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Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog

By Matthew Huntley

December 25, 2009

Just wait until she tries to tell everyone she has a frog that can sing.

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Technically speaking, The Princess and the Frog marks Disney's first 2-D animated feature in over five years (the last one being Home on the Range in early 2004), but as far as quality and spectacle are concerned, I'd argue the number is closer to ten, when Tarzan was released over a decade ago. That film seemed to be the last 2-D film Disney made with their usual standard of sophistication and care.

Indeed there was a time when Disney 2-D features were a big deal. Each picture was an event, presented immaculately with an energetic style and indelible songs. When I was a kid, movies like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were a phenomenon. Years later, The Princess and the Frog attempts to recapture their same grandness. For the most part, it succeeds.

The story, of course, is a play on the Grimm Brothers' The Frog Prince, with various twists and turns. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) is a twentysomething African-American beauty who dreams of running her own restaurant in 1920s New Orleans, and for years she scrimps and saves every penny for the down payment. Her mother (Oprah Winfrey) and father (Terrence Howard) always instilled Tiana with strong work values, which explain why she's more of a pragmatist than her spoiled rich friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), who resorts to wishing on a star like in fairy tales.




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Speaking of fairy tales, this one contains the quintessential prince, but he's more of a playboy than an upstanding charmer. His name is Naveen (Bruno Campos) and he's just arrived from Maldonia to celebrate Mardi Gras, but only he and his assistant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) know Naveen's real intention is to marry a rich socialite because his parents have cut him off from the family fortune. But the evil Dr. Facilier (Keith David, very funny) stumbles on his plan and turns Naveen into a frog so Facilier can obtain the wealth for himself and appease his voodoo monsters on "the other side." Thinking Tiana is a princess, who therefore has the power to change him back, Naveen asks her to kiss him, but she turns into a frog herself, and now the two of them must seek out the help of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a priestess deep in the bayou. They're aided by the jolly Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a trumpet-playing alligator, and Ray (Jim Cummings), a romantic firefly in love with a star he calls Evangeline.

As you can tell, The Princess and the Frog has all the ingredients of a classic Disney 2-D feature, a format that can still be a treat for the eyes and ears, and not just for kids, but also adults, for whom it will trigger fond moments of nostalgia. I smiled the whole time, even if the story was a little under-whelming during its first act. Compared to writer-director Ron Clements and John Muskers' other classics like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, this one didn't have the same initial magic (it lacked those movies' consistent punch and vigor), but after Tiana and Naveen begin their journey into the bayou, the humor, energy and romance pick up and the story becomes an old-fashioned adventure, complete with the ever-reliable music by Randy Newman, who brings down the house with the numbers Almost There and Down in New Orleans.

It's bittersweet to think so, but once computer animation proved a much more viable (and lucrative) format in the 21st century, traditional 2-D animation got pushed aside, which isn't necessarily a bad thing considering how good computer animation has become. But The Princess and the Frog reminds us of the erstwhile magic and allure of animation before the computer age. It contains beautiful imagery, jolly characters and memorable songs. There's also one tender, emotional scene at the end that that almost made me cry, and not of sadness, but pure joy. With all this, what more could you ask for? Disney's 2-D department may not be as prolific as it used to be, but The Princess and the Frog proves it's still very much alive.


     


 
 

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