by HELEN GEIB
Disney’s new animated feature The Princess and the Frog is a deliberate throwback that invites comparison with classic Disney films and, from the post-Walt era, with The Little Mermaid, with which it shares co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker. The return to the studio’s roots starts with the 2D hand-drawn animation and inspired-by-a-classic-fairy-tale story and continues through the big Broadway musical sensibilities. It’s still a winning formula, and The Princess and the Frog is a charming, funny, tuneful, and gorgeous to look at addition to the Disney canon.
The Princess and the Frog is set in Jazz Age New Orleans, with an excursion into the bayou. The screenplay by Clements, Musker, and Rob Edwards is loosely based on a novel by E.D. Baker that was a take-off on the classic tale of the prince who is turned into a frog by a curse and restored to his human form by a kiss from a princess. The “princess” in this telling is Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), who doesn’t start out as a princess (hence the quotes). She is instead a poor young woman with an exceptional work ethic and a dream: she is working two waitressing jobs to save up to open her own French Quarter restaurant. The prince is Naveen (Bruno Campos), Ruritanian royalty who has come to New Orleans seeking a rich bride after his exasperated parents cut him off for his playboy lifestyle.
The jazz-loving Naveen is soon transformed into a frog by voodoo magician Dr. Facilier (Keith David). He meets Tiana when she’s dressed as a princess for a masquerade ball given by her white childhood playmate Lotte (a superficial scatterbrain but a true friend). Familiar with the old frog prince story, Naveen solicits a kiss. However, instead of turning Naveen back into a man, the kiss turns Tiana into a frog and the misfortunate odd couple embarks on a bayou adventure in search of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), an old voodoo witch who just might hold the key to restoring them to themselves. Along the way they befriend an alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) who longs to play his trumpet with the big boys on the riverboats, are guided by a diehard romantic Cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings), survive an encounter with inbred white swamp hunters (proving some Southern stereotypes are still politically correct), fall in love, and learn to “dig a little deeper”– in the words of wise Mama Odie’s song– to discover what they truly need, not just what they want.
Tiana and Naveen’s relationship is the story’s backbone. They make a great couple. They bring out the best in each other; Tiana is reminded to not allow the pursuit of her dream to blind her to the good in her life and Naveen grows up and into adult responsibilities. They’re also very good company for us in the audience, charming as people and positively adorable as frogs. In fact, nearly everyone in the large cast of characters is really likeable. The notable exception is the scheming Dr. Facilier. In the best Disney tradition, he is thoroughly evil. His villainy gives the movie some added punch– when he calls on demoniacal spirits to dispatch their creepy shadow-minions to pursue the escaped Naveen, it’s enough to scare the littlest ones in the audience. He is brought down by the power of good and his own hubris, and his downfall is intensely satisfying.
Most of the characters are also comical, at least some of the time, and that even includes Dr. Facilier. Tiana and Naveen couldn’t not be funny in frog form, and the story gives them funny friends and puts them in funny situations. There is plenty of visual humor in the animation as well, especially in the exaggerated lines of the character designs, and wonderful touches in the background, like Dr. Facilier’s independent-minded shadow which dances next to him, grins at his victims, and pulls out his chair for him like a maitre d’.
The film is equally successful as a musical. The score and original songs by Randy Newman, who has scored several Pixar films, capture the sounds of New Orleans in jazz, blues, zydeco, and gospel (but especially in jazz). The Broadway influence is particularly evident in a wonderful early number, animated in a distinctive Art Deco inspired style, when Tiana sings of the glamorous Roaring Twenties nightspot she will open someday, while Mama Odie takes the stage for a big modern Disney musical style number. All the voice acting is good, but the best voice in the cast incontrovertibly belongs to Rose, an accomplished Broadway actress and singer; she is wonderful as Tiana. Campos is charming and funny as Naveen, and David nearly steals the show as Dr. Facilier.