I don't understand why people complain about the lack of good family fair and then shy away from going to see "The Princess and the Frog", the new traditionally animated film from Disney. This is a good film and the lack of business it is creating may cause Disney to rethink their current change in course.
A few years ago, John Lasseter, the force behind all of the Pixar hits, was promoted to oversee many different aspects of Disney. He did something I don't think a lot of people expected. He restarted production of traditionally animated, hand drawn feature films, a type of filmmaking all but abandoned (due to cost; computer animation is a lot cheaper) at a studio now making digital animation. He hired the team behind "The Little Mermaid" and they chose to make "The Princess and the Frog", the first Disney film featuring an African American heroine.
New Orleans, the 20s. Tiana (Anika Nani Rose, "Dreamgirls", "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency") is a practical girl. As a child, she accompanies her mom (Oprah Winfrey) when she goes to Big Daddy's House (John Goodman) to make a dress for his daughter, Charlotte. Tiana and Charlotte are best friends and listen enraptured as Tiana's mom tells them the story of "The Frog Prince". Charlotte immediately announces she will kiss every frog and find her prince, but Tiana can't stomach the thought of kissing a frog. Tiana also shares her hard working dad's (Terrence Howard) dream of opening a restaurant. Flash forward ten years and we rejoin Tiana as she works multiple jobs trying to save enough money to open her first restaurant. She wants to keep her dad's dream alive and has found a spot she knows will be perfect, an abandoned waterfront warehouse. Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos, lots of parts on TV shows), the prince of Moldavia, arrives in town with his aide, Lawrence. Naveen wants to play jazz and has all but given up his ties to the throne of his country. A witch doctor, Dr. Facilier (Keith David) spots an opportunity. If he gets Charlotte to marry a fake Prince Naveen, he can take over Big Daddy's fortune. But first, he has to turn the prince into a frog and find a replacement to play Prince Naveen. Charlotte hears of the prince's arrival and gets her dad to throw a costume ball during Mardi Gras. Big Daddy is only too happy to oblige for two reasons; he has been chosen the King of Mardi Gras again and anything his Charlotte wants, she gets. Throw in Louis, an alligator who also wants to play jazz and Ray, a wise Cajun firefly and everything starts to get complicated.
Written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind "The Little Mermaid", "The Princess and the Frog" bnngs the same sort of magic and beauty back to the silver screen.
There are a lot of things to like and celebrate about "The Princess and the Frog". The animation style seems almost romantic, in a way, perhaps because it has been so long since we have seen this type of animation used to any great extent. It also allows the film to look softer, almost as though it is glowing, which helps evoke the rose colored portrait of New Orleans the film puts forth. Everything about the film helps to give a romanticized vision of the great city and it is nice to see this celebrated.
One of the best and most consistent things about Disney animation is the music. In a time when there were virtually no other musicals being created, Disney Animated features continued the legacy, allowing some of the best and brightest performers, composers and writers to work, to continue their craft. In the last few years, live action musicals have started to enjoy a small renaissance at a time when animated features began to cycle away from using music. In "Princess", each song seems to celebrate a different kind of music which is fitting and a great idea as New Orleans is also a melting pot of music. In this way, the filmmakers celebrate and pay tribute to all of the different musical influences of this city, zydeco, ragtime, jazz, Cajun and more.
The characters are all funny, memorable and interesting. A few years ago, someone in the Disney Marketing Machine came up with the idea of marketing all of the "Princesses" from the different films plastering their pictures on every conceivable piece of merchandise. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Jasmine, Belle, Snow White and the Little Mermaid are extremely popular so putting them all together is an even bigger draw for the millions of little girls who snap up their merchandise. So, any new animated film with a Princess is going to be considered a boon to the ongoing marketing machine that is Disney. Add Tiana to the group and everything can be redesigned, remade and resold. But Tiana is also the first African-American princess providing even more attractive marketing possibilities. She is a great marketing tool. When you become a fan of Disney, you quickly realize that everything in the kingdom is about marketing: if a film is a success, the characters go on to live in television, theme park rides & attractions, video games, clothing, DVDs, costumes and so much more. When you realize this, you can quickly move on and allow the films to create memories and magic. And Tiana is a very good addition to the Disney family.
Tiana is head strong, independent, goal-oriented and very busy. From her early days, listening to her dad talk about his dreams of opening a restaurant, she quickly adopted the same dreams. Now that he has gone on, she continues to press forward, working two jobs, saving every penny for a down payment. Only when the two men who promised to sell her an abandoned warehouse for her restaurant threaten to pull out, does she become desperate and start to look for some more money. Early on, Tiana brings her mom to the space and they sing a song about what the restaurant will become. Throughout this number, there are references to the sacrifices the young woman has made and it becomes a celebration but also a poignant illustration of this character's strong will.
Anika Nani Rose is very good as the voice of Tiana, giving her a lot of energy, a lot of pluck and a lot of intelligence. When Tiana meets the Frog Prince at Charlotte's house, she is reluctant to believe the talking frog, but her need for financial help gives her the little push she needs. She reluctantly bends down to give him a smooch
Bruno Campos is good as Naveen, providing a soft accent for his character. But he is unremarkable. So many others could have done the role, his performance isn't distinctive enough.
Keith David is fantastic as the voice of Dr. Facilier, the witch doctor who hatches a plan to steal Big Daddy's fortune. His big musical number helps to illustrate his connection to the dark arts of voodoo. His character brings to mind some of the elements of Jafar from "Aladdin" and his number brings back memories of Oogie Boogie in "The Nightmare Before Christmas".
As "Frog" is a Disney animated film, there are talking animals. When Naveen is turned into a frog, he talks and Tiana understands him. Later, they meet Louis, an alligator who just wants to play music for people. Voiced by Michael Leon-Wooley, the character is funny and fun to watch, especially every time he tries to sneak into a jazz band and begin to play, trying to remain unnoticed.
Ray, a Cajun firefly, has been dubbed the Cajun Jiminy Cricket. I guess there is a little truth to that. Ray is the guide for Tiana, Naveen and Louis, helping them navigate their way out of the swamp and back to New Orleans. Voiced by Jim Cummings, Ray is funny and touching.
While in the swamp, the team decides to try to get Mama Odie to help them. Odie is a Cajun woman who lives in the heart of the Bayou with her pet python and is basically the good counterpart to Doctor Facilier. Voiced by Jennifer Lewis (the original "Dreamgirls"), she provides a couple of funny moments and even some sage advice.
John Goodman is also very good as Big Daddy. A New Orleans native, he clearly understands and has met people similar to Big Daddy.
I am only touching the barebones of the story. There are a number of twists and turns that should even keep the adults entertained. In fact, it might be a little too complicated for most kids. And because there is a lot of story, it seems slightly rushed at times, like they are trying to get too much story into a running time of 100 minutes.
But these are small complaints for a film that is this much fun to watch, to listen to, to experience.