After a lengthy hiatus of over 10 years, Disney as returned to the 2D animated musical template that yielded a string of successful hits in the 1990's, such as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King.
Set in jazz-era New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog puts a new spin on an old fable. The princess is not a princess at all, but an industrious young woman named Tiana (Anika Noni-Rose) who works double shifts to save enough money to open her own restaurant. The frog is a philandering but penniless playboy named Prince Naveen (played like an amphibious Peppe le Peu by Bruno Campos), transformed into his froggy state by a slick witchdoctor (the wonderfully low-pitched Kieth David) as part of a ridiculously circuitous plot – involving a lot of head-scratching voodoo – to steal the fortune of a local tycoon. After kissing the frog under the pretense that it should turn him into a prince again, Tiana is mortified to discover that she has been changed into a frog herself. It's not easy being green.
While The Princess and the Frog is indeed a lot of fun, it would be folly to argue that it matches the high watermarks set by its predecessors. One would hope that in returning to the reliable if somewhat tired formula they followed last decade, directors Ron Clements and John Musker (responsible for classics The Little Mermaid and Aladdin) might dispense with some of the common problems of said formula that often mildly blemished their otherwise wonderful films. Alas, all the clichés remain, from the awkward and unsophisticated handling of the love story to the over-reliance on cartoon slapstick to the obligatory (MINI-SPOILER) uhoh-someone's-gonna-die scene. Seriously, how much pathos did they think that firefly funeral was really going to evoke?
There is one cliché they successfully manage to smash. You know the one I'm talking about; the plucky white girl who lives happily ever after. Well, this time it's a plucky black girl. I know! Revolutionary! Okay, okay, I'm being a bit cynical, because the colour of our heroine is not as big a deal as the media would have you believe. Nonetheless, it is something Disney hasn't done before, and I say Clements and Musker “successfully” smash the cliché because their treatment of Tiana is not at all exploitative, and what few references are made to her ethnicity are done with tact and subtlety; the way rich white men address her in a slightly condescending manner, or a simple montage of her riding home on a bus and watching the houses change from fancy estates to low-income suburbs. It helps put her character into context without making race issues the focus of the film (although that hasn't stopped the shameless Disney marketers from making it the focus of the film's publicity). If only Clements and Musker had taken the same approach to the other African-American characters, in whom stereotypes abound.
But don't let anyone turn you off of seeing the movie, for it is quite enjoyable. Randy Newman's song score may not be as sophisticated as would one by, say, Alan Menken, but it will still be a delight to anyone fond of Louisiana jazz. And all of the film's imperfections are worth enduring for one character alone; the hysterical Charlotte La Bouff, poor little rich girl and would-be suitor to Prince Naveen. Charlotte is perfectly written, perfectly animated, and perfectly performed by Jennifer Cody, who deserves to win this year's Annie Award for voice acting in a cakewalk. Charlotte is the highlight of the movie.
And what about Oscar? Animated Feature seems likely, and consider at least one of Randy Newman's jaunty Original Song contenders a shoe-in. I'd give my personal vote to “Friends on the Other Side”, a catchy and sinister number sung by the villainous witchdoctor, but the smart money's on “Down in New Orleans”, also a worthy nominee.
**1/2 out of ****