Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: "The Princess and the Frog"

"The Princess and the Frog" is a delightful throwback to old-school Disney animation, when hand-drawn art took precedence over computerized images, when animals always talked, when characters couldn't help bursting into song, and trained vocal actors were preferred over gimmicky celebrity casting.

OK, that last part isn't entirely true -- Oprah, Terrence Howard and John Goodman provide voices for some minor characters. But the heavy lifting is left to actors you may have never heard of, whose vocal work -- especially their singing of the jazz-inspired tunes by Randy Newman -- is top-notch.

"Princess" is a break from the past in one way: It's the first Disney animated film to feature an African-American princess.

True, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) starts out closer to scullery maid territory, and spends most of the movie voodooed into a slimy green frog. But our black heroine gets her tiara -- and her prince -- in the end.

The story is set in 1920s New Orleans, depicted in bold colors as a delightful gumbo of races and classes freely mixing. Young Tiana and her parents dream of opening their own restaurant, but dad is killed in the war and Tiana spends her youth working two waitress jobs.

The town's abuzz about the arrival of Prince Naveen of Meldonia (Bruno Campos), a charming rake who's looking to marry the daughter of the local titan of business because he's been cut off from the family fortune. Unfortunately, the snaky voodoo "shadow man," Dr. Facilier (Keith David), turns him into a frog in a bid to get the riches for himself.

Naveen convinces Tiana to kiss him in order to change him back to human, but the spell backfires and turns her into a frog, too. They spend the rest of the movie having adventures in the swamp and the streets of New Orleans while striving to get changed back to normal -- falling for each other in the process, of course.

There's the usual Disney assort of colorful supporting characters, human and otherwise.

Louis (Michael Leon-Wooley) is a tubby alligator who yearns to play trumpet in a jazz band, while Raymond (Jim Cummings) is a snaggle-toothed Cajun firefly who pitches woo to the North Star, whom he calls Evangeline and imagines is another insect.

Then there's Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a swamp-dwelling blind old lady whose white magic counters Dr. Facilier's dark arts.

Newman's songs are a rainbow of styles, with several standout tunes audiences will be humming on the way home. There's "Almost There," Tiana's jouncy affirmation of aspiring dreams, and Mama Odie's "Dig a Little Deeper," a gospel-inspired call to concentrate on the important things in life.

I also enjoyed Raymond's waltz-like love song, "Ma Belle Evangeline." And Dr. Facilier boasts about his alliance with the voodoo spirits in "Friends on the Other Side," which is combined with imaginative, eye-popping visuals for a real show-stopper.

"The Princess and the Frog" comes from the writing/directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker (with a writing assist from Rob Edwards and several others), who previously helmed "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin."

They've been sidelined for the last seven years -- the under-appreciated "Treasure Planet" was their last project -- as animation ambitions shifted almost exclusively to computers. Hopefully, Disney's first-class return to its roots will signal that there's room enough in the future for some of the past.

3.5 stars

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