(by Dustin Putman
The first hand-drawn 2-D animated feature from Walt Disney Pictures in five years, "The Princess and the Frog" aims to harken back to the studio's original golden age of decades' past. As far as its look, characters, music and plot conventions go, the film is old-fashioned to the point of absolute quaintness. It also ranks, unfortunately, as a minor effort in the like-minded annals of Disney. The love story is ineffectual, hurt by a boring male love interest and an actor whose voice is miscast in the role. The songs are largely forgettable. The animal sidekicks, from a peppy firefly to an unreliable alligator, are typical fodder. Most disappointing of all, however, is a story that works against the movie's one progressive element: the race of the title heroine. Intentional or not, what kind of message does it send out that the studio's first African-American princess has to be relegated for the vast majority of screen time to the form of an amphibian? Article continues below
Then again, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) isn't actually royalty at all—far from it. Living in New Orleans' French Quarter during the Jazz-infused 1920s, she works overtime as a waitress in the hopes of one day saving enough money to open up her own restaurant. It was a hope her late father (Terrence Howard) always had, and one that she is determined to see come true. Through a twist of fate and the nefarious doings of voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier (Keith David), Tiana and Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), the latter visiting from Maldonia, are transformed into frogs and stranded in the backwater bayou. As Tiana and Prince Naveen seek the guidance of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) in hopes of returning to their human form and making it back home, Dr. Facilier moves closer to his goal of controlling all of New Orleans.
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker (2002's "Treasure Planet"), "The Princess and the Frog" is more admirable than rewarding. For sure, the animation, free of computer-generated images and the current tedious 3-D fad, is lovely, full of period detail and Louisianan aesthetics. The predominant color scheme favoring greens and yellows might get a little old after a while, but otherwise the film's look is every bit what it should be. What is less savory is the wheels-turning plot featuring all of the typical cornerstones of the genre. Tiana is such a charming and likable protagonist from the onset that it is a shame she must disappear for such a long time, replaced with a boring old frog. Her squabbling-turned-romantic relationship with Prince Naveen goes terribly wrong since the voice of actor Bruno Campos is made to sound more fit for the part of a wisecracking sidekick than a chivalrous suitor. The story drags out, spending too much time in its swampy setting when the viewer is much more interested in Tiana's struggles to own her own restaurant.
The villain of the piece, the spindly, beshadowed Dr. Facilier (Keith David), is creepy enough on his own, but a pale imitation of the Bowler Hat Guy from 2007's "Meet the Robinsons." He interacts little with the main characters, which cuts down on the potential tension until the end. Also adding conflict are a trio of backwoods yokels who want to capture the frogs, but they are treated more for laughs that don't quite come. What keeps the narrative palatable otherwise—just barely—is the adorable firefly Raymond (Jim Cummings) and the scenes with Mama Odie. Her song, "Dig a Little Deeper," sung by actress Jenifer Lewis (2009's "Not Easily Broken"), is one of the picture's musical highlights amidst a soundtrack not nearly as top-tapping as one wishes it was.
In "The Princess and the Frog," Tiana is a strong, independent young woman, an animated role model raised with both pride and modesty by parents James and Eudora (Oprah Winfrey). Her skin color is beside the point, or should have been were it not for the character promptly greening up and becoming a frog. Getting rid of this plot device would have been the preferable decision, even if it would have caused a page-one rewrite. The picture is on strongest footing when Tiana is her human self. Spunky and dedicated, she ultimately earns the restaurant she always wanted, called Tiana's Place. That she must also win the guy is something that could have been done without. Tiana will be successful in life whether she's got a man or not, and this conformist outlook, if inevitable, is yet another sign that when it comes to Disney, some things never change.