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Newman revisiting his roots in new Disney score
on November 25, 2009
The Princess and the Frog is the 49th entry in the official canonical list of Disney animated features. Set in New Orleans at the turn of the century, and loosely based on the classic fairytale The Frog Prince by the Brothers Grimm, it tells the tale of Prince Naveen, who travels to the Big Easy in search of fun and jazz music, but who is cursed by the evil witch doctor Facilier, and turned into a frog. Knowing that only the kiss of a princess will return him to human form, Naveen searches desperately for the traditional cure for his ailment; unfortunately, he mistakes waitress Tiana for royalty and the kiss backfires and turns Tiana into a frog too! Desperate for answers, Naveen and Tiana journey deep into the bayou to search for an ancient voodoo priestess who may be the only one who can help...
The Princess and the Frog is notable for several reasons. Firstly, it is directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who previously helmed The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. Secondly, it has a great voice cast which, in addition to leads Aniki Noni Rose and Bruno Campos also features Oprah Winfrey, Keith David, John Goodman and Jenifer Lewis. Thirdly, it is the first Disney feature to feature a black `Disney princess', finally breaking the Mouse House's last color barrier. But most interesting to score fans is the fact that the music and songs are by Randy Newman, delving into his Louisiana roots for the first time in a long time. Despite having worked extensively with Disney's Pixar affiliate on his such as Monsters Inc., Cars, and the Toy Story series, this is the first time Newman has worked directly for Disney on their animated canon. Also, unlike most composers who work on three or four films a year, this is only Newman's seventh film score since the turn of the millennium, and as such is a rare treat for Newman fans like me.
Anyone familiar with Newman's solo song albums will immediately notice his unmistakable jazz/blues style. It permeates through nine of the ten original songs on Disney's album, and through the score too, giving the album a sense of style and location that roots the music in an appealing, easily identifiable sound. The only exception is the album's main `pop' song, "Never Knew I Needed", performed by R&B artist Ne-Yo. It is by far the weakest and most overly-commercialized of the set, and it is clearly intended to be a separate pop hit, but unfortunately it sits badly with the rest of Newman's work.
Thankfully, the rest of the songs are much better, starting with the jazzy "Down in New Orleans", which makes wonderful use of Dr. John's unmistakable vocals, a groovy set of blues arrangements, and a swaggering attitude that espouses the delights of the city. Aniki Noni Rose's "Almost There" has the upbeat laissez-faire optimism and finger-snapping rhythms of "You Got a Friend in Me" from Toy Story, "When We're Human" is a raucous romp led by singer Michael Leon-Wooley in the guise of a trumpet playing alligator called Louis, and "Gonna Take You There" is a hopping zydeco/cajun hoe-down performed by Jim Cummings as a firefly called Ray. This song, more than any others, will split score fans down the middle in terms of whether you enjoy it or whether it makes you want to leap for the skip button.
Later, Ray's song "Ma Belle Evangeline" is sung by the infatuated lightning bug to a star he thinks is another of his kind, and is clearly modeled on Newman's classic ballad "Marie", while "Dig a Little Deeper" has a praise-the-Lord Gospel feeling that succeeds despite Jenifer Lewis's idiosyncratic vocal performance. My favorite, though, is the dramatic villain's song "Friends on the Other Side", performed with velvety gusto and a showman's misdirection by Keith David as voodoo shaman Doctor Facilier, and comes across as a devilish combination of Oogie Boogie's Song from Danny Elfman's The Nightmare Before Christmas and (oddly) Alan Menken's "Friend Like Me" from Aladdin.
It's also worth noting the multiplicity of orchestral Newmanisms in the songs that will please fans of his work, from the recurring use of solo trumpet lines, to the familiar high register strings and recurring chord progressions, the slightly strained harmonies, and the simultaneous countermelodies in different keys. Famed Louisiana jazz trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard contributes his talents to "When We're Human" and "Ma Belle Evangeline", while Grammy Award-winning accordionist Terrance Simien makes a guest appearance in "Gonna Take You There".
The score - which only runs for just over half an hour - is serviceable, but lacks a truly standout moment of musical brilliance to raise it to the levels of Newman's best works, like Avalon, The Natural or Pleasantville. It retains the same Cajun-jazz-blues-zydeco feeling that ran through the songs, making liberal use of guitars, accordions, harmonicas, fiddles and trumpets alongside a traditional orchestral complement, and as such remains rooted in the musical conventions of the location, but for some reason it never truly breaks free from its own limitations. It may be to do with the style of music, or the constraints of the narrative itself, and didn't bring anything to the table beyond providing the aural accompaniment necessary for the film. The lack of a clearly identifiable main theme may also have worked against the score, for beyond a few statements of the "Almost There" theme or Ray's bittersweet "Evangeline" melody there is very little recurring thematic material with which to connect.
Much of the score given over to simple string lines with gentle harmonies for piano, woodwinds and brass; it's more textural than thematic, subtle rather than stirring, and even a little mickey-mousey, following the antics on screen with musical pratfalls and onomatopoeic references that occasionally make the score feel a little disjointed. The opening pair, "Fairy Tale/Going Home" and "I Know This Story", have a light, whimsical air, and often incorporate a bouncy jazz rhythm section or a restatement of the Evangeline theme in waltz time into the fabric of the cue. "Tiana's Bad Dream" contains the first performance of what could be construed as the score's main theme, a nostalgic melody for horns and strings that is very pretty, and ends with some dramatic writing featuring church organs and a fearsome performance of the Facilier's devilish theme.
Once or twice during the score something unexpected creeps into the mix: "The Frog Hunters" has a wandering solo violin element and some western-style action moments that recall his work on A Bug's Life, while "Gator Down" starts with a rollicking country hoe-down and references to both the Evangeline theme and the Facilier theme, but by the end has broken out into a Spanish tango sequence that is totally unexpected, but nevertheless enjoyable. The finale, "This is Gonna Be Good", has a more satisfying symphonic sweep than any of the other cues, and contains a lovely restatement of the theme first heard in "Tiana's Bad Dream", but is still remarkably understated for the emotional conclusion to a Disney film.
It's not very often that I actually recommend a soundtrack's songs over its score, but Randy Newman is often an exception to a rule, and that is the case here. The songs are so rooted in his personal stylistics and his unique musical quirks that fans of his studio albums will lap them up. The score, on the other hand, is always appropriate but rarely more, and unexpectedly pales in comparison. Newman has always been a composer who takes a slightly more old-fashioned, stripped-down, nostalgic approach to scoring, and this has suited the more intimate dramas in his past; on The Princess and the Frog, however, the songs are so good that I find myself listening to them more than the score, which has to tell you something.