- Rated G
- Buy the BD
All photos © Walt Disney
Reviewed by David Medsker
his has been an extraordinary year for animation, from stop-motion (“Coraline,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox”) to CGI (“Up,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs”). The most pleasant surprise though, for my money, is “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s first traditional 2D feature in five years. Perhaps the most shocking thing about “Princess” is that the person who led the charge to re-launch the hand-drawn division was none other than John Lasseter, the #1 dog at Pixar. And God love him for it: the public deserved better than to have 2004’s “Home on the Range” serve as Disney’s last hand-drawn movie.
Being a Disney musical, it does not come without its trappings – you’ve met all these characters before; they just had different accents and appearances – but “Princess” makes up for its conventional structure with a sly sense of humor, a bouncy score by Randy Newman, and a willingness to get dark.
Set in New Orleans, “Princess” tells the story of a lower-class working girl named Tiana (Anika None Rose) who wants to open a restaurant, in honor of her late father. When a charming but lazy Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to town, Tiana’s debutante friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) thinks she’s found her man, but before Charlotte can meet Naveen, he has an unfortunate run-in with voodoo prince Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a.k.a. The Shadowman. Facilier places a curse on Naveen, turning him into a frog. Naveen, seeing Tiana dressed in one of Charlotte’s outfits at a costume ball, thinks that she is a princess, and that her kiss will turn him human again. Tiana doesn’t want anything to do with Naveen, but agrees to kiss him so he can be with Charlotte. When they kiss, however, Tiana also turns into a frog, and the two must now dodge the Shadowman along with a whole host of predators in order to find a Bayou voodoo priestess that can make them human again.
Considering the fact that voodoo plays a significant role in the movie, Disney was not at all stingy when it comes to dishing out the creepy crawlies. Facilier’s shadow is pretty menacing by itself (it has a mind of its own), but when his friends on “the other side” begin their search for Naveen, they unleash some scenes that rival “Fantasia” on the creepiness scale. And good for them – it would have seemed silly if they had watered down the occult aspect of the story too much. The voice talent was well chosen, focusing on personality rather than star power. In fact, the presence of John Goodman, who plays Charlotte’s rich daddy, actually becomes a distraction. But that is a minor complaint compared to the great supporting work they get from Michael-Leon Wooley as the jazz-loving alligator Louis and Jim Cummings as the toothy Cajun firefly Ray. Rose and Campos are quite good in the lead roles as well.
Randy Newman’s songs will not supplant “Kiss the Girl” or “Under the Sea” anytime soon, but he was still the better choice over longtime Disney writer Alan Menken. Musical numbers should highlight a movie, not steal it – case in point: “The Little Mermaid,” which has spectacular songs but a flat story – and Newman’s songs do just that. Menken did a fine job adapting his style for the self-aware “Enchanted,” but “Princess” needed a different voice, and Newman gave it to them. And who better to usher in this 2D rebirth than Ron Clements and John Musker, the directors of “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” and “Hercules.”
It seemed odd that Disney was rolling out Robert Zemeckis’ wacky 3D adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” nearly two months before Christmas, but it makes sense now – they had an instant classic waiting in the wings. “The Princess and the Frog” is up there with the all-time greats in Disney’s vault, and with any luck, this will usher in another “Mermaid”-type renaissance in Disney 2D animation.