Walt Disney is back in the fairy tale business. After a long layoff from both hand-drawn animation and fairy princesses and the like, Disney offers up a film that not only reaffirms their status as the premier purveyors of classic animation, but will also have you humming the catchy songs as you leave the theatre. “The Princess and the Frog” is a welcome addition to Disney’s legacy, comfortably sitting alongside “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”
Set in the French Quarter of New Orleans the action in this Broadway-style musical really takes off when a free-spirited Maldonian prince named Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos) is magically transformed into a frog by voodoo magician Dr. Facilier (voice of Keith David). To break Facilier’s evil spell the prince must convince a princess to kiss him. So far it’s a Big Easy take on the traditional Frog Prince story, but when Naveen hops into a costume party and mistakes a beautiful girl named Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) for a princess the story takes a different turn. Convincing her to kiss him, she puckers up, gives him a smack, but because she’s not really a princess—she’s just dressed like one—he doesn’t change, but she does, into a frog. Together they search for Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a 197-year-old voodoo priestess who can turn them back to their human form.
Disney has scored a home run with “The Princess and the Frog.” Their first full-blown fairy tale since 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a return to beautiful traditional animation. The artwork is stylish—particularly during two early musical numbers, the 1930s art deco inspired “Almost There” and the wild voodoo tune “My Friends on the Other Side”—and firmly in-line with classic 70s and 80s Disney. That means sophisticated drawings, dramatic camera moves and colorful backgrounds.
Complimenting the visuals is a score by Randy Newman that includes a variety of songs with a Louisiana flavor. Newman infuses the score with hints of zydeco, jazz and gospel call-and-response, creating a sonic landscape that perfectly compliments the film’s sultry bayou setting.
As for the voice work, Disney keeps things fresh by not hiring recognizable a-list talent to voice the characters. Robin Williams brought a unique, manic energy to “Aladdin” that enhanced the film, but that’s a rare case. Too often the big names offer little other than recognizable voices, and that can work against the part they’re playing. Can you hear James Earl Jones as Mufasa without thinking of Darth Vader? Me neither, but here Disney is allowing the material to sell the show. Among the well cast voices are Keith David as Dr. Facilier, Anika Noni Rose as Tiana and Bruno Campos as Naveen. Good actors all, but hardly household names and that lack of familiarity allows the characters to live and breath, not simply be an extension of an already well-known celebrity persona.
“The Princess and the Frog” is a welcome return to form for Disney, but, as it also features their first ever African-American princess, a welcome step toward the future.