‘Princess and Frog’ hops gin­gerly in racial swamp

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Movies - By John Bei­fuss

bei­fuss@com­mer­cialap­peal.com

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.

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