Review: The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The newest Disney "animated classic" is The Princess and the Frog, a gorgeous and slight fairy tale based on the "actually classic" fairy tale of the Frog Prince who needs only a kiss from a princess to restore him to his human form.
The broad themes of the original story are "Don't judge a book by its cover" and "Look for hidden treasures others might miss," promising themes for Disney's first film about an African American princess set in a time of widespread racism, and while they're touched upon in many ways, there's a lack of imaginative exploration of them here which is not necessarily troubling, but also not very revelatory or dramatic.
Tiana (voiced by Elizabeth M. Dampier and Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress and a talented chef herself who grows up in New Orleans in the twenties. Her mother (voice of Oprah Winfrey) is a seamstress who sews princess dresses for Charlotte La Bouff (voiced by Breanna Brooks and Jennifer Cody), the daughter of the wealthiest man in town, Big Daddy (voice of John Goodman).
Tiana's father (voice of Terrence Howard) has dreams of being a first-class restaurateur which he transmits to and shares with Tiana from her childhood. After his death, she continues to aspire to own her own restaurant, and works two jobs, saves her tips and tells everybody that this is her goal.
Charlotte's goal is just to marry a prince. So when the swinging Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) of Maldovia (apparently located somewhere around Turkey, India and/or Nepal) arrives for Mardi Gras, Charlotte is hooked. Naveen is irresponsible, free-spending and freewheeling, plays the ukelele and loves jazz, and has come to find his fortune and chase women after getting the boot by the more conservative royals of his clan.
His plans go awry when he's approached for a tarot reading by Facilier (the lovely growling voice of Keith David, who also voiced the black cat from this year's Coraline), a voodoo practitioner with plans of his own for a fortune royalty could attract. This starts all the frog business, as Facilier transforms Naveen's British manservant into a Prince Naveen lookalike to woo Charlotte and Big Daddy's money, and Naveen into the titular frog, who mistakes? Tiana for a princess who can transform him back. Instead, she joins him in amphibianhood, and the race is on to switch themselves back into humans, save Charlotte from a mismarriage and up the bid on the old sugar mill Tiana has set her heart on for the location of her restaurant.
Along the path of their quest, which involves finding Mama Odie, another voodoo expert they believe can help them, they meet up with friends Louis the jazz-playing alligator and Raymond the lovesick Cajun lightning bug (voiced by Jim Cummings, and easily the most entertaining and sympathetic character in the film, despite being practically unintelligible much of the time).
Everything you know about New Orleans even if you've never been is referenced, from The Big Easy to Tennessee Williams, voodoo, Mardi Gras, funeral bands and spooky above-ground graveyards, and especially every culinary delicacy extant, from gumbo and jambalaya to beignets and froglegs. In Kung Fu Panda, a similar tactic was used with the Chinese setting, with exactly one perfect joke or association with the story for each reference. The Princess and the Frog mostly just name-drops; Tiana never even cooks any froglegs, and if that's not a missed opportunity, I don't know what is. Also as in Panda, a different, sleeker style of animation is used for dream sequences and fantasies, and it's gorgeous in Princess, too, but again less well-used to serve the story.
The music (by Randy Newman) and the animation in The Princess and the Frog are top-notch, and the vocal talents on display are exceptional, but the overall execution tends toward a homogeneity which inspired the current linguistic usages "Mickey Mouse" and "Disney-fied," not in the very worst way possible, but there you have it. It's better than Pocahontas, though perhaps without as catchy a hit song, not as good as Mulan. For an animated kid adventure story with teeth, don't miss Fantastic Mr. Fox.
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