By Mike Scott
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker were almost at the finish line. After three years of creative labor, they were finally putting the finishing touches on Disney’s New Orleans-set animated fairy tale, “The Princess and the Frog.”
That’s when they noticed it. Something felt wrong.
Announced in early 2006, the project was being closely watched for all sorts of reasons. First, it would mark the venerable animation studio’s return to traditional hand-drawn, 2-D animation. More significantly, it would also introduce the world to Disney’s first African-American princess. And then there was the real-life setting – New Orleans — instead of some make-believe fairy-tale land.
While reviewing a key scene late in the film, however, Musker and Clements, the directing team behind such latter-day Disney classics as “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” noticed a problem with one of the buildings in the movie.
It wasn’t just any building, either: It was St. Louis Cathedral, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks.
The scene in question is part of the film’s third-act climax, as the characters race breathlessly to the church. The animators had gotten the black-and-white checkerboard floor of the cathedral right, and they had the soaring spires correct. But the face of the clock on the cathedral’s facade …
“(This was) not long ago. We were finishing up the film,” Musker said, “and there were shots of St. Louis Cathedral, and the clock face is literally sort of ticking along.
“And so the Roman numerals on the clock — we looked and somebody realized, ‘Oh, no! We wrote the four on the clock as four straight lines! … It’s ‘IV’ in Roman numerals, not four lines. We got it wrong.’ We’re almost done with the movie — ‘No, no! We’ve got to change it!’
“And we went back, we looked at the pictures of St. Louis Cathedral — and it’s four lines. It does not have ‘IV.’ So we kept it the way it is — four lines.”
False alarm or not, their wide-eyed dread at the possibility of getting such a seemingly small thing wrong — and their commitment to fixing it if it had been — signifies how deeply Disney’s creative types wanted to get the details right. That’s partly a product of pride in their work. Just as much, however, it was born of a feeling of responsibility to the people who live here.
“I really stressed for the filmmakers, and everybody working on it, ‘Get the details right,’ even though it is a fairy tale and you can take creative license,” said Disney animation chief and “Princess and the Frog” executive director John Lasseter, who, as an avowed fan of New Orleans, came up with the idea of setting the film here.
“I always get upset when I know a subject in a film and I see how filmmakers are just sort of like, ‘Oh, it’s creative license,’ and they don’t do their research. I believe in research and trying to get the details right, from the accents to the architecture to everything.”
Animator’s dream come true
Set largely in the French Quarter of the 1920s, as well as deep in Louisiana swamps, “The Princess and the Frog” is a twist on the classic “Frog Prince” tale, telling the story of a New Orleans girl who, hoping to reverse a voodoo curse, kisses a prince who has been turned into a frog.
The only problem: She’s not a real princess. So, instead of turning him back into a prince, this particular voodoo curse transforms her into a frog as well, sending them off on an adventure through the swamps in search of a way to return them both to human form.
Given the filmmakers’ dedication to accuracy, one of the first orders of business for Musker and Clements was to pack their bags for New Orleans.
Neither had visited the city before, but they would return a number of times, with many of their animators and other crew members in tow, to take pictures of the city, to record the sounds, to sketch the scenery — to drink it all in.
And drink it in they did. They rode in the Krewe of Bacchus parade, which gave them a frame of reference as they animated a Mardi Gras sequence in the film. “We got to experience what it was like to be a rock star for 30 seconds at a time,” Musker said, describing the float-riding experience. “Because you’re throwing the beads, (and) everybody is, of course, yelling, they’re desperate — ‘Throw me some beads, mister!’ — then, as soon as you get a little out of range, they’ve forgotten you and moved on to the next one.”
They hitched a ride on the riverboat Natchez, which offered inspiration for scenes set aboard a similar river-going vessel. They attended the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which helped them get a feel for the rhythms of the city. They were treated to a private tour aboard a St. Charles Avenue streetcar, which also worked its way into the film. That last bit was a particular pleasure for railroad fanatic Lasseter, who, in recalling the streetcar tour, gushed, “He let me ring the bell!”
Doing their homework
All along the way, they encountered myriad small things that help give the city — and their movie — its unique flavor.
“I was adamant that they get the ring of your streetcars correct,” Lasseter said. “Because I’m a big train nut and I love the streetcars here. It’s one of my favorite railroads in the world … and the way that the bell sounds is so unique. They recorded it, you hear it in there (in the movie). It’s right.”
The film is steeped in such New Orleans details. The name of the newspaper read by the characters is correct: The Times-Picayune. The look of the buildings is spot-on. The music — written by Randy Newman, who spent much of his childhood here, and performed by several New Orleans artists — is pitch-perfect, running the gamut of local musical styles, from jazz to gospel to zydeco.
The filmmakers also spent a lot of time consulting with local experts on New Orleans culture. Restaurateur Leah Chase shared her views on the importance of food to the city. Storyteller Colleen Salley also served as a vital resource. Both women receive acknowledgement in the film’s closing credits, which express “gratitude to two extraordinary women whose strength, wit, and character embody the spirit of New Orleans.”
And since “The Princess and the Frog” is set in a real bricks-and-mortar place, animators were able to tap into a wealth of historical items such as videos, historical photographs and documents for inspiration.
“One of our researchers found some great newsreel footage of New Orleans from 1919,” Musker said. “It was black and white, and it’s really amazing. (Art director) Ian Gooding and various people who designed the backdrops got a chance to look at that.”
Bending things a bit
Then there’s the case of the inaccuracies they chose to make. Lasseter and Musker, for example, admitted to taking license with regard to the route of their Mardi Gras parade, which they sent through the French Quarter for aesthetic reasons. “We wanted there to be wrought iron when they watch it,” Musker said.
They also substituted the sound of the bells of St. Louis Cathedral with their own bells. “We did cheat the bong on the bell,” Musker said. “If you know the ring of St. Louis Cathedral, don’t be offended, but the one we used, we changed it just a bit.”
Perhaps most noticeably, Musker pointed out that in a beautifully rendered skyline shot of the city that makes up one of the film’s last images, the Mississippi River — as clear as Lake Pontchartrain — actually winds behind St. Louis Cathedral. “We wanted to show the whole city and the river at the same time,” he said. “So there’s a shot that couldn’t quite exist. We cheated geography a little bit.”
As they see it, however, such “cheats” are acceptable as long as the spirit of the city is reflected accurately and its culture is treated with respect.
“Obviously, this isn’t meant to be a historical document,” Musker said. “We’re really telling this sort of fairy tale, so while we’re drawing on real events and places, it’s all in the context of this fictional story.”
Said Lasseter: “We did send our artists here on many, many trips, because we wanted to get the details right. We wanted to get the feeling for the world to see because the Disney films, they’re dubbed into 38 different languages. Your city will be seen all over this world by millions and millions of people, families, and we wanted to portray your city right.”
He would later add: “We apologize for the known exceptions to our dedication to authenticity. It’s meant to be a love letter.”
This story was originally published in December 2009 by NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune.