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Tiana, the leading lady of "The Princess and the Frog," is different from most other Disney princesses.
Compared with Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, "she doesn't sleep much at all, she's just working too hard to sleep," co-director Ron Clements said in an interview this week.
"She's sort of a modern princess," agreed co-director John Musker, who has partnered with Clements on films such as "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin." "She has a career. ... She has these goals that don't involve just setting her sights on a man."
Tiana also is African American, a first for Disney.
Disney's classic princess characters -- Snow White, Cinderella, sleeping Aurora, Ariel and Belle -- are white girls. The last three princesses, though, have expanded ethnic boundaries: "Aladdin's" Jasmine (1992) is Arabic, Pocahontas (1995) is American Indian and Mulan (1998) is Chinese.
While making "The Princess and the Frog," Musker said the filmmakers learned that "there was this big wellspring of emotion in the African-American community, of women who are now mothers, who grew up loving Disney films -- and yet always had this feeling they could somehow see their own color reflecting back at them from the screen."
"The Princess and the Frog" centers on Tiana, a young woman in 1920s New Orleans, working double shifts as a waitress and saving her tips to create her dream restaurant. That dream gets sidetracked when she meets Prince Naveen, a vain party boy who -- because of an ill-advised bargain with a voodoo practitioner -- has been transformed into a frog.
The movie is a return to Disney's roots. It is the studio's first movie in five years made with its trademark hand-drawn animation. With so much attention paid to computer animation, Clements said, "Disney animation, in some people's minds, had been pronounced dead in hand-drawn animation."
Credit the revival to John Lasseter, director of the computer-animated "Toy Story" and the head honcho at Pixar. Lasseter, who was once fired as a Disney animator, revitalized the hand-drawn tradition when he became chief creative officer of Disney and Pixar's animation studios in 2006.
"For the first time in my career," said Randy Haycock, an 18-year Disney veteran (and Brigham Young University alumnus) who was supervising animator on the Prince Naveen character, "I felt like we were being led by somebody who not only understood animation and was passionate about it, but knew what audiences believed in."
The break between hand-drawn projects (Disney's last one was "Home on the Range" in 2004) worried the animators.
"Will I remember all the techniques that I learned as an animator? Or will I have to relearn all this stuff?" Haycock, who had worked on Disney's computer-animated films (like "Meet the Robinsons") asked himself at the time. "But it was kind of like riding a bike. ... There is a certain muscle memory to it."
"What [the break] allowed us to do is create a fresh approach to it," said Bruce Smith, who was supervising animator on the movie's villain, the voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier. "Every piece of formula that you felt you held onto, now was the time to throw that by the wayside."
When Lasseter took over at Disney's animation studios, Disney and Pixar had been developing versions of the "frog prince" story. Clements and Musker pulled together elements of both projects to create a new version.
"It took place in New Orleans in the 1920s, it featured an African-American heroine, it was a musical and we pitched the idea of Randy Newman doing the music, and we pitched it as a hand-drawn film," Clements said. "[Lasseter] said yes to all those things and was really excited about it."
"New Orleans is a character in this movie," Smith said.
Smith, along with many in the production crew, toured New Orleans to "really familiarize myself with the streets that Dr. Facilier would be walking down," Smith said. "I got to see where his lair would be."
In early screenings of the film, little girls have already accepted Tiana into the Disney princess club.
"The little girls are all wearing their little princess dresses, and many are dressed as Tiana -- and many different types of girls are dressed as Tiana. They're very much looking up to her," Clements said. "That's very emotional and moving, and kind of fun to see."
Randy Haycock, the supervising animator for the Prince Naveen character in Disney's "The Princess and the Frog," knew he wanted to make cartoons when he entered Brigham Young University in 1986.
But back then, "animation wasn't a viable career," he said. So the Colorado native enrolled at BYU as a film student.
After a while, he said, "I switched over to illustration, because I missed drawing."
In 1989, "about the time 'The Little Mermaid' came out, and I knew it was time for me to get into animation," Haycock left BYU. He transferred to the California Institute for the Arts, known as CalArts, in Valencia, Calif. It has been the training ground for many of the best Disney animators.
Haycock has worked at Disney for 18 years, including jobs as a supervising animator for characters in "Hercules," "Tarzan," "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" and "Treasure Planet." When Disney moved into computer animation, Haycock went along, animating for "Chicken Little" and "Meet the Robinsons."
Animating Naveen, a party-boy prince who is turned into a frog, was a two-part challenge: making a handsome prince and transferring those good looks to a frog's face and body.
"[The animators are] a bunch of guys trying to figure out what women will think is a handsome guy," Haycock said.
He took sketches of Naveen home to his teen daughter, Riley, and asked, "Which one of these guys would you go out on a date with?"
"You can thank my daughter Riley for his Jonas Brothers eyebrows."
-- Sean P. Means