CD Review: The Princess and The Frog – Original Soundtrack

By • December 7, 2009

Composer: Randy Newman
Label: Walt Disney
Suggested Retail Price: $13.99
Grade: B+

If your toon’s traveling down to New Orleans, there’s no composer you’d want more as your Dixie-playing wingman than Randy Newman. As the elder scion of film scoring’s first family, Newman’s birthplace in The Big Easy has given a subtle, and sometimes wonderfully blaring bayou swing to such soundtracks as THE PAPER and LEATHERHEADS, let alone songs like “Louisiana 1927” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On.”

It’s a brassy, down-home feel that gives vibrant life to Disney’s thankful return to traditional animation with THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, which marks Newman’s fifth teaming with the studio after Pixar’s two TOY STORY’s, A BUG’S LIFE, MONSTERS, INC. and CARS. And while this new lollapalooza might not exactly hit the classic high notes of such Newman tunes as “You’ve Got A Friend in Me” and “When She Loved Me,” probably none of Randy’s Walt efforts have the kind of free-wheeling, just-for-fun exuberance of THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, a soundtrack filled with the feeling of a jolly guy who’s cinematically back where it all started, let alone for a feature art form that Pixar unintentionally drove into the 2-D seas.

From his songs to his scoring, Newman has definitely inherited the gene for feel-good symphonic sweetness that his nephews Alfred and Lionel excelled in during the golden Hollywood days. It’s a vibrancy for lush strings and thematic lyricism that makes you feel like a little kid living in a bygone jazz-age era- a sound heard most beautifully in Newman’s work for RAGTIME, THE NATURAL, AVALON and PLEASANTVILLE. This melodic innocence is in high, enjoyable gear for PRINCESS, its song path following the Disney playbook of a heroine who’s just gotta make her dreams happen- a road that ultimately leads to a transformative finish. Thankfully, Tiana is far happier than Belle in her hometown, a 1920’s era New Orleans where “dreams do come true” according to the wonderful southern-fried voice of Dr. John, who’s backed by Newman’s Dixieland orchestrations. Then it’s time for voice actress (and equally impressive singer) Anika Noni Rose to step up to the plate with “Almost There.” This number could be PRINCESS’ Oscar-garnering highlight, as the animation switches to art deco style, with Newman’s jazz-age swing nailing the character’s virtues of hard work, yet with a bittersweet edge that’s typical for the composer.

It doesn’t take long before a soon-amphibian’d Tiana is singing down the bayou with her frog prince, who’s joined by a cavalcade of jazz loving alligators and fireflies. It’s these seemingly near-constant animal/insect numbers that make PRINCESS particularly recall that other swinging Disney fable THE JUNGLE BOOK, no more so than in the Louis Armstong loving gator Louis, who blows his horn for “When We’re Human” in the baritone voice of Michael Leon-Wooley. Jim Cummings adds Zydeco charm to “Gonna Take You There,” a neat combo of Americana orchestration, swamp fiddle and Terrance Simien’s accordion playing. The mood’s are a bit more reflective in “Ma Belle Evangeline” as Cummings’ firefly Ray sings of his impossible love for a wishing star, its nicely wistful ode, backed by Terence Blanchard’s trumpet. With songs that continue to hit every New Orleans style, Newman goes to inspirational gospel with Jenifer Lewis and choir belting out “Dig A Little Deeper” before finally making it back with a reprise of “Down Home In New Orleans.” Except this time it’s Tiana who’s the joyful extoller of the town’s virtues, a nice bit of full-circle tune storytelling if there was one.

But if there’s a devilish pleasure to THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG’s songs, it’s the Keith David-topped “Friends on the Other Side.” Besides being the formidable bruiser of THEY LIVE, David’s likely to go down to voice acclaim this year for his non-singing role as the potentially sinister cat in CORALINE, and now FROG’s full-evil Dr. Facilier. This show-stealing, slick voodoo man ascends to classic Disney villainhood with “Friends on the Other Side,” his soul-stealing enticement backed by a playfully sinister chorus, funeral brass and stop-and-start melodies that play the character like some twisted version of Sportin’ Life in PORGY AND BESS. It’s a tune that’s a devilishly fun match for Danny Elfman’s “Oogie Boogie’s Song” in A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, let alone when Alan Menken had Ursula belt out “Poor Unfortunate Souls” for THE LITTLE MERMAID.

With all of its finger-snapping numbers (including Ne-Yo’s Disney pop number Never Knew I Needed”), Randy Newman’s score fans will be happy to hear that PRINCESS’ album offers a generous 30 + minutes of instrumental cues. They’re very much of a pleasant piece with his other Walt work, nicely incorporating PRINCESS’ song melodies throughout. And a Cajun juke-hall’s worth of instruments and styles pour on the atmospheric gumbo (with even a tango thrown in), giving PRINCESS a beautifully nostalgic sense of time and place for New Orleans- one unintentionally even more poignant given that the film’s beautiful animation is dealing with a dreamland that the elements largely wiped away). But make no mistake that this is definitely a kid-friendly picture, and Newman’s more antic hoedown music revels in its ability to make the little ones laugh by sometimes hitting ten jokes for every fifteen seconds (a talent shared by Randy’s cousin David), an approach that’s of the classic Carl Stalling toon variety. Yet there’s real majesty to Newman’s score as well, with the composer doing the classic Disney final transform with the best of them.

As a fun coast down the composer’s favorite Bayou with all the Disney road stops to hit, Randy Newman’s THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG is one hoppingly tuneful fairy tale from start to finish. It’s all about the warmth of returning to one’s roots, with the added passion of creating music that will help sock old-school animation back into popularity. But as so many of the studio’s films he’s scored have shown, dreams do come true, no more so than in their scores.

Ribbit with Randy here

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