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The Princess and the Frog is a generally entertaining fairy tale that is also one of the studio’s most interesting fairy-tale romances, one in which both hero and heroine have something to learn from each other.
BY STEVEN D. GREYDANUS
The Princess and the Frog is the first real classic Disney of the 21st
say this is not to elevate The
Princess and the Frog above the
near brilliance of Lilo &
Stitch or The Emperor’s New Groove (technically a 20th-century film), neither of
which suffers by comparison with the new film. Rather, the kind of
brilliance in those films could almost as easily have come from rival
DreamWorks or from somewhere else.
of the studio’s cartoons of the last 15 years or so has had both feet firmly in
the tradition represented by golden-age masterpieces like Sleeping Beauty and Snow
White as well as “silver age”
classics like Beauty and
the Beast. The Princess and the Frog may not be in the same league as those gems, but
it’s the first Disney film since The Lion
King that feels like a real heir
to this tradition.
years ago, after the creative and commercial failure of Home on the Range, Disney turned away from traditional hand-drawn animation. With Pixar
honcho John Lasseter now helming Disney’s animation studios, though, that was
bound to change. Lasseter’s name may be synonymous with computer animation, but
his enthusiasm for hand-drawn animation (classic Disney, Miyazaki) is no less
avid, and under his leadership, the Mouse has turned back to his roots.
the same time, The
Princess and the Frog isn’t just
a throwback to the Disney renaissance. This is Disney for a new generation. In
a way it’s a pan-Disney pastiche, echoing everything from Song of the South and The
Rescuers to Mulan and
Lilo & Stitch while gracefully minimizing the weaknesses of
all those films — and moving forward into the new millennium at the same time.
in 1920s’ New Orleans, The
Princess and the Frog combines
the ethnic diversity of late-1990s Disney, though without the tendentiousness,
with the cultural specificity of Lilo &
Stitch. There are song-and-dance
numbers, but instead of Broadway show tunes, Pixar composer Randy Newman has
whipped up a medley of New Orleans jazz, blues, zydeco and gospel.
wishing on stars, magic and dreams coming true — but also emphasis on hard work
and accomplishment, with a clear message that wishing on stars isn’t enough.
There’s a handsome prince and a magical kiss, but here, too, it’s clear that
merely hoping that someday your prince will come is inadequate as a life
a villain with magical powers — but instead of Disneyfied magic, like Aladdin’s
friendly genie, the film’s New Orleans voodoo is an occult world of terrifying
powers and principalities in which the villain himself is at much at risk as anyone.
It’s almost Disney’s most overtly Christian depiction of magic and evil since Sleeping Beauty — though the waters are muddied by a benevolent, swamp-dwelling hoodoo
mama in a sort of fairy-godmother role.
(Anika Noni Rose), the daughter of hard-working but impoverished parents who
dreams of owning her own restaurant, is Disney animation’s first black heroine
and first American fairy-tale princess. (Why is she a princess? Well, wait and
see.) Her father, James (Terrence Howard), is one of the warmest and most
attractive Disney fathers, and though he has only one scene, his spirit
pervades the film. Her mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), is an even rarer
maternal presence (few Disney protagonists have present, involved mothers).
may object to the contrast between the idealized depiction of Tiana’s poor
black family and impoverished neighborhood, where neighbors gather on Tiana’s
back porch to share her father’s gumbo, and the satiric portrayal of the wealthy
white characters: the spoiled, superficial Southern belle Charlotte (Jennifer
Cody), who wishes on stars and waits for her prince to come, and her
buffoonish, overindulgent father, Eli “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman).
of a different political slant may find fault with the portrayal of the close
and comfortable relationships between Charlotte and Big Daddy on the one hand
and Tiana and Eudora on the other. The film opens with Eudora, a seamstress,
making princess outfits for little Charlotte while regaling both girls with the
fairy tale of the frog prince.
Charlotte and Tiana are lifelong
friends, and when Tiana — now a hard-working waitress with dreams of her
restaurant — has an accident while catering a ball at the La Bouff plantation,
Charlotte whisks her inside and lends her a gown. That gown becomes a key plot
point when Tiana meets a talking frog who claims he is a prince, leading to a
magical kiss that does not go as expected.
It all starts with the arrival of Prince
Naveen (Bruce Campos), a royal playboy in town for Mardi Gras, in whose honor
the ball at the La Bouff plantation has been thrown. Early in his visit, Naveen
encounters Doctor Facilier (Keith David), also called the Shadow Man, a
smooth-talking, sinister fortune-teller and witch doctor.
Facilier’s voodoo hits closer to
home than the sorcery of Aladdin’s Jafar. He
reads Tarot cards, brandishes talismans and charms, and ominously refers to his
“friends on the other side” — evil spirits represented first by voodoo masks
and later seen as alarming shadows, clearly nobody’s “friends.”
Chilling as Facilier’s demonic
allies are, they unquestionably put Facilier’s occultism in its true moral
light. More ambiguous is the depiction of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a
97-year-old blind lady whose swamp home is an old shrimp boat marooned in a
tree. Though feared as a witch, Mama Odie easily scatters the forces of
darkness and practices a form of divination while advising Tiana and Naveen to
“dig a little deeper” and discover their real needs beneath their wants.
This advice is framed as a musical
production number with overt gospel overtones, with Mama Odie standing behind a
chest and in a crow’s nest looking like an evangelist in a Baptist church.
Still, Mama Odie’s pet snake Juju is a reminder that she’s no Baptist.
Mama Odie is the biggest caveat in a
generally entertaining Southern-fried fairy tale that is also one of the
studio’s most interesting fairy-tale romances, one in which both hero and
heroine have something to learn from each other. (Fancy Pocahontas having
something to learn from John Smith.) Even silly Charlotte gets a redemptive
moment, and if there is a would-be spell-breaking kiss that comes, à la
The Little Mermaid, a heartbeat too late, it is for excellent dramatic
reasons, and the ultimate resolution here is far more satisfying. And when was
the last Disney movie that actually ended with a real church wedding?
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic at
Content advisory: Some
scary and menacing occult-themed images; morally mixed depiction of voodoo;
mild sensuality and suggestive references (e.g., flirtatious come-ons, references to a
character’s womanizing ways). Too much for sensitive youngsters.