With the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David. Rated G. 97 minutes.
Miracles do happen. Disney, once the big dog in Hollywood animation, had been reduced to second class status by Pixar, the computer animation company that is today’s gold standard in the field. Disney used to distribute Pixar films. Now they are merged with Pixar and their people are putting their stamp on Disney animation across the board.
Think about it. What was the last hand drawn animated Disney film that was actually worth anything? It was “Lilo & Stitch” (2002), and that was an aberration among a whole lot of forgettable movies. THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG restores the Disney brand the way “The Little Mermaid” did twenty years ago. It’s funny, it’s tuneful (music by Randy Newman) and it’s dazzling.
The story concerns Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose), a poor African-American girl in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century. She’s scrimping and saving to fulfill her late father’s dream of opening up a restaurant. The racial issues are finessed, just as we’re not supposed to notice that it’s taken 63 years – since “Song Of The South” – for Disney to bring us heroic black characters.
Things get complicated with the arrival of African Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) who has fallen under the hex of Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and been turned into a frog. Only the kiss of a princess will break the spell, as Tiana discovers when she kisses him against her better judgment and is turned into a frog herself. Much of the film consists of Tiana and Naveen in the bayou, trying to avoid alligators and hunters. The latter seem like refugees from a Warners Bros. cartoon, providing a broad slapstick sequence. The froggy couple make friends, get help, and – don’t spoil it for your children – everything turns out all right.
Although the animators make use of modern computer technology, just as they’ve been doing in other “traditionally animated” films like “Beauty And The Beast,” this feels like classic Disney. There are love songs and comic songs and some scary sequences that aren’t too scary. Best of all, none of it requires 3D glasses. There’s no need to knock computer animation. The Pixar catalog alone proves its worth. However Hollywood was too quick to turn its back on traditional cel animation as too expensive and “old-fashioned.” As is often the case, the problem wasn’t with the choice of animation, but with the stories the filmmakers were choosing to tell.
“The Princess And The Frog” is fun for all ages. It’s great family entertainment, but if you don’t have children and can’t borrow some, go anyway. Adults may find themselves wanting to analyze some of the political and historical issues the film raises, and that’s fair game. The nice thing, though, is that it doesn’t take away from what’s easily one of the happiest and most entertaining movies of the season.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.