Re­born on the bayou

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Rob DeWalt The New Mex­i­can

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

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