Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog
The Charlotte Observer
The skins are brown, the visual palette holds all the colors of a rainbow, the songs are beige (Randy Newman's perennial hue), and the box-office forecast is a rich green. That's the capsule review for “The Princess and the Frog,” which gloriously confirms John Lasseter's belief that Disney must keep producing two-dimensional animation.
Lasseter was supervising the Disney-Pixar merger when he came to Charlotte for the world premiere of “Cars” three years ago, and he promised that the new animation superpower would do both 2-D and 3-D features.
He'd already assigned “Princess” to writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who did the last two Disney masterpieces in 2-D (“The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”) and the costly flop that made Disney execs think about dumping 2-D forever (“Treasure Planet” in 2002).
“Princess” isn't quite on the exalted level of “Mermaid.” But it's reason to cheer for fans of old-fashioned animation and for African-Americans, who get a Disney heroine of their own. (Jasmine, the sultan's daughter in “Aladdin,” was brown-skinned but not the kind of character Disney markets in toy stores as a Princess with a capital P.)
Tiana is born about 1900 in New Orleans, surrounded by jazz and love and genteel poverty. She starts life with two parents, a Disney rarity (Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey); Dad predictably dies offscreen, leaving her with the dream of opening a Cajun restaurant. Grown-up Tiana (the terrific Anika Noni Rose) labors at two waitressing jobs and thinks her break has come when heiress Charlotte La Bouff, a childhood friend, pays her beaucoup dollars to make beignets for a huge Mardi Gras party.
Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) has her eye on playboy Naveen (Bruno Campos), the prince of Maldonia and the Jazz Age toast of New Orleans. Little does she know that he's broke, seeking a rich bride and about to be turned into a frog by voodoo magician Facilier (Keith David), who plans to substitute Naveen's valet at the altar and siphon off the La Bouff family fortune. When Tiana also becomes an amphibian, she and Naveen connect romantically.
As usual, the story brims with animal sidekicks, from a trumpet-playing gator (Michael-Leon Wooley) to a firefly with a bayou accent (Jim Cummings). A blind swamp witch (Jenifer Lewis) enters the picture to remind the not-yet-happy couple that they may get what they need, rather than what they desire. That's one of the messages of this movie, along with Tiana's declaration, “It serves me right for wishing on stars. The only way to get anywhere in this world is hard work.”
Clements and Musker, who wrote the script with Rob Edwards, have been careful to adhere to the Disney template while varying it in important ways. A significant, lovable character dies. The story firmly targets girls of middle-school age and under, instead of trying to engage youngsters and adults: Except for one reference to “A Streetcar Named Desire,” I don't recall anything that would go over the heads of young people.
Folks have criticized Disney for failing to give Tiana a black boyfriend. But how could they, when the story needs a literal prince – a Middle Easterner, apparently – in order to follow the fairy tale's rules? No African prince would have been welcomed so publicly in New Orleans of the 1920s, and the filmmakers do make the racial divide in the Crescent City clear.
Blacks can join a prosperous middle class, yet segregation is in force. When Tiana tries to open a ritzy restaurant on the river, she's patronized and cheated by white real estate agents. Baby Tiana plays with baby Charlotte, because Tiana's mom sews for Charlotte's dad. But as the girls grow up, the gap between them widens inevitably.
Two things keep the film off Disney's top shelf. First, Naveen is a dull hero; his good-natured vanity isn't engaging until late in the story. Second, Newman's songs are less bland than usual but no more memorable; zydeco and jazz influences spice them up, but Tabasco sauce alone can't transform a pale shrimp cocktail into crawfish étouffée.
Yet those aren't serious problems for a movie that will draw in a new crop of young black filmgoers and draw back devotees of 2-D, who have mostly been forgotten as Hollywood obsesses over hot technology. Few films can simultaneously celebrate the future and the past of animation, but this one does.