While I’m fascinated by the fact that Time magazine has given the top three slots of its 10 best list over to animated films—The Princess and the Frog, Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox—I’m truly perplexed by their pick of The Princess and the Frog as the best movie of the year. I suppose you either have to be in love with Disney or hardcore about hand-drawn animation for its own sake to understand—and since I’m neither, I’m out of the loop. This isn’t to say that I didn’t like The Princess and the Frog. I did. I was largely entertained by it (though the last section seemed to drag a bit), and I admired much of its look. Beyond that, well, I don’t see myself buying the DVD.
Despite all the fuss that’s been made over the fact that this is Disney’s first film with a black heroine—an aspect of the film that goes virtually unexplored—The Princess and the Frog is pretty completely Disney basic, with a simple story fleshed out with musical numbers, slapstick and humorous characters. Oh, sure, it adds the idea that you have to back up wishing on a star with hard work, but otherwise this is the old stuff all over again—right down to the usual kiddie-film life lessons about being yourself and learning what matters in life. There’s nothing wrong with that—such lessons are fresh to young viewers—but in the same year that offered the more complex emotional ranges of Up and Fantastic Mr. Fox, it seems like weak tea. For that matter, it’s fairly tepid material when contrasted with Disney’s own Lilo & Stitch from 2002. However, there’s no denying the “old stuff” mostly works.
The story—which takes place in New Orleans from 1916 to some time in the 1920s—is sound. Single-minded Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls) dreams of fulfilling her late father’s wish (it’s Disney, at least one dead parent is close to obligatory) of turning an old sugar mill into a posh restaurant (an early attempt at gentrification?). Bringing in Prince Naveen (voiced by TV actor Bruno Campos)—the vaguely black, jazz-loving heir to the throne of some mythical kingdom—is workable, even if the romance between him and Tiana’s spoiled Southern-belle friend Charlotte (voiced by Jennifer Cody) seems forced.
The film scores big, however, with its villain, the voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David, Gamer), who turns Prince Naveen into a frog in order to replace him with a stand-in to secure Charlotte’s father’s (voiced by John Goodman) fortune. The plan works until Naveen—mistaking Tiana for a princess—gets her to release him with a kiss, which (since she’s not a princess) only turns her into a frog, too. It’s not hard to imagine where all this leads, but the trip there is generally pleasant.
Most of it works on its own terms, and the screenplay is largely devoid of postmodern snarkiness. Goodman’s “Big Daddy” is obviously a cross between the character from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Victor Buono in Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) (and, in fact, the film often looks like Charlotte). There’s an out-of-left-field reference to A Streetcar Named Desire, and one line of Leon Russell’s “Cajun Love Song” crops up, but that’s about it for referential humor. Unfortunately, much of what replaces it is tepid.
The Randy Newman songs are largely unmemorable, but serve their function well enough, while the stagings are undeniably energetic. The only problem is that all the big production numbers are largely staged in the same manner, and the approach becomes repetitive. However, they’re lively and occasionally clever—and they look so good that it probably doesn’t matter much. And that’s probably true of the whole film: The look carries it well enough. But don’t go expecting to be blown away. Rated G