Reborn on the bayou
The Princess and the Frog, animated fairy tale, rated G, Regal Stadium 14, 3 chiles
IWith this holiday season’s release of The Princess and the Frog, the hit-making Pixar animation wing of The Walt Disney Company takes the bench, allowing The Mouse House’s underused stable of traditional animators to strut their stuff on the big screen for the first time since 2004’s Home on the Range.
The biggest prize the movie delivers is proof that, since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the empire that Mickey built has not completely abandoned its roots, which lay in musically rich storytelling paired with the magic of hand-drawn animation.
The film’s directors and co-writers, who include Ron Clements and John Musker ( The Little Mermaid, Aladdin), re-imagine E.D. Baker’s novel The Frog Princess, which was inspired by the Grimm brothers’ fairy tale “The Frog Prince.” The film opens in 1912 New Orleans, where Tiana (voiced by Elizabeth Dampier) is a little girl who, along with her playmate Charlotte La Bouff (Breanna Brooks), is of the age when boys are gross but fairy tales can come true. Tiana’s mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), a black seamstress for the politically engaged, upper-class, white La Bouff family, reads “The Frog Prince” to the two girls in Charlotte’s fancy bedroom. Charlotte dreams of
finding a prince, but Tiana’s ambitions are a bit more practical. She wants to open a swanky restaurant with her father, James (Terrence Howard), who constantly reminds her that wishing on a star will only get her halfway to her dreams. The rest of the journey, he tells Tiana, requires hard work.
And, as the story jumps ahead about 10 years, work and work she does, toiling as a waitress at multiple diners in booming, jazz-age New Orleans. Her father has died— a casualty ofWorldWar I. But Tiana (now voiced by Tony-winning actress Anika Noni Rose), stashes her hard-earned tips away, determined to realize her father’s dream of opening a restaurant. Eudora just wants her to find true love and start a family of her own. But onward Tiana forges, convinced that the restaurant is all she needs to make her life complete.
When a strapping, jazz-loving young prince named Naveen of Maldonia ( Nip/Tuck’s Bruno Campos) arrives in New Orleans with his uptight British valet, Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), the plot thickens in true Disney fashion. Given the choice by his royal parents to either marry into a wealthy family or get a real job, Naveen arrives in the Crescent City not caring which direction the winds of his fortune blow. As a houseguest of the La Bouff family, finding a rich bride seems easy as a summer breeze. But after an encounter with a conniving voodoo practitioner named Doctor Facilier (aka The Shadow Man, voiced by Keith David), Naveen is turned into a frog.
After a deal to open her restaurant goes sour, Tiana desperately wishes upon a star. When Naveen— now green, small, and covered in mucus — suddenly appears, she kisses him, hoping a rich prince will materialize to solve her money problems. Instead, she, too, becomes a frog. The two set off to make things right again, braving swamps, bayous, and cobbled city streets with a cast of characters that only Disney can deliver with such grace and imagination.
There’s Mama Odie ( Jenifer Lewis), a toothless, swamp-dwelling voodoo priestess who teaches the newly amphibious Naveen and Tiana the difference between what you want and what you need to be happy. And there’s Louis (Michael-LeonWooley), a goofy, cross-eyed crocodile who is short on wits, plays a mean jazz trumpet, and never abandons a friend in distress. And standing in for Jiminy Cricket in what I consider the showstealing performance here is Ray ( Jim Cummings), a daft Creole firefly pining for the affections of what he thinks is another firefly.
Remember: this is Disney, the existentialist doomsayer’s version of fingernails on a chalkboard. You don’t need a crystal ball to know that a happily-ever-after is in the blueprint. But like all great hand-drawn Disney films, the destination in The Princess and the Frog is less important than the journey taken to get there. Unfortunately, the story’s most endearing characters lollygag a bit too long in the swamp and at the La Bouff mansion. Because of it, the exciting lead-up to the big finish feels more than a little hurried. The Princess and the Frog’s major flaw is its tendency to dawdle between song-and-dance numbers when it should be keeping its audience more engaged.
A score by Disney-Pixar mainstay Randy Newman (with a little help from Dr. John) brings just enough Dixieland jazz, blues, gospel, and zydeco to add a N’awlins flavor. And from Mardi Gras parades (G-rated ones) to murky swamps, the film’s color palette tells the tale just as well as its richly drawn and voiced characters do.
On the subject of color: touted as the first animated Disney film to feature an African American princess, The Princess and the Frog barely touches on the racial segregation of real world, jazz-age New Orleans. Some will argue that sidelining the country’s Jim Crow past is a bad idea and amounts to revisionist history packaged neatly for kids. Others may feel that having a strong-willed black heroine move through a narrative without worrying about the color of her skin or bending to gender or ethnic stereotypes is a refreshing change of pace for Disney.
Regarding this issue, I defer to the little girl who sat next to me in the theater. When the lights went up, I asked her how she liked the movie and who her favorite character was. She put her hands on her hips and exclaimed, “I don’t care who you are or what you look like. Kissing a frog is just icky! Mooommmm! I wanna play the trumpet!”
A kiss isn’t just a kiss: characters voiced by Bruno Campos and Anika Noni Rose