December 17, 2009

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The Princess and the Frog (G)
Disney adds another princess to its roster of fluffy-dress-wearing superstars in the sweet The Princess and the Frog, a retelling of the fairy tale with an American setting and a modern, can-do heroine.

When we first meet Tiana (voiced as a little girl by Elizabeth M. Dampier and as an adult by Anika Noni Rose), she is listening to her mom, talented dressmaker Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), tell the story of the princess who kisses the frog, turning him into a handsome prince with whom she can live happily ever after. Her friend Charlotte (Breanna Brooks as a little girl; Jennifer Cody as an adult) is enamored with the idea but Tiana isn’t so sure a handsome prince is worth having to kiss a gross frog. While the wealthy Charlotte can get her doting father (John Goodman) to buy her any princess dress Eudora can make, Tiana’s family is all about scrimping and saving for a future goal. Charlotte wishes on a star for her handsome prince; Tiana (who shares her father’s cooking talents) wishes on a star for her father to one day get the restaurant that is his dream.

As she grows up (and her father, who we see in a photo in doughboy uniform, has passed away), the restaurant dream becomes Tiana’s and she works two jobs and saves her pennies to open the fancy bistro of her art deco dreams. When it’s announced that Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) of MadeUpia is coming to town, Charlotte is all aflutter with dreams of becoming a princess but Tiana only gets stars in her eyes when she sees a chance to pick up some catering work and earn enough to secure the restaurant space.

Unbeknownst to the guests at Charlotte’s big party for the prince, the person they believe to be the royal personage is not Naveen but Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), his valet. Through some voodoo from the menacing Dr. Facilier (Keith David), the rotund Lawrence has been turned into a suave prince and the suave Naveen has been turned into a frog (but still a frog with an exotic accent and a ladykiller charm). Through a bit of misidentification, frog Naveen asks Tiana, who he believes is a princess, to kiss him, and Tiana, believing that Naveen — who has been cut off from his parents for being too much of a party boy — has the money to help her with her restaurant, agrees. But instead of turning him back into a handsome prince, their kiss turns Tiana into a frog, thus starting an adventure to find a cure for their amphibian states. Along the way, they make new friends including an alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) who is a jazz musician-wannabe, and a Cajun firefly named Raymond (Jim Cummings).

The Princess and the Frog, done in the hand-drawn-style animation of The Little Mermaid and earlier princess tales, has the look of classic Disney but does not have the memorable songs of the hand-drawn classics over the years. (“When You Wish Upon a Star,” Disney’s theme song at this point, is from Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid won Oscars for one of its songs and its score.) This is perhaps the movie’s most disappointing feature but it is also the only area where the movie truly falls down. And while the music that is there doesn’t quite live up to the standards of Disney past, it doesn’t detract from the film, which is a real charmer.

From the storybook look of the movie (there is something about the hand-drawn look that has more sweetness, more “once-upon-a-time-ness” than the computer-animated roundness of the Pixar films) to the solid voice work, The Princess and the Frog was a delight — both for me with my appreciation of the artistry and nostalgia for the princess cartoons of my youth and for the little girls in the theater who giggled with delight. (There were a few screams of not-delight as well. Though rated G, the movie does feature a scary voodoo magician with skull and crossbones on his hat and a tendency to talk to evil spirits. The youngest princess fans seemed pretty uneasy with all that communing-with-the-other-side stuff.) And for all those moms who wonder if another princess is really the best role model for your modern preschooler, Tiana is a pleasant surprise. She knows the value of hard work, isn’t swayed by peer pressure, is smart and entrepreneurial, is loyal to her friends and family and not afraid to stand up to a villain.

And, yes, she’s black. Though, I’m pretty sure as a little girl I would have decided that she, with her dark hair and eyes, was Latina (or, as we said back then, “Spanish”) like me. There weren’t a lot of ethnic princesses or plucky Dora the Explorer-types when I was all about pink backpacks and glittery dolls. I think I would have been delighted to see someone who looked a bit more like me even if she was a cartoon and not quite my ethnicity. In so far as any princess-loving little girl will notice race — the Obama-era little girls in the theater I was at seemed solely focused on and enchanted by the dresses and the funny animals and the frog-on-frog romance — my guess is it will be the girls who look at Tiana and see someone a bit more like them. For a story filled with hocus pocus, that fact might be the most magical of all. B+

Rated G. Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker and written by Ron Clements, Rob Edwards, Greg Erb, Don Hall, John Musker and Jason Oremland, The Princess and the Frog is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Walt Disney Studios.