The Princess and the Frog
There are a wealth of reasons to be excited about The Princess and the Frog. The hand-drawn animation and jazzy, Broadway-inspired musical numbers hearken back to Disney's golden ages in both the 1950s and the 1990s. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) is Disney's first African-American heroine. The film celebrates the Jazz Age in one of America's most romantic cities. And the film deliciously skewers Disney's princess machine—though of course without killing that cash cow altogether.
As a little girl growing up in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Tiana shared her father's dream of opening a restaurant in an old mill. Tiana has mastered her father's gumbo recipe and internalized his ethic of hard work. Her father's death only makes her dream stronger, and now she holds down two waitressing jobs, saving up to buy that mill.
Though music and food hold tremendous sway over New Orleans, it's voodoo that reigns supreme. Dr. Facilier, aka Shadowman (voiced by Keith David), has "friends on the other side" who have promised him wealth and power if he'll only deliver them souls. He seizes upon visiting Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruce Campos), turning a tarot card reading into a black magic kidnapping. Shadowman turns Prince Naveen into a frog to get him out of the way so that Shadowman can kick his plan into high gear.
Prince Naveen escapes Shadowman and stumbles across Tiana, dressed as a princess for her wealthy white friend Lottie's (voiced by Jennifer Cody) masquerade ball. He manages to persuade Tiana to kiss him by promising to help her get her restaurant—but instead of breaking the spell, Tiana herself is transformed into a frog. Joined by a lightning bug and an alligator, they make their way deep into the bayou to solicit help from wizened Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), as Shadowman draws his web ever tighter.
The animation is simply breathtaking in its beauty and technical excellence. The movie opens with a series of tableaux of dusk in New Orleans, with soft electric light spilling out into the darkening streets. The artwork puts to shame the shoddy work that passes for animation on most DVDs for children, and reminds that the hand can do things that computers can't.
In true Disney fashion, the animators allow themselves to take some risks with style, not limiting themselves to the strictly representational. Early in the film, Tiana has a number called "Almost There" where she gives voice to her restaurant dream. As she and her mother dance through the dusty, dirty, cluttered old mill, the room transforms into an Art Deco vision of African-American Jazz Age opulence. The expressionistic style is completely different from that used in the rest of the film, yet it works so well as an expression of Tiana's hopes and longings, and the execution is so marvelous that it seemed to be over far too quickly.
The music is inspiring and uplifting, if not as daring as it might have been. One wishes that Disney hadn't turned to Randy Newman here. He's a topnotch songwriter, but apart from a few embellishments thanks to legendary trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the songs themselves could have been pulled from any other Disney or Pixar film. None of the songs are catchy enough to stick on first listen, nor are they edgy enough to demand repeat listens. This was a missed opportunity to showcase the musical riches of America's past.