Any thoughts I had that I was simply too old and often cynical to enjoy "The Princess and the Frog" were reinforced upon my arrival.
Along with a lobby teaming with hyper young ladies, there was also a (hopefully well-compensated) black princess, decked out in a version of Tiana's beautiful blue dress, tiara and all, for the kids to get their pictures taken with. I wisely avoided getting involved in any of that and instead got a seat near the front, in front of three whole rows reserved for a birthday party, a definite gamble on my part.
Once the movie started, however, after a couple of extremely loud and obnoxious trailers for upcoming 3-D menaces (be warned, "Cats and Dogs" is gonna be everywhere next summer), it just envelops you with its rich colors and takes you back to a time when not only were cartoons drawn by hand but charming (if extremely familiar) stories were able to be told without a gerbil shooting fire out of its butt (or whatever may have happened in "G-Force," which I somehow managed to avoid.)
At the beginning we meet Tiana and her very rich (and white) friend Charlotte, for whom Tiana's mother (Oprah Winfrey) is making one of many princess dresses. The idea that the two of them from the exact opposite sides of the tracks would not only be friends as children but into adulthood in Jazz Age New Orleans is very hard to swallow, but if you're able to suspend your disbelief for two hours or so, I promise you'll be rewarded by what we see when Charlotte and her mother step into the streets of the Big Easy.
If anything, the vibrant cityscape, often appropriately imbued with the purple and gold of Mardi Gras, is nothing short of a valentine to the city that once was (and indeed, it's a little chilling at the end when a hard, steady rain begins to fall.) As the two of them make their way through the city to their shotgun house at twilight, it's just a gorgeous reminder of why I hate having to put on a second set of glasses just to watch all the color get sucked out of movies.
Be warned, however: From here on out, the story is indeed pretty slight, and since we all know going in that kissing the frog prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) just turns Tiana into a frog too, its really robbed of most suspense. Thankfully, it just gets trippier as it goes along, and really about as dark as a movie for little girls can get thanks to the perfect villain, Dr. Facilier (Keith David, who, also having voiced The Cat in "Coraline," is just having a banner year for voicework.) The voodoo doctor gets the best song, "Friends on the Other Side," and steals every scene he's in as he also steals Prince Naveen's essence and makes him turn all froggy.
Given Disney's obviously tortured past with both black characters and the South (I've said it here before, but in this context it certainly warrants mention: I simply adored "Song of the South" as a kid, and still do), it's in fact rather remarkable that voodoo is both a good and bad force in this flick. In order to get their human forms back, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) and Naveen are joined by an alligator who just wants to play jazz (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a firefly (Jim Cummings), who once he gets over how proud he is of the fact that his butt lights up is very funny. And the hand-drawn animation is at its best in two scenes, one of the fireflies leading our motley crew through the bayou to the toothless voodoo queen Mama Odie and, closer to the end, as Dr. Facilier unleashes his shadow agents to track down Naveen.
It's all mostly a big gumbo pot of fun, but what about Tiana herself? Well, Disney's first black princess is a predictably safe - if more than a little boring - character, one who extols the virtues of hard work and constantly turns down entreaties from friends to hit the town. I certainly appreciated how completely unhip both Tiana and the movie itself are, but they didn't really have to make her quite so square, too. But, baby steps. With as much money as this should make, both 2-D animation and black characters in animated movies for all audiences should get a boost from it, so it will be interesting to see where Disney and other animation houses go from here (hopefully back to the future!)
My main fear going in was that the music from Randy Newman would be extremely generic, and except for the aforementioned song from Dr. Facilier, it almost always is. He wisely, however, drenches them in the zydeco, Cajun and jazz flavors of New Orleans, which makes them all go down easy enough, even if you forget them as soon as you walk out the door. As I type this I'm listening to a performance by Allen Toussaint at the Village Vanguard (streamed for free by NPR here), which just reminds me how much better the songs would have been had they hired a genuine jazz man (black or white) to take on this score rather than the safe and familiar Newman.
But that's a very minor beef with a genuine Disney fairy tale that, as it builds to the finish that every Disney princess finds, also revels in the New Orleans that once was and hopefully will be again, and for that it's a real accomplishment and a thoroughly entertaining flick.
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Posted by Reel Fanatic at 8:41 AM