Friday, January 8, 2010

Disney Takes A Trip Down Memory Lane

The Princess and the Frog

"The Princess and the Frog" is a throwback to traditional hand-drawn Disney 2-D animation. It is equally a throwback to Disney's traditional storytelling with a prince, a princess, and a happily ever after. But with such storytelling comes Disney's unfortunate habit of upholding certain stereotypes. And although Disney may believe they are correcting themselves with their first-ever African-American heroine, it really is a facade as the entire feature seems to be strenuously trying to avoid race altogether by sidestepping the misfortunes of being a poor black family in New Orleans during the early 1900s. If you are able to ignore these initial shortcomings, however, everything else about Disney's nostalgic return to its highest form is delightful with moments that are downright magical.

The story is a twist on Hans Christian Andersen's "The Frog Prince," and from directors Ron Clements and John Musker, the narrative isn't as strong and involving as the likes of "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid," both of which the movie references in hopes of reminding audiences of those classics. This latest effort does still work and is often funny, clever, and charming.

A young waitress named Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) wishes to fulfill the dreams of her father (Terrence Howard) in opening a classy restaurant of her own. Her seamstress mother (a wonderfully soft-spoken Oprah Winfrey) surrounds Tiana with love and admiration for her high aspirations and also endowed her with good morals since her early childhood. And then enters a prince, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) to be exact, who arrives in New Orleans but gets transformed into a frog from the movie's obligatory villain, the evil voodoo master Dr. Facilier (Keith David). One night Tiana gets mistaken for a real princess, and as a frog, Prince Naveen requests a kiss which he thinks will turn him human again. As we know, though, they both turn into frogs instead.

It's no spoiler to say how the story ends because we know already, but the point is getting there, and it turns out to be quite the catchy and lively adventure thanks to the songs from Randy Newman. How are those songs? Well, let's just say that it's Randy Newman again, but he's reliably good and with a mixture of styles from blues to jazz to Broadway, it adds some extra spice and kicking rhythms to the proceedings. As Tiana and Naveen, now as two slimy amphibians, make their way through the depths of the bayou, they come across a cast of colorful, distinct characters. There's a trumpet-playing, jazz-loving alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley); a Cajun firefly, Ray (Jim Cummings), who's in love with a brightly-shining night star; and the over-100-year-old Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis) who has the power to reverse the wrongs of Dr. Facilier. They all have great songs to accompany them, the most captivating of which is Mama Odie's uplifting "Dig a Little Deeper."

At first the extremely goal-oriented Tiana has no interest in the lazy, womanizing Naveen, but, inevitably enough, such an attitude toward him fades away with another one blossoming in its place. The romance all happens rather superficially, but such is forgiven when it's delivered in such high-spirited and light-hearted behavior. "The Princess and the Frog" put a smile on my face and kept it there. Among a year full of great animation, it deserves its spot even if classic Disney storytelling will never again breach that of current Pixar. In any case, the movie works not only as a thoughtful and pleasant message for youngsters about hard work paying off, but it also works as a loving tribute to the city of New Orleans from its earlier time. Such helps us remember a cultural and historical importance that acts as a nice little bonus, perhaps something for which Disney wasn't even striving.

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