With the success of CGI Animation, and specifically Pixar in the late ‘90s some feared that Disney’s acquisition of the company would mark the end for classic hand-drawn animation. It almost did as the company announced in 2004 that they would no longer be focusing on making 2D Animated films. However, Disney has now returned to their roots with “The Princess And The Frog,” an ambitious and fairly successful new family film. The hand-drawn musical, the companies first in five years, makes some very clever and well thought out changes to the classic fairy tale story.
The filmmakers chose to set the film in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, which I thought was a great choice. It allowed for fantastic New Orleans Jazz music to be incorporated into the film by the great Randy Newman. It also allowed for a lot of fun and a new sense of life. They also decided to have the film feature a multi-cultural cast and Disney’s first ever African American Princess. On the surface this may seem like a PC stunt on the part of the Mouse Company but it’s actually done in an extremely tasteful and loving way and something that is long over due. Good for Disney for making the dreams of little girls everywhere finally come true. Also, the story itself is different as the Princess is not a Princess at first and actually becomes a frog for most of the film. The movie uses many classic Disney ideals and techniques like “wish upon a star,” a fairy God Mother and of course, a singing alligator.
The film opens by introducing us to the city of New Orleans and our future Princess, Tiana voiced by Anika Noni Rose. First we see her as a young girl being taught the meaning of family and good cooking in a poverty-ridden area of Louisiana by her father James (Terrence Howard) and mother Eudora (Oprah Winfrey). As she grows up, Tiana works tirelessly, waitressing at several different restaurants around town hoping to one day bring her father’s dreams true by owning her own dinner club. As Tiana continues to work hard, the free-spirited, jazz loving Prince Naveen of Maldonia (a hilarious Bruno Campos) arrives in New Orleans and makes a deal with a shady voodoo doctor played by Keith David, who is in rare form as the creepy and charismatic witchdoctor. Once the deal goes bad, the once suave Prince is turned into a frog. In an attempt to break the spell Naveen makes a deal with Tiana. He’ll give her the money to start her restaurant in exchange for a kiss but instead of the smooch turning him human again, Tiana transforms into a frog. Now stuck battling the obstacle of the Louisiana bayou the two frogs go on a journey, along with a trumpet-playing alligator aptly named Louis (Played to perfection by Michael-Leon Wooley) and a love-sick Cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings), search for the help of a 197-year-old voodoo priestess, Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), in order to become human again. But before that can happen the two frogs will have to learn the true lessons of friendship, love, sacrifice and what it truly means to be one of God’s children as they discover that what they want isn’t as important as what they need.
Look, I’m not a nine-year-old girl so I’m probably not the target audience here but I think that little kids, boys and girls both will fall in love with this movie the way we did with the classic Disney films from our youth. Is this going to be a Disney classic like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs?” No, probably not. It’s probably not even as good as the more recent “Little Mermaid” or “Beauty and the Beast” but the film is still good, wholesome family fun that anyone can enjoy. Kids will love the animation and humor, adults will enjoy the music and everyone will like the loving story and historical information that the film offers about our nation’s humble beginnings. You can tell that everyone involved made the film in a loving way and you can feel it throuout the movie. The voice acting is excellent by the entire cast but it is the uplifting New Orleans Jazz music of Oscar winner Randy Newman that is the real star of the film. The music is what makes this film work and Newman is as spot-on as ever with his funny lyrics and quirky upbeat tunes.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the men behind “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin,” return in grand style delivering a different kind of Disney film than they have before. Tiana is the first Princess to ever hold down a job or have aspirations of doing anything other than being saved by a Prince, so right there the filmmakers are trying to do something new and I really appreciate it. Sure, it easily could have backfired and become a cheap marketing tool but I really liked their approach at making a multi-cultural Disney film that any child of any race can relate to, I think that is important. The choice to make Tiana into a frog who has to go on this journey of self discovery herself, along with the Prince was a great touch and it gives the film a true Disney feel. In the end, what you have is a good, solid family film that parents won’t hate taking their children to and kids will love for the humor and classic Disney touches.
The Princess and the Frog is out December 8, 2009.