Movie Review: A contemporary theme in that (welcome) Disney package

princessfrog_payoff_1sheet-550x815Is Disney’s return to hand-drawn feature length animation since 2004 a winner? Can it save the art form that has lost all the ground it once had to a world and even a generation that has grown accustom to computer generated animation?

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog is saddled with some pretty serious weight. This is the first hand drawn feature length picture Walt Disney Animation Studios has produced since the mixed critical and financial results of 2004’s Home on The Range. Every animated film released by the studio since 2004 has gone the computer generated route with mixed results until last year’s critical and financial hit, Bolt.

Shortly after the acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, Disney announced that they would be returning to their roots. They brought in the writing and directing team from a pair of Disney’s biggest well known hits of the modern era: Ron Clements and John Musker, who shared the writing and directing on 1989’s Little Mermaid and 1992’s Aladdin. In addition to the writing and directing team, a strong cast of actors were brought on board for the voice roles. Princess and the Frog includes the talents of Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Terrence Howard, and Keith David.

Based very loosely on The Frog Prince, this is also the first time there has been a black princess in a Disney Animated film. Part of me feels that we live in a time that this shouldn’t be noteworthy and should have been done long ago. However it is still one of the things that comes up most often when discussing the film. At no point in the film is race referenced, that is far too dangerous territory for a film aimed at kids that is already spinning enough other plates to attempt. Rather, it opens with young Tiana (voiced by Elizabeth Dampier) and her mother, a seamstress Eudora (Winfrey) working on Tiana’s best friend Charlotte’s dress. Charlotte lives with her father ‘Bigg Daddy’ La Bouff (Goodman) in a large mansion while Tiana and her mother take a street car back to the closely packed homes and community in a different part of the story’s location, New Orleans.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG

Returning home, Tiana’s father (Howard) helps her prepare a pot of their famous gumbo. Sharing it with the entire neighborhood Tiana’s father tells her that food brings every one from all walks of life together and makes them happy. This is about the only hint of social or economic difference there is in the film other than the complete difference of living environments and conditions for Tiana and best friend Charlotte. Tiana’s father  has hopes and aspires to one day open a restaurant of his own. Thus allowing the family to share their passion for good food with all of New Orleans. Tiana tells her father about wishing on a star in an effort to help them get the restaurant. This sounds familiar, oh that’s right, this is a Disney film. Her father objects a slight bit stating that dreams can help but everything requires hard work. After being tucked into her bed Tiana moves to wish upon the star only to be scared out of her wits by a frog that makes her bolt from the room.

Flash forward several years and we find an older Tiana (Voiced by Anika Noni Rose) holding down several jobs as a waitress saving every penny she earns as she is Almost There, as the first musical number goes in hopes of fulfilling her father’s dream. Enter the prince from a far away land. Prince Naveen (Voiced by Bruno Campos) arriving to much fan fare and many a swooning potential princess. The prince has arrived in town to attend ‘Bigg Daddy’ La Bouff’s  ball in an effort to court Tiana’s best friend Charlotte. The prince, unbeknown to those greeting his arrival with such fan fare is in fact broke. Living the high life never having worked a day in his life his parents have cut him off from the family fortune so he has come in pursuit of his own.

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After an encounter with and arguably the best musical number in the entire film, Friends on the Other Side the ‘Shadow Man’ Dr. Facilier, a scene stealing role voiced by the suburb Keith David, leaves the prince a frog and his assistant the prince. What follows is an overly long second act. Even the songs during the mid point of the picture lag and miss the high expectations set after the elaborate Friends on the Other Side. The only highlight of the second act is the introduction of the Cajun firefly Ray, the second stand out behind David’s Dr. Facilier, voiced by voice acting veteran Jim Cummings.

Being a Disney film we all know what happens in the end right? Wrong, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of twists in the third act of the tale that steps things back up. I won’t spoil any surprises but know this, not everything ends up turning out the way I expected to based on the setup of some character arcs and being a Disney film. Sure in a roundabout way every one still gets what they want, but it’s not a perfectly wrapped package like some previous entries have been.

Disney’s Princess and the Frog is a welcome return to the classic genre defining animation that the studio is known for, and will be introducing a new generation to it on the big screen. It’s far from being perfect but fits right in with previous fairy tales Disney has presented, if not even more so than Pocahontas or Mulan. It also has a less fantastical message that hard work is required to get the things you want which is a welcome one to be imparted in our ever-growing instant gratification society.

I give Disney’s The Princess and the Frog 3.5 “I want to try Tiana’s tasty beignets” out of 5.

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Rated G, some scary imagery by way of Dr. Facilier’s shadow hunters which may frighten some children.

by John Coovert

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