The Disney animation team of Ron Clements and John Musker wrote and directed the 1989 blockbuster musical fairy tale “The Little Mermaid,” and followed that up with 1992’s “Aladdin” and 1997’s “Hercules.” Seven years after their last Disney film, 2002’s “Treasure Planet,” the two are back with the new musical fairy tale, “The Princess and the Frog,” set in New Orleans in the 1920s and featuring the studio’s first animated African American heroine. Randy Newman supplies the lovely ballads and swinging ragtime jazz score.
“The Princess and the Frog” also marks a return by Disney to traditional 2-D animation after focusing on 3-D computer animated films for the past five years. Though his Pixar hits ushered in the popularity of 3-D animated movies, it was John Lasseter, the chief executive of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, and Ed Catmull, president of both studios, who rekindled the studio’s 2-D flame.
The animation team recently spoke about the new film.
Q: What is the genesis of “The Princess and the Frog?”
Ron Clements: Disney has actually been interested in the “Frog Prince” all the way back to “Beauty and the Beast.” They never got a version they were totally happy with. Weirdly enough, Pixar had been developing versions and they never got quite a version they were happy with. Their version actually started in Chicago and then moved to New Orleans partly because that is John Lasseter’s favorite city in the world.
Even more recently, Disney bought the rights to a book called ‘The Frog Princess’ by an author called E.D. Baker and that was a twist on the fairy tale. In that book, when the princess kissed the frog she became a frog.
We looked at multiple Disney versions and the Pixar version. We took elements actually from everything and came up with our version, which is basically an American fairy tale set in New Orleans in the 1920s. John Musker: Before we wrote the script, John said, ‘You have to go down to New Orleans and experience it first hand.’ Neither one of us had been in New Orleans.
RC: We went down for a week and we toured everywhere. This was just eight months after Katrina. The devastation was unbelievable. But we also went through the French Quarter. We spent a day with a voodoo princess.
JM: And we went to some voodoo emporiums. We went out to the bayou and had a Cajun tour guide who fed the alligators little marshmallows to the side of the boat. We eventually brought down our whole team. We rode on a float in Mardi Gras the following February. We tried to make the film a valentine to the city of New Orleans.
Q: Would you discuss your decision on making the heroine Tiana African American?
JM: From the beginning we wanted to do an African American heroine. It seemed natural.
It seemed like it was time to do that and Anika Noni Rose brought such intelligence and vulnerability to this part. We were thrilled by her performance, and then animator Mark Henn, who animated her, likewise matched what she did.
Q: How did the character of the jazz-loving gator, Lou, come about?
RC: We wanted to bring jazz in
in a strong way.
JM: In the earliest days of the story, the character was actually a human being who was turned into an alligator. But then as we developed the movie, things were getting complicated so we need to simplify, so we said what if he’s just a gator who loves jazz right at the get-go. That seemed like a simpler way to go
Q: The villain, Dr. Facilier, is pretty scary. How do you make sure you don’t make him too frightening for young audiences?
RC: You try to temper everything. You try to be “Haunted Mansion” scary. Also, we try to balance as much as we can. It is a little bit like an amusement park ride that we tried to make the scary stuff as fun as possible.
Q: Though you have Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard and John Goodman supplying voices in the film, you didn’t go for big stars as your leads.
JM: I think it can help with the identification of that animated character with the voice if you don’t get an instant mental picture of the real actor. When you think of Jiminy Cricket, you don’t think of what Cliff Edwards [who voiced him] looked like.
Q: What was that like to return to traditional, 2-D animation?
RC: We love the medium of 2-D animation and John Lasseter loves the medium. It was very, very sad for a lot of people when Disney stopped making those movies. We love the Pixar films, but essentially it is really a different paint brush, a different medium. It felt appropriate to do this kind of classic fairy tale in 2-D and try to bring back your memories of what you loved about Disney. It was really fun.