Oh Disney! You invented feature-length animation, revolutionized the children’s film industry, and infected little girls the world over with princess worship. Then Pixar swooped in and taught you how to make stories fancy looking (you skipped the class where they reminded you to also have stories in CG movies), and then you got distracted with Renderman (Chicken Little, Meet The Robinsons) and lost your way. Until now.
Walt Disney Animation Studios is back on form with The Princess and The Frog. I loved it! Wonderful classic story, flawless hand-drawn animation, fun and appropriately arranged music, it’s all there. To every parent of a young girl who has sworn fealty to the galaxy of Disney princesses, this movie turns that nonsense on its head and features the first African-American animated heroine.
That heroine, Tiana, is a hard-working girl in Depression-Era New Orleans with one lifelong dream — to open a restaurant with her daddy. Life intervenes and she grows up single-mindedly focused on that dream. Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose speaks and sings Tiana with grace and power. She is as refreshing as bookworm Belle, as forward thinking as cross-dressing Mulan, and she needs a prince to come save her like a frog needs a banjo.
Enter Prince Naveen (Brazilian Bruno Campos), channeling Antonio Banderas and Gene Kelly as a layabout prince of Maldonia (not Caledonia?) and Dr. Facilier the Shadow Man (Keith David, perfectly cast), and you’ve got a stew going. From the age-old kiss a frog to get a prince story to parables about being careful what one wishes for, The Princess and the Frog knocks over all those romantic fairy tale conventions, yet turns it all into a new classic. It’s all according to Disney formula, but feels different somehow. It pains me to say it, but Randy Newman’s music is great. Nearly everyone gets a song and they may be Cajun or jazzy or showtunesy, but they are all toe-tappin’.
Can you imagine being in New Orleans during the jazz age? There’s a romance about the city and the bayou and the voodoo and the obeah that takes on its own character. Tiana and Naveen come from different worlds and don’t care a fig for the other’s world, and are forced into an exciting adventure in a strange world neither of them have known. The Shadow Man is scary and his shadow minions are extremely cool and scary; I would hesitate to bring a small child to see it. The side characters Louis and Ray, respectively Dreamgirls’ Michael-Leon Wooley and versatile and prolific voice actor Jim Cummings, are hilarious and lovable. The La Bouff father/daughter voiced by John Goodman and Jennifer Cody are affectionate and amusing parodies of the wealthy whites of the era.
As hand-drawn animated features have been more and more scarce, we have become inured to the depth and realism of computer animation. My readers know I love me some Pixar, but hand-drawn, like claymation, has a warmth and charm that cannot be replicated in bytes. Disney has always set the gold standard for hand-drawn, and this film continues their reign. Each sequence is more lovely than the last, from deco dreams to fireflies dancing to voodoo menace. Here and there directors Ron Clements and John Musker insert small, unobtrusive winks to some classic princesses without distracting from Tiana’s triumph as a romantic lead and female role model. This movie is love and food and music and I highly recommend it.
Release date 11/25/09
Time in minutes 95
Director Ron Clements, John Musker
Studio Walt Disney Animation Studios