In a cinematic sense, there are few things more frustrating than not being able to wholeheartedly praise a movie that’s drawn with good intentions and brings back the mind-blowingness of classic 2D hand-drawn animation. It’s easy to love Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, but much of this affection results from the nostalgia of the movie’s visuals and an audience’s willingness to get lost in the rapture of the final act. To bring things into perspective, I must stress that the female protagonist, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), starts out as an independent, hard-working woman but eventually loses her way and decides that, above all, the ultimate happiness comes from capturing the right man. It doesn’t even matter if this man is nothing but a ne’er do well slacker playboy, for love is simply enough to carry the day, and the rest falls into place. Perhaps even more exasperating, the movie promotes the notion that, if a woman so desires, she can change her man and transform him into the husband of her dreams. It’s such a terrible shame that Tiana’s work ethic — which was consistently encouraged by her late father, James (Terrence Howard) — can so easily be toppled when Tiana’s seamstress mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), mentions that she’d really like some grandbabies. At that point, Tiana’s biological clock kicks in like a heat-seeking, pheromone-loaded missile. What a way to send mixed messages, Disney.
Further, the New Orleans setting of The Princess and the Frog seems rather insincere, for this could have been a great opportunity to relish the jazz-soaked culture but instead, Disney has merely chosen a convenient place where one needn’t explain that most of the characters are black. The movie’s titular princess, Tiana, isn’t a true princess but a waitress who favors double shifts to save money towards her late father’s dream of owning a restaurant. At first, Tiana scores major points for spurning any advances from ladies’ men in favor of hard work and making her own way in life. Then, it suddenly looks like all her hard work just isn’t enough to earn enough money to buy a restaurant, so Tiana looks to other alternatives. During one particularly desperate moment, she wishes upon a star and then looks down to see a frog; naturally, she kisses this frog in the hopes that he’ll turn into a prince. Of course, this amphibian really is a prince — to be specific, the ethnically ambiguous Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) — but, since Tiana isn’t a princess (she was merely dressed that way for a masquerade party), the magic doesn’t go her way and, instead, turns her into a frog as well. For the second act, both frogs flee to the swampy bayou to figure out how to become human once again and, yes, of course they fall in love.
The Princess and the Frog takes a lot of cues from the old Disney catalog and will rustle up memories from Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King. A few of the characters are very well-drawn caricatures and also distract from the all-too-disappointing main players. Tiana’s lifelong best friend, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody, who does striking voice work), is an amusing Southern belle who squeals in delight at the sight of her father, “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman), and his wallet. Then, there’s the sinister Dr. Facilier a.k.a. the Shadow Man (Keith David), who looks like the voodoo love child of Prince and Little Richard but may be a bit too villainous for toddler-aged kiddies. Finally, a few bayou creatures are sure to charm, including jazz-playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and romantic firefly Ray (Jim Cummings). With the help of Ray and Louis, Tiana and Naveen seek the help of a benevolent voodoo priestess named Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), who doesn’t help them much in the way of magic but does provide the movie’s only inspired musical number. The rest of the score is entirely flat and humdrum and seems as if it wasn’t even coordinated with the rest of the project.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh here. Aside from this trivial nonsense of a severely disappointing storyline, the film does quite well. There’s this amazing thing called “hand-drawn animation” that looks a lot better than the latest mutation of CGI or 3D hell. Imagine actually being able to marvel at thousands of lightning bugs as they dance above a Louisiana bayou before forming intricate patterns, swooshing up into the sky, and whirling into a fireworks display — that is — without it all being shoved into your 3D glasses. Further, no so-called superior technology can ever hope to replicate the incredible detail and striking color of this traditional hand-drawn stuff. It’s such a shame that Disney’s return to old-school hand-drawn style has to be marred with such a mediocre story. Don’t get me wrong though. The Princess and the Frog is an enjoyable diversion and much better than a lot of the crap shoveled out to kids these days. I just wish the script (not to mention the ordinary musical numbers) was even half as majestic as the animation.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.