I like Randy Newman. His interviews are usually laced with biting wit and sarcasm, and he doesn’t seem to take Hollywood too seriously, which is refreshing. And that’s not to mention his prodigious talents as a songwriter and film composer. But I’m not a fan of his bland and rambling animation scores. (His jazzy MONSTERS, INC. is an exception.)
Still, I had high hopes for his score for Disney’s THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Set in New Orleans, the film takes a modern twist on a classic tale, with a beautiful girl, a frog prince who desperately wants to be human again, and a fateful kiss that leads them both on an adventure through the Louisiana bayous.
Given his songwriting style, Newman was the perfect choice for the film. And with the return to traditional hand-drawn animation and musical format of the earlier Alan Menken musicals, I thought Newman might finally have the chance to compose a classic animated score.
Newman’s Cajun-flavored score incorporates everything from blues and Dixieland to zydecko and gospel, especially in the songs. And perhaps that’s part of the problem. With so many various styles, the score becomes big pot of jambalaya. The ingredients are all there, but it’s just not spicy enough.
The seven songs, though unmemorable, come off the best. The situations are pluggable into any past Disney film, including the heroine’s plucky “I want that” song (“Almost There”), the villain’s big number (“Friends on the Other Side”), and big production numbers (“Dig a Little Deeper”). However, Newman and co-orchestrator Jonathan Sacks have added some clever orchestrations, particularly the Dixieland “When We’re Human” and the accordion and violin-flavored “Gonna Take You There.”
The Princess and the Frog – Gonna Take You There
Click Track: Gonna Take You There
I also admired the vocal performances. Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose (Caroline, or Change), Dr. John, Keith David, Jim Cumings, and Jenifer Lewis all contribute lively performances and almost convince you the songs are better than they are. New Orleans native Terence Blanchard adds some down-home authenticity on trumpet.
The background score is where the score really falls flat. It sounds like nearly every other Newman animated score, veering from textbook animation Mickey Mousing to standard-issue Disney scoring techniques using the song melodies. And without the vocal performances and the orchestrations, the forgettable tunes rarely add much. There is a tinge of country and western and hillbilly in the underscoring, but it could have used a bit more of the songs’ lively orchestrations. As it stands, the CD feels divided into two completely different scores, neither of which is strong enough to stand on its own, much less add up to more than the sum of its parts.
The Princess and the Frog – Ray/Mama Odie
Click Track: Ray/Mama Odie
Be prepared to skip over the first track–Ne-Yo’s execrable pop song “Never Knew I Needed.” With its placement at the beginning of the CD, it put a sour taste in my mouth right away. It’s poorly written, over-produced pop drivel (that wasn’t penned by Newman, thank God) that has no place on the CD. Yet another example of Disney marketing madness.
The CD is well-produced, as to be expected, and both the songs and the background score convey the proper locale of the story. If they function better in the film, that’s all that really matters. It’s probably unfair of me to compare the score to Alan Menken’s work in the genre, but since the film follows the Menken model so rigidly, I can’t help but find Newman’s score lacking in comparison. I would probably rate the CD even lower because of my personal disappointment, but I won’t because of the quality that is inherent in Newman’s work.
Newman’s score is by no means a frog. But without that indefinable Disney magic that Menken brought to earlier films of this kind, it’s no princess either.