‘Princess and Frog’ hops gingerly in racial swamp
Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” is a musical “warts and all” love story that curiously lacks bounce.
The studio’s ballyhooed return to hand-drawn animation is the first to feature an African-American “princess,” but hold your applause: The heroine, a Jazz Age New Orleans working-class girl named Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), spends most of the movie inside the emerald skin of a bayou amphibian. Say it loud, I’m green and I’m proud: “It’s not slime, it’s mucus,” Tiana asserts during the film’s final act, by which time she’s become resentful of those who shun her batrachian tackiness.
Tiana is accompanied by the similarly hoodooed Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a jazz-loving playboy from a mythical exotic kingdom who, in his pre-frog human form, resembles every other blandy handsome European Disney prince except for his ethnically indeterminate dusky pallor and his desire to jam with a horn-blowing Satchmo-esque comic-relief swamp gator named Louis (Michael Leon-Wooley) on an impromptu cover of “Dippermouth Blues.” Funnier than Louis is a snaggle-toothed Cajun firefly named Raymond (Jim Cummings), who helps guide this crew of ectothermic outcasts on their journey back to the French Quarter, where they hope to force the evil voodoo “Shadow Man,” Dr. Facilier (beautifully voiced by Keith David), into transforming the young people back into human beings, so they can affirm what one character dubs their “warts and all” romance.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, who revived the Disney animation tradition (and the company’s fortunes) when they created “The Little Mermaid” in 1989, “The Princess and the Frog” is an attempt to re-establish the “princess” brand that has been ignored (on the big screen, if not in Disney merchandise) since “Mulan” in 1998. Disney animators will tell you that what’s important about “The Princess and the Frog” is that it’s the studio’s first traditional (i.e., noncomputergenerated) animated film since the almost-forgotten “Home on the Range” in 2004. Trend-chasing journalists and pop-culture commentators, however, are more interested in the novelty of Tiana’s status as an African-American Disney cartoon heroine. (One might ask: What took so long? — Tiana was predated by many, many years by the Asian Mulan, the Native American Pocahontas and the Arabic Jasmine, from “Aladdin.”)
The movie wants to have its king cake and eat it, too. The 1920s New Orleans setting provides a workable “black” environment, yet the story posits a fantasy world in which gumbo waitress Tiana, despite her skin color and social status, can be best friends with spoiled white socialite Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), the daughter of the Mardi Gras king (John Goodman). Even so, the movie doesn’t totally dismiss the idea of racial tension; an early scene finds the young Tiana and her seamstress mother (Oprah Winfrey, whose endorsement means a lot for Disney) riding the trolley from the mansions of the Garden District, where mother works, to a humble African-American ward of shotgun dwellings, where Tiana’s family lives.
Tiana longs to open her own restaurant, but a white real-estate dealer tells her: “You’re better off where you’re at.” Moments later, she’s magically transformed into a frog when she accidentally becomes entangled in a voodoo-enhanced royal plot to steal Naveen’s identity. This is a much more radical metamorphosis than that in, say, “Cinderella,” in which the heroine is the same beautiful girl even when she’s in rags. Is it possible the filmmakers — even if unconsciously — were worried that white adult ticket-buyers were more likely to take their kids to a movie about a frog than to one about a black girl? Or is it simply that cartoon comedy (and frogs are funny) is more popular than cartoon romance these days?
The reason the issue of race sticks out like a webbed thumb in “The Princess and the Frog” is because the film itself doesn’t offer much compelling distraction from the innovation of its “casting.” The movie as a whole is as flat as a slow-hopping toad on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway; the animators seem afraid to cut loose with Tiana and her noble parents, and this timidity carries over to the rest of the film.
Surprisingly, the urban and swamp “set” designs lack depth and surprise, and the musical numbers, penned by the typically reliable Randy Newman, are toothless, rote pastiches of classic Louisiana song types. The story lacks tension and momentum.
The film leaps to life only during several set pieces that enable the animators to stretch or free themselves from the Disney house style. An early musical fantasy number in which Tiana dreams of her own restaurant is created with flat, highly stylized visuals that suggest Jazz Age magazine illustrations. Also memorable are the key scenes with Facilier, in which African masks come to glowing, hellish life and menacing shadows crawl over walls, independent of any source; and a swamp jamboree number in which Jenifer Lewis gives soulful voice to cackling Madame Odie, a 197-year-old witch woman.