Ten years ago today, The Princess and the Frog opened to general theatrical release. At first glance, people saw hand-drawn animation in a computer-animated world, retelling an old fairy tale in the 21st century. As a result, people did (and still do) dismiss the film as out of date without taking a second glance. Which is a shame, because it is a wonderful film that can stand tall among all its modern contemporaries.
For photorealistic detail, state of the art computer animation in 2009 had long surpassed what hand drawn animation could deliver. This has happened before: painters used to focus on realism, but once color photography could handle all the realism we would want, good painters switched focus on applying their art in ways a camera could not. Similarly, good hand drawn animation projects would focus on their strengths. My favorite example in this movie were the dramatic changes in tone and style employed during the Almost There and Friends on the Other Side sequences. There are times when hand-drawn animation is the best tool for the storytelling job.
It also helps that beautiful art is backed by fantastic music. Of course, a film set in a fictional historical New Orleans couldn’t go without music, and this film delivered one of the best soundtracks of any film. Animated or otherwise.
This film was lovingly made by people who appreciated the art of hand drawn animation. From the high level executives who approved the project, to the Disney alum directors who returned to tell great stories, to the individual animators drawing the subtle curves found within every frame. The team had high hopes that Princess and the Frog would herald a new age of Disney animation.
Alas, it was not to be. Audiences remembered the lackluster low-budget animation projects that had come before, too much inertia for a single film to overcome. Still others dismissed it as a plot they’ve already seen, missing out on the unique twists offered by this particular version. And worst of all, getting the word out for this film proved to be impossible: promotional efforts were drowned out by advertising for James Cameron’s mega project Avatar, which would open a week later to herald a new age of 3D cinema. (It didn’t do that, either, but that’s a different topic.)
Disney released one more hand drawn animated feature film two years later with Winnie the Pooh. Both of these films were far more successful than Home on the Range that proceeded them, but still farther short of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin who were credited with building the previous peak of Disney animation. With blockbuster success of the computer-animated Frozen, Disney hand-drawn animation retreated from the big screen except for small appearances like “Mini-Maui” in Moana.
But as long as there are bored creative kids and blank corners in paper notebooks, there will be hand drawn animation. And Disney has no monopoly on the art form: smaller projects alive and well, delivered via new channels like YouTube. I’d like to believe hand-drawn animation is only waiting for the right combination of story, artistry, and audience to make its next great return to the big screen.