“Princess and the Frog” Works Its Magic

Damn, I was hoping for more racism.

It may surprise those that have had their fun with Disney’s less than politically correct past, but their recent return to quasi-traditional animation with “The Princess and the Frog” escapes the uncomfortable pitfalls one could easily conjure up. Despite the lack of overt controversy (small-minded Christian protests aside), the story still packs some vibrancy and delight into a well-tread formula: an overworked waitress with entrepreneurial dreams is thrown into a world of voodoo after mistakenly following the standard procedure of her childhood fairytales.

The fairytale that you may have heard before is just the beginning. In rare Disney fashion, the original fable is merely an expositional device that carries the film’s opening act. Set in Jazz Era New Orleans, the film begins with lower-class Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) sitting beside her wealthy friend and costumer Charlotte as her mother reads her the story’s epilogue. As we return to the homestead, we are introduced to her father and their shared dream of owning a restaurant. One obligatory age-gap cut later (read: skipping puberty), Tiana is working two shifts to save up money, still chasing after her recently departed dad’s dream. She nears her financial goal shortly before Mardi Gras and finally purchases the empty sugar mill that will act as her restaurant.

The simultaneous arrival of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) of Made-Up-European-Ville rips the snooze button from Charlotte’s biological clock, and the rich friend drags Tiana along to her Mardi Gras party. In between his arrival to New Orleans and his supposed arrival at Charlotte’s party, the carefree Prince takes amusement in the not-so-parlor magic of Dr. Facilier (voiced and “sung” by the ever-cool and underused Keith David) and turned into the titular frog, while his man-servant takes up the Prince’s guise in order to pursue the fortune of Charlotte’s father. Tiana and the Frog Prince find each other at the party, the amphibian mistaking Tiana’s Mardi Gras costume for the real thing and enacting the MacGuffin kiss of transformation. Now the two must find their way back to human form before the final stroke of Mardi Gras midnight in order for Tiana to keep her restaurant.

While retracting itself from the bonds of an archaic plotline, “The Princess and the Frog” quickly sets up a slightly-less archaic plot of magic, musical numbers and love that Disney has tread so much before. What’s amazing, then, is that the story can still prick the emotional hotspots we can all anticipate from miles away. Aside from an out-of-left-field (and some would argue pointless) death, romances evolve in between Randy Newman choruses and pasts are emotionally divulged on perfect cue. Comedic relief comes in the form of an obese horn-playing alligator and Cajun firefly, both slightly humorous but suffering from paint-by-numbers personalities.

Tiana is perhaps the most realistic female protagonist in the studio’s catalog, sporting comfortable clothing and a three-dimensional personality bolstered by an above average vocal performance. The same can be said for Prince Naveen, whose pseudo-Spaniard accent and loose attitude towards women mellow out at just the right point for character acclimation. Toss in an energetic (if unmemorable) witch doctor Mamma Odie and (since it’s a prominent film featuring black people) Oprah set-pieces, and the film rounds out a believable and organic cast that manages a new layer of emotional subtlety to the Disney catalog.

The film quickly puts a pin in its emerging character complexity, however, by sporting one of the most limpid song catalogs out of the studio’s 70-year history. With such a rich backdrop as a Jazzed-up Louisiana, both the music and lyrics on display are emotionally mediocre and fail to retain in your memory even moments after the final bar is sung. The key exception being the film’s leitmotif, ‘Almost There,’ mostly for its accompanying Jazz-portrait style animation (by far the best moment in the film, but its occurrence in the film’s first 15 minutes does not bode well for the movie’s shelf-life). Considering its comparison to the greats of Disney’s 1990s Renaissance, there is little excuse for such a bland music catalog taking place in such a spiced up neighborhood.

But, in a rare instance of listening to its audience, “The Princess and the Frog” marks a more momentous turn for the Mouse: hand-drawn animation. While some musical numbers flirt with the third dimension and most of the film is aided by occasional computer face lifts, the entire film hopes to recall the Mouse that our generation remembers and – on a purely visual note – it succeeds rather well. The comforting, thick-lined art flows gorgeously with the Louisiana locales like the Big Easy’s downtown district and bayou. A few scenes aside, the animation is dynamic and atmospheric enough to engross despite the story’s clichéd trappings. The voodoo aesthetics are used brilliantly through Dr. Facilier’s scenery-chewing moments, and character design and animation reflect the detail and charm that made an entire generation forget Disney’s limping through the 70s and 80s.

It’s hard for a studio that has made films with Arabic, aquatic, French and Native American female protagonists to appear progressive in its use of an African-American one, but beyond that fruitless expectation, there lies a good movie in “The Princess and the Frog.” Its comedy plays well when kept from the comedic relief, and the art style and much-harped return to 2-D really lets the warm goo of nostalgia seep back into the pores. A lukewarm soundtrack and blisteringly familiar plot keep it from achieving a place beside “Beauty and the Beast” or “Aladdin,” but an attention to detail to some surprisingly deep characters make the price more than justified for at least one viewing.