The Princess and the Frog
Details: (G), In Cinemas 1 January 2010, United States, English
Synopsis: A fairy tale centered on a young girl named Princess Tiana who lives in New Orleans' French Quarter during the Jazz Age.
Two intrinsically American artforms – feature film animation and Cajun jazz – fuse magically in The Princess and the Frog, the Disney company’s first 2D cartoon in five years. That the film doesn’t quite attain Lion King-esque status as a bonafide Walt-wonder is due to a script that can’t streamline a saggy second act; all other elements are winning and warm.
Directors Ron Clement and John Musker are Disney traditionalists, having co-helmed the Disney cash-cows The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992) and Hercules (1997), as well as the cash-vacuum, Treasure Planet (2002). Their modus-operandi is simple – take a familiar kids’ literary property and vamp it up with a rich colour palette, a well-stocked support cast of cute and marketable characters and a steady stream of toe-tapping songs, staged extravagantly.
By their own standards, The Princess and the Frog is no Little Mermaid, which critics and family audiences generally consider to be their best work and one of Disney’s landmark films. But their latest is certainly as spirited and sweet as Aladdin, and a marked improvement over Hercules and the ill-conceived Treasure Planet.
Adapted from E.D. Baker’s 2002 debut novel ‘The Frog Princess’, Clement, Musker and co-scripter Rob Edwards have transplanted the setting to jazz-era New Orleans. Their heroine, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) has grown into a hard-working young woman with ambitions of opening a swingin’ upmarket nightclub – lofty goals for a poor African-American girl, as she is reminded by the weasly real estate agents from whom she must buy the condemned dockside property (“It was always gonna be tough for a girl of your.... background”). Though the issue of race and the image of the ‘poor black man’ is inherent to the film and the period, Tiana herself is a determined independent woman for whom race is not an overriding issue; Musker and Clement toe a similar line in their handling of the themes.
Though Tiana dismissed fairytale dreams long ago, she is convinced by her childhood friend, the wealthy and wacky white girl Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), to wish upon the Evening Star (not the first or last nod to Disney lore/cliche that the filmmakers indulge in). Upon doing so, she is greeted by the silky-smooth European accent of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), though is shocked into comic-pratfallery when she discovers the voice belongs to a frog. In a brisk scene that disposes of exposition (a skill the rest of the film is not always as good at), Naveen discloses that he has been cursed by the voodoo shadowman Dr Facilier (Keith David) and must kiss a princess to be restored to his handsome royal self.
Mistaking Tiana for a princess, they lock lips, only to have the reluctant Tiana transform into a fellow amphibian (and a rather routinely drawn one at that). Fleeing civilisation, they travel the bayous in search of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a 197 year-old voodoo priestess who can break the spell that has cursed the mismatched but soon lovestruck slimy-sweethearts (“It’s not slime, it’s mucus,” becomes a running gag). They are joined by newfound friends Louis (Michael-Leon Wolley), a trumpet-playing alligator that recalls the jivin’ Baloo the Bear from The Jungle Book (1967), and Ray (Jim Cummings), a Cajun-hillbilly firefly with a pure spirit (imagine The Simpsons’ ‘Cletus’ character crossed with Jiminy Cricket) and a deep crush on ‘Evangeline’, aka The Evening Star, whom he thinks is the brightest firefly in all the sky.
Despite some striking visuals and engaging Randy Newman songs, it is this swampy detour that drags the film down somewhat. In this mid-section Tiana and Naveen realise their affection for each other, but it never soars as effortlessly as Jasmine and Aladdin’s blossoming love did in that film’s corresponding sequence (or Jane and Tarzan’s in Disney’s 1999 version of the Edgar Rice Burroughs story, or Belle’s for The Beast in 1991’s Beauty and The Beast). The good news is that by the film’s climax, the level of attraction does seem real and the audience’s attention has been recaptured – the splash of Mardi Gras-set colour and excitement is thrilling to watch; the emotional bond between characters and patrons strong.
Parents will need to be wary of the impact that some of the film’s elements will have on the under-5’s. Despite a G-rating, the film contains supernatural elements, associated with Dr Facilier’s voodooism, that are deliberately scary, as well as some frantic action sequences that may overwhelm toddlers.
The ‘Disney’ brand of today symbolises a big-business crassness that is lost on the little ones but which leaves a sour taste in the mouths of paying adults. The Princess and The Frog may go some way to redressing that resentment, reminding over-35s dragged along to the film, of the wondrous enjoyment traditional 2D classics like Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937), Dumbo (1941) and Fantasia (1940) provided in our youths.
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