding dream [to own his own restaurant]. That was our goal--to make it so you had an emotional investment in her getting the restaurant. It wasn't just a career goal, there's an emotional part of it, too.
Q. Where did the inspiration for Princess Tiana come from?
Clements: There's a woman in New Orleans named Leah Chase, a waitress who ultimately opened a restaurant named after her husband, Dooky Chase. We met and talked with her and she [explained] her story and her philosophy about food, which is a big element of the movie.
Musker: She talked about how food is this social lubricant in a way that sort of brings people together from different walks of life. We went down to her restaurant, and she had a home-cooked meal that she and her staff had prepared for us. Up on the wall, she had a picture of one of her heroes, George S. Patton…It was great to see a warm, nurturing thing, but she has a flinty side, too – that's what we tried to get with Tiana. She's very warm and she's vulnerable, but she has a passion and she's got a spine and a backbone. She's trying to get something done and she doesn't give in easily.
Q. Did you feel any responsibility with this sort of heralded return to hand-drawn animation?
Clements: This certainly was a stressful movie for a lot of reasons. It's the hope of everyone working on the movie that it be successful. You don't usually tend to worry about whether it's going to be a hit or not.... In this case, I think we all knew it was important that the movie actually be profitable. I think there's definitely more films like this to be done. We felt the stakes were very high on this movie.
Musker: Mermaid was the first fairy tale in 30 years. Sleeping Beauty in '59 was the one before that. Using songs to tell the story – that hadn't been done in a while.
Exclusive Photos from The Princes and the Frog
A Disney-Filled Day: Club 33, the Dream Suite, and the Animation Research Library
The Princess and the Frog Synopsis
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