Leaving computers behind, “The Princess and the Frog” is a return to the traditional, hand-drawn animation process that formed the foundation of the Walt Disney company with the release of the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,” in 1928, and later brought life to such classics as “Pinocchio,” “Lady and the Tramp” and “The Lion King.”
The movie also is notable for its African-American characters, including pretty young Tiana, the first black cartoon “Disney princess” in a lineage that includes Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Belle (from “Beauty and the Beast”), Mulan, Pocahontas and Snow White, to name a few.
The animators responsible for the characters in “The Princess and the Frog” say Tiana’s racial identity was a result of the story process rather than the motivating factor of the film.
“It wasn’t a choice of 'Geez, we need to do a movie with an African-American character,’ “ said Randy Haycock, supervising animator for Tiana’s love interest, Prince Naveen, who, like Tiana, is turned into a frog as a result of a royal conspiracy.
“It was, 'Let’s do a film, and set it in Jazz Age New Orleans, so our character will be a working-class girl ... Hey, you know what, that’s a perfect setting and perfect set-up to do an African-American character.’ It’s like when we did 'Mulan,’ nobody was setting around going, 'You know, we need an Asian princess.’ It was, 'Hey, there’s a story out of China that’s really great; we should do it.’ So of course you’re going to have an Asian heroine.”
Bruce W. Smith, one of the African-American artists who worked on “The Princess and the Frog,” agreed. Like Haycock, he was in Denver, doing phone interviews while on a tour to promote the movie.
“With Dr. Facilier, I was thinking along the lines of not his ethnicity but where this character can fit in the long line of fantastic Disney villains,” said Smith, the supervising animator responsible for Facilier, a top-hatted voodoo “Shadow Man” who suggests Geoffrey Holder’s Baron Samedi in the 1973 James Bond film, “Live and Let Die.”
Said Smith: “One of my favorite films is 'Peter Pan,’ and Captain Hook is a fantastic villain, and that was one of the films that brought me into this business. And Cruella De Vil’s a fantastic villain (in '101 Dalmatians’). I just thought, 'Hey, what would it be like if Captain Hook and Cruella kind of merged, and created a love child?’ That would be Dr. Facilier.”
Except for his racially ambiguous coloration, Prince Naveen resembles a typical Disney prince. Haycock said Naveen, prince of the fictional kingdom of Maldonia, was intended to be “exotic. I looked at actors and models from a lot of different countries, from South America, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, India -- I’m a Colorado boy, so for me, that’s what 'exotic’ means. So he became kind of a multicultural amalgamation of all these different cultures and areas of the world. And the nice thing about that is it fits into the New Orleans theme, because New Orleans is basically a character in our film, and if New Orleans is anything, it’s multicultural.”
Two of nine supervising animators on “The Princess and the Frog,” Haycock and Smith are longtime veterans of such Disney cartoon features as “Tarzan,” “Hercules” and “The Emperor’s New Groove.”
As supervising animators, they are responsible for their specific characters, drawing many of the thousands of images needed to bring the character to life for only a few minutes of screen time. The characters originally are developed by “character designers,” who work out the overall style of the film; the supervising animators may modify the designs to fit their own artistic sensibility.
“If this were an automobile line,” Smith said, “the character designer creates kind of like the prototype model, and then the animator’s the one who actually creates the model that’s going to be driving on the road.”
Smith and Haycock said they worked on “The Princess and the Frog” for about three years, meaning that the movie was completed relatively swiftly, for an animated feature.
“As animators, our task is to take these characters and create a performance,” Smith said. “We’re the actors, along with the voice talent, and we have to move the audience, whether to laugh or be scared or feel some other emotion.”
He said the artists who worked on “The Princess and the Frog” are proud to be able to reintroduce audiences to the type of “Disney princess” that hasn’t been seen onscreen since “Mulan” in 1998. That’s when Disney -- responding to the freshness of Pixar’s approach to animation -- shifted the focus of its traditional fairy-tale-and-literature-inspired animation program to such original but not always popular efforts as “Atlantis: The Lost Empire,” “Lilo & Stitch,” “Treasure Planet” and “Brother Bear.”
“When Pixar was purchased by Disney and (Pixar honcho and 'Toy Story’ creator) John Lasseter was put in place as the creative head of the animation division, we all rejoiced, because his roots were in traditional animation,” Smith said.
“And he wanted to go back to that style. He felt like we should be making those classics like 'Cinderella’ and 'Sleeping Beauty.’ “
Said Haycock: “Twenty years ago, 'The Little Mermaid’ was the first fairy tale Disney had done since 'Sleeping Beauty,’ which was 30 years before that, and they said, 'We need to do one of those classic Disney films, but give it a fresh take.’ So now, we wanted to keep the spirit of those films, without it feeling like a retread. So you’ve got a leading lady who’s not pining away for a prince but has got real solid goals -- a good role model for any child, woman or man.”