With The Princess and the Frog, the Disney Studios have gone back to hand-drawn animation for the first time since Home on the Range (2004), which, along with Brother Bear (2003), convinced executives that the future was in CGI. (The scripts had nothing to do with it, of course.) Perhaps more importantly, the new film also features the first African-American heroine in a Disney animated film, though the mere mention of this has caused some heated debate of the sort that used to surround Song of the South (1946). Some have pointed out that the heroine spends most of the film not as an African-American girl, but as a frog. And others have pointed out that her handsome prince has Caucasian features while the villain has African-American features.
It goes on. The film takes place in New Orleans, which brings up Hurricane Katrina guilt as well as more racial issues. It also takes place during the early part of the 20th century (a newspaper headline mentions President Wilson); while the film faintly suggests the segregation of the time, everyone mostly gets along just fine. We also get a faintly stereotypical use of voodoo and blank magic as the source of the antagonist's villainy. There are many other complaints, including the usual absence of one parent, the anthropomorphic sidekicks, and the focus on marriage as a means to an end. But even taking them all into consideration, I have to say that I really enjoyed this film.
Anika Noni Rose provides the singing and speaking voice for Tiana, who is not a princess. Rather, she's the poor daughter of a cook who continues her father's dream of opening her own restaurant. She works two jobs and saves her tips for her big down payment. At the same time, Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) arrives in town, and almost immediately gets conned by the Shadow Man, a.k.a. Dr. Facilier (a smooth Keith David). With a bit of voodoo, the prince is transformed into a frog and the prince's overworked footman Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) is transformed into a likeness of the prince. The frog prince turns up on Tiana's balcony and convinces her to kiss him, but instead of the frog turning back into a prince, Tiana turns into another frog.
After a frenzied chase, the two frogs wind up in the swamp, where they befriend a jazz-trumpet-playing alligator, Louis (voiced by Michael-Leon Wooley) and a Creole firefly, Ray (voiced by Jim Cummings), with a jagged smile of random teeth. They set out to find Mama Odie (voiced by Jenifer Lewis) in the hopes of becoming human again. Unfortunately, the Shadow Man is in need of the prince's blood to keep his spell working, and sends out an army of creepy shadow specters to track him down. Tiana still wants to open her restaurant, and the prince is resigned to marry the wealthy blonde Charlotte (voiced by Jennifer Cody), but of course, the two protagonists fall in love.
The voodoo stuff may be cliché in some quarters, but it inspires some of the richest and most dazzling hand-drawn animation I've seen in ages. The sheer nightmarish creepiness of it sent me all the way back to Disney's daring, early Silly Symphony shorts The Skeleton Dance and Hell's Bells (both 1929) as well as some of the scary parts in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It also reminded me of Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944), which were the fruits of Disney's goodwill trip to Brazil (chronicled, somewhat in the recent documentary Walt & El Grupo). Those films were culturally clueless, but artistically astonishing. They reveled in an outsider's perspective of the culture, reworking it to fit a classic, reliable mold of entertainment. The Princess and the Frog does the same thing: it may not adhere strictly to the time and place, or to the culture or mood, but it's a an expert, entertaining movie.
But, yes, there are drawbacks. It's obvious that Disney executives are salivating at the notion of adding Tiana to their "Princesses" line of merchandise (and thereby coercing young girls to buy all-new items), but at least this princess has other things on her agenda than just finding a man. My biggest question was why the filmmakers hired Randy Newman of all people to create the hot jazz-influenced musical numbers. Better him than Elton John, I suppose, but though the songs sometimes cook onscreen, the Randy Newman lyrics have the effect of cooling the heat. Thankfully, the frogs have enough chemistry to warm things up again, romantically speaking, and the set designs are consistently amazing, including some jazz-age artwork reserved for fantasies and dream sequences. It's even a great food movie. Just try to come out not craving a bowl of gumbo.