Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Princess and the Frog: It's not easy being green

The Princess and the Frog (2009) • View trailer for The Princess and the Frog
Four stars (out of five). Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.17.09
Buy DVD: The Princess and the Frog • Buy Blu-Ray: The Princess and The Frog (Three Disc Blu-ray/DVD Combo)

During the delightful prologue that introduces our heroine in The Princess and the Frog, it becomes clear that this new Disney animated feature well remembers the lessons learned from The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Specifically, co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements  who also wrote the film, with a few other hands  have made another old-style Hollywood musical with lavish production numbers limited only by the size of the movie screen. But it's not all song and dance, of course; we quickly come to care  and deeply  for the major players in this re-worked fairy tale, and that's the important part.
The newly frog-ified Tiana, left, has trouble controlling her extendable,
mucous-covered tongue; she quickly gets this unexpectedly long pink
appendange tangled up with the one belonging to the similarly amphibious
Prince Naveen. Rescue will come from an unexpected quarter...

As Pixar's John Lasseter has proven, time and again, story and character are paramount; everything else is just flash. Now that he's supervising all Disney animated projects  he secured an executive producer credit on this one  Lasseter clearly has re-emphasized the crucial need to help viewers bond emotionally with these characters.

Much has been made of the fact that this is the first old-style, hand-drawn animated feature to emerge from Disney since the extremely disappointing Home on the Range. At the time, that 2004 release's failure was attributed to its hand-drawn look, as if to suggest that audiences would have embraced the film had it been done on computers.

Nonsense. Home on the Range failed because of its relentlessly stupid story and unappealing characters, not to mention its uninspired voice cast. (I'm looking at you, Roseanne.)

The Princess and the Frog, in great contrast, has a marvelous voice cast, and the story wisely blends the coming-of-age "journey" aspects of earlier Disney classics  say, The Jungle Book and The Lion King  with the faster-paced comic hijinks of The Emperor's New Groove. The result probably won't be regarded as one of Disney finest animated films  that's a daunting club to join  but it's certainly engaging and entertaining.

The setting is jazz-era New Orleans of the 1920s, where Tiana (voiced by the mellifluous Anika Noni Rose) has grown up with the strong work ethic instilled by her beloved parents. She has a talent for cooking, and works long shifts at two jobs in order to save enough money to finance her longtime dream of opening a restaurant/jazz nightspot.

Her one friend from childhood is Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), the spoiled, demanding and flamboyantly wealthy daughter of richer-than-God 'Big Daddy' (John Goodman). The relationship between these two women is uncomplicated; Charlotte certainly perceives Tiana's lesser circumstances, and makes no effort to lend assistance, but at the same time remains untroubled by any concept of a racial divide.

The film doesn't dwell on such issues, but occasionally makes its points rather cleverly and subtly.

When Tiana's mother  a talented seamstress  leaves her job at Big Daddy's palatial home, she crosses the city via cable car: The houses gradually get smaller and more rustic, and the inhabitants at her destination definitely aren't white.

That's as far as matters go, with respect to social commentary, and that's probably enough. New Orleans always has been (somewhat) more enlightened, so we can leave it at that.

The community is all a-twitter after the announced arrival of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), an irresponsible lad from far-off Maldonia, whose parents have just ripped the silver spoon from his mouth. Naveen therefore seeks a wealthy wife, a role Charlotte would be only too happy to accept.

Unfortunately, Naveen runs afoul of the sinister, voodoo-practicing Dr. Facilier (Keith David): Before you can say "Dixieland," the poor prince has been transformed into a frog ... and an evil spell has produced a look-alike who maintains the charade of courtship with Charlotte.

The desperate, now amphibious Naveen winds up at the Mardi Gras costume ball hosted by Big Daddy, and bumps into Tiana; the usual fairy-tale request is made, to which the young woman reluctantly complies. But things go awry. Tiana is only dressed as a princess, and isn't the real thing; therefore the kiss doesn't work.

Instead of returning Naveen to his former glory, she also becomes a frog.

Their subsequent adventures, as they enter a local swamp in search of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a mysterious, 197-year-old magic woman who might reverse the spell, involve two new comrades: a jovial, trumpet-playing alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley, an absolute delight), who dreams of jamming with his jazz idols; and a laid-back, love-struck Cajun firefly dubbed Ray (Jim Cummings), who mistakenly believes that the evening star is the world's most beautiful firefly, whom he has dubbed "Evangeline."

Dr. Facilier isn't one to stand around while our heroes try to regain their original forms; the devious scoundrel makes a deal with even more sinister forces, and sends shadow monsters in pursuit. This actually is a clever running gag, since from the very beginning Facilier's own shadow clearly displays a mind of its own, with actions to boot.

Randy Newman's underscore easily captures the sassy, jazzy atmosphere that becomes its own character as this story proceeds; you'll hear occasional echoes of Gershwin, with nods to Porgy and Bess, along with traces of Newman's own earlier score for Ragtime. That said, the instrumental themes are more successful than some of the songs; although the lyrics are clever and well-integrated to the on-screen action, you'll be hard-pressed to remember the melodies upon leaving the theater.

Meaning, sadly, that this film isn't likely to generate pop-song smashes along the lines of "Under the Sea" or "Beauty and the Beast." The most likely candidate would be Mama Odie's full-throated belting out of "Dig a Little Deeper"  Jenifer Lewis accompanied by the Pinnacle Gospel Choir  although Dr. Facilier's "Friends on the Other Side" is an engaging finger-snapper as well.

The film's core strength derives from its characters. Tiana and Naveen can't stand each other at first; she regards him as a useless layabout, while he finds her much too uptight and unwilling to have fun.

This dynamic gets even richer  like a spicy gumbo  with the introduction of Louis, whose bulk belies his fear of just about everything, and Ray, whose impressive courage is a droll contrast to his diminutive size.

These four make most unlikely comrades, which of course is the point.

Many of the sight gags are quite funny, most notably the difficulty Tiana and Naveen have with their new, extendable and mucous-covered tongues. In a different vein, Cody steals her every scene as the hilariously irrepressible Charlotte; she's a pure hoot 'n' a holler ... and she does quite a lot of hollering.

On the other hand, a brief encounter between our two amphibious heroes and a trio of backwoods, frog's legs-loving hillbillies seems ill-advised: a pratfall-laden sequence straight out of a Three Stooges short that isn't nearly as funny as the filmmakers apparently believe. Mercifully, it's short.

Mostly, Musker and Clements maintain a careful balance between the evolving character interactions and the jazz-laden good times demanded by the setting and time period. The Princess and the Frog is both a clever riff on a classic fairy tale, and an at-times poignant reminder (Disney style) that dreams can come true, albeit not necessarily in a way that we expect.

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