'Princess and the Frog' a Joyous, Romping Good Time

Directed by: J. Musker & R. Clements, Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade: B+

When I heard that Disney would be venturing into New Orleans for their first hand-drawn piece in over five years, the excitement could barely be contained. All of the novelty present within the city's '50s era culture sent spirals of ideas in my mind about what the creators could concoct, whether it would be sumptuous capturing of the French Quarter's garden district or the creepy ways that these masters of family-friendly eeriness could paint up voodoo. The result is The Princess and the Frog, a cheerful take on that familiar amphibian-smooching "Frog Prince" story where a leap of faith results in storybook romance. Though the number of grand musical numbers might be too dense for non-brassy Disney lovers, it's a buoyant, dazzling piece of work due to its glowing illustration of Jazz-age Louisianan culture and the sheer amount of cheeky fun had within its fanciful story and atmosphere.

This, to Aladdin directors John Musker and Ron Clements' credit, is more than the typical mawkish kiss-and-pray story; it's still about a girl who places her faith in a slimy little green creature she hopes will turn into a prince, but it's also about realizing her dream -- and it's a lot of fun seeing her realize it in such a lavish setting. The girl in question is Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress in N'Orleans who's saving up for her own restaurant. At first, we see her as a young child embraced by the warmth of a loving -- albeit financially downtrodden -- family, dashing her father's scintillating gumbo with hot sauce for good measure. Later, this lust for food, and love for her father, feeds into her life as a double-and-triple shift waitress saving for "Tiana's Place", dodging social invites from her friends and rolling her eyes at the squawking of her childhood friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), daughter to the town's rich socialite "Big Daddy" Le Bouff (John Goodman).

The Princess and the Frog sets itself up as an embellished take on the Disney "princess" formula, invoking vibrant music into an optimistic beginning to Tiana's story. Musker and Clement cram in several of Randy Newman's feisty musical numbers at the beginning, seeming like it's going to be a bit more spectacle than fluid storytelling. Song and dance cues paint up Tiana's determination and concoct the right rhythmic tone for New Orleans, introducing us briefly -- and in comedic form -- to the town's voodoo doctor (Keith David) and the recently arrived, disavowed Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) as he jumps in with the music of the streets. This carries us along with an electric mood until we reach "Almost There", a musical number that transplants us into an in-motion art deco poster. With Anika Noni Rose's vocals blurting out a tone of tangible hope for Tiana's voice, the lyrics accompany a lustrous '30s-inspired visage that beautifully paints up her dreams.

That all happens long before the plot's big voodoo-infused twist, a reversal on the "Frog Prince" story -- loosely taken from E.D. Baker's "The Frog Princess" -- that instead transforms Tiana into a frog and drops her deep in the New Orleans bayou with a prince plagued with the same juju-concocted problem. After a peculiarly charming meet-cute between our Frog Prince and Tiana, done up in sparkly garb to make her out to be a "princess", we're treated to a riff on the fable that's constructed in blaring Disney fashion; swirling magic, flying beignets, and a huffy Louisianan belle eager to marry a wealthy prince lead us into Tiana and Naveen's trip through the swamps. Disney then begins to throw their gauntlet of staples in our direction, from a trumpet-playing alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) to a sleepy-eyed, snaggle-toothed lightning bug named Ray (Jim Cumming), and their journey to solve the magic dilemma is just as rhythmically motivating as the beginning.

However, it also sets in motion a sloppily-built romance between Prince Naveen and Tiana, one that's driven by stars in the characters' eyes but vaguely improbable due to their personality differences. It's partially due to the overpuffed "enamored" swooning of Prince Naveen, which comes across as more cheeky than charming. Sure, Tiana romantically teaches Naveen to cook and Naveen teaches Tiana to dance, all as frogs, but there's something unbearably easy about how their connection builds. It's almost as if the storyline wishes for us to possess an in-built affection for the two and assume, through their adventures together, that they can fall in love "blindly", without an outlined image of who they truly are. Is that something that should be appreciated, especially when the first half of the picture adamantly builds our affection for Tiana as a strong individual? However, we're able to overlook that trouble-free lapse, glazed over for ease in storytelling, for the sake of indulging in vibrant atmosphere and easy romance.

What makes The Princess and the Frog a bona fide experience is the Disney animation team's return to hand-drawn glory, dreaming up a throw-back style to classic animation that's as enchanting as its ancestors. Musical numbers can be too tightly packed together for those who don't favor Broadway-style productions as Tiana and Naveen coast through murky waters,, but this whimsical portrait of New Orleans' bayous still sweeps us up on sumptuous imagination and takes us back to carpet rides and places where the "seaweed is greener". The ubiquitous lush greenery hearkens to several other Disney productions, such as Sleeping Beauty and Bambi, only with a contemporary spin on a deep, earthy color palette. As the crew encounters fireflies and Mardi Gras in all its glory, it carries nearly as much magic as witnessing season fairies and prancing hippos in Fantasia. Voodoo sequences swirl in neon-colored magic, and its flavorful blacklight-looking tenacity is exactly what was expected -- with dashes of The Black Cauldron sparking its dark yet playful sequences. Don't worry; the whole film's not even close to THAT dark.

Chock full of down-home cooking, black magic, superb music that'll get your feet tapping and undeniable warmth, The Princess and the Frog is all about style and gusto -- and having a heck of a lot of fun in telling this fairytale. Instead of carting us away to some land far, far away, it rustles together a wealth of magic in a real-world environment that, though labeled with a time due to its clothing, automobiles, and such, still exists as both a timeless and enchanted place. What it aims to do in this location swings more on dazzling our eyes and slapping a grin on our faces, all while giving Tiana -- the first black princess in Disney's run -- a determined drive to achieve her dreams. And it does just that, building into nearly 100-minutes of captivating excitement that should ensure the place of Disney's dreamy animation for years to come. It might not be quite the same quality blend of grand narrative and vivacious demeanor that John Musker and Ron Clements have become famous for, but the inspired rendering of its location and the sheer joy created still carry on the lineage of Disney animated greatness.


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