It took me a while to get around to Disney's 2009 2D animated film THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG, but I am glad I finally made it. Directed by the same people behind THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN, THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG is easily as good as either one of them, and for me, is superior to ALADDIN. It's got the heart of MERMAID, some of the wild humor of ALADDIN, the elegant look of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME and some stylistic and story elements from LADY AND THE TRAMP, THE JUNGLE BOOK, BAMBI, and even the underrated FANTASIA 2000. Yet it is all together its own film, and I don't hesitate at all after one viewing to call it a modern day Disney Classic.
The turn of the century New Orleans setting gives the film a flavor all of its own, and with songs by Randy Newman (but not sung by him), this is the jazziest Disney film since THE ARISTOCATS. When singing his own songs, Newman often unintentionally makes every song sound the same, but when handed to people like Dr. John or Anika Noni Rose, these songs come alive. There's no real standout, but most of them swing and give the film energy. Instead of stopping things dead with slow ballads, Newman's songs push the story along, revealing what's in the characters hearts, in a way that keeps the momentum of the story going. These are not great throwaway setpieces like "When I See An Elephant Fly" from DUMBO or "I Want to Be Like You" from THE JUNGLE BOOK - it's the Broadway thing again that Disney does so well: every song is there to keep thing moving.
Yet THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG still finds time for a large middle section in which our two heroes (now a pair of frogs) ride down the bayou river, meet all sorts of interesting people and get into all sorts of trouble while the story itself takes something of a backseat. A slapstick sequence where the frogs are hunted by three dimwitted yokels who love frog's legs, adds nothing to the story, but it's nice that to see a Disney film finally relaxing, taking a break from the new formula and hearkening back to the days when story was not as supreme and fun on the sidelines was part of the charm.
It's also nice, if nice is the word, to see a Disney film not pulling punches when it comes to the death of a character. I won't reveal which one it is, but a character is killed by the voodoo master Dr. Facilier and the character is given a poignant sendoff. Too many time in the past Disney film have wanted it both ways, pretending to kill off a character but revealing the character was only hurt.
Much was made about this being the first Disney film with an African-American heroine, and about the studio went out of its way to erase or change anything in the story that might have smacked of racism, such as changing the name of the character from Maddy (sounded too much like "Mammy", some complained) to "Tiana", and making her a waitress instead of a maid. What resulted is a story set in New Orleans with characters that are slightly exaggerated, fun and believable. Anika Noni Rose and Jennifer Cody do splendid work as Tiana and her best friend, spoiled rich girl Charlotte, and there is not a bad performance in the rest of the cast. One of the other things I like about this film is that it doesn't rely on star voices to give the hook the audience. The only voice I recognized was John Goodman as Charlotte's father, and even a familiar voice like Oprah Winfrey's, as Tiana's mother, slipped right by me.
Some may complain that once
again a Disney heroine's happiness comes down to marrying her prince,
but in this case they miss the point completely. I won't even
explain what the point they missed is, you'll have to figure that one
out yourself by watching it. Which, if you haven't already, you
should. It's a marvelous piece of entertainment. ½ - JB