Disney recaptures its renaissance magic

The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s first 2D animated film since 2004’s Home on the Range, is an all-American fairytale that successfully balances nostalgic magic and modern attitudes, and is likely to usher in a new generation of Disney princess lovers.

Loosely based on E. D. Baker’s 2002 novel The Frog Princess, it pays tribute to Disney’s Renaissance era (1989-1999), a time when the new Disney film was the event of the year, while also serving as a fable for the current financial crisis.

In early 20th century New Orleans, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress, is diligently saving up to realize hers – and her late father’s (Terrence Howard) – dream of owning a restaurant.

When her privileged friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) asks her to cater a masquerade ball she is throwing in honor of the visiting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), Tia happily accepts.

Meanwhile, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a witchdoctor known as “The Shadow Man”, is cooking up a dastardly scheme that will throw Tia and Naveen together, leading them on a hopping adventure through the Louisiana bayou, gathering unusual allies along the way.

Thankfully, they haven’t resorted to starry stunts for the vocals – Tyra Banks and Alicia Keys apparently lobbied for the lead – which allows the viewer to properly absorb the characters.

Tia – Disney’s first African-American princess – is a likeable, if overly earnest protagonist (a characteristic key to the film’s themes) and a role model for aspiring princesses everywhere.

Competently if not distinctively voiced by Dreamgirls’ Rose, she’s self-sufficient, quick-thinking and hard-working – no Snow White nor Sleeping Beauty waiting to be awakened by a prince.

TV stalwart Campos (Jesse, Nip/Tuck) steals the show with his rich Brazilian tones, adding flavor to what could have otherwise been cliche dialogue. Visually reminiscent of Aladdin and The Little Mermaid’s Prince Eric (when not a frog), Naveen is loveable and deliciously arrogant – both comic relief and a romantic hero you can root for. He and Tia have an interesting dynamic, and their relationship feels more equal and realistic than in past Disney romances.

Dr. Facilier, silkily voiced by David, with his sinister magic and Faustian promises echoes Aladdin’s Jafar and The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, but falls short of their menace.

The tricky villain and his shadowy henchmen are the film’s only dark spots; the rest of the characters increase the humor and heart.

Charlotte, the daughter of the richest man in New Orleans, is especially endearing. She could so have easily been a clich* – at several points the film acts as if she may fall into ugly stepsister mode, but she remains goodhearted and genuine throughout.

Lewis, a trumpet-playing alligator – like the sweet younger brother of Peter Pan‘s watch glutton – is amusingly high-strung and maniacal. He joins our heroine’s quartet to seek out voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), in the hopes of detangling a mystical mix-up.

The fourth member, Raymond, a lovesick Cajun-accented firefly, helps to move the narrative along, providing solutions, support and poignancy.

The vocal talents suit the Randy Newman-scored musical numbers, most of which have a jazz-and-blues tinge befitting the era. None is as catchy as “Under the Sea”, “I’m Going to be a Mighty King” or even the recent Enchanted songs, but are easy on the ears and create the right atmosphere.

The same goes for the visuals, which splendidly mine jazz-age New Orleans and the swamp environment. A standout scene involves Raymond’s firefly pals lighting up the bayou, mirroring the starry sky.

Rather than attempting to break new ground, the animators have embraced the fluidity and whimsy of the form, which adds up to a good old-fashioned feast for the eyes.

There are also several Disney cameos, such as the dolls and books on Charlotte’s shelves and the costumed guests at her ball. The animation and tunes perfectly set off the story, which is equally heartfelt and comic, promoting values like honesty, frugality, wonder and love.

While reflecting the current economic crisis – the villain is rather like an unscrupulous investment banker, taking wild gambles in his pursuit of wealth – The Princess and the Frog also works as a postmodern fairytale, with the characters showing skeptical awareness of the principles, such as wishing on stars and breaking spells with kisses.

Although Charlotte is willing to kiss as many frogs as necessary to find her prince, Tia disdains such frivolous notions, and her enchanted journey is enlightening for her and the viewer – a call to believe once more in the magic that seemed lost years ago, when Disney’s sparkle was tarnished by critical and financial failures such as Treasure Planet.

It’s just unfortunate for The Princess and the Frog that it follows Shrek and Enchanted, which shifted Disney conventions so hilariously out of context. That The Princess and the Frog retains some of these parodied conventions makes it feel a little outdated.

But it’s a throwback that prompted spontaneous applause from scores of children at the cinema, proving there’s still a place in this day and age for wholesome musical 2D animations – the sort of thing Disney has always done best.

The Princess and the Frog (Walt Disney Animation Studios, 97 minutes)
Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker
Starring Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jim Cummings, Jenifer Lewis, John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Cody, Peter Bartlett, Terrence Howard

One thought on “Disney recaptures its renaissance magic

  1. Pingback: Let Me Entertain Me « Pop Culture Playpen

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