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It seems impossible to talk about The Princess and the Frog without bringing up the subject of race -- after all, Walt Disney Animation Studios made 48 features before finally offering an African-American protagonist, having gone through Chinese, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Indian first. And yet I think they took the correct approach to this by generally playing it down, avoiding both negative stereotyping and conscientious nods to political correctness.
The heroine, Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose), is simply herself -- a young, ambitious woman who dreams of fulfilling the wishes of her late father by opening a restaurant in her home of New Orleans. Since the movie's commercials immediately give the main plot catalyst away, it's no spoiler to say that, by kissing a prince (voice of Bruce Campos) who's been turned into a frog, she becomes a frog too. Some have complained that this regrettably takes attention away from her ethnicity -- now she's green, not "black" -- but I think viewers young and old are smarter than that and won't be confused about who they're rooting for.
It's more fun, then, to focus on how directors Ron Clements and John Musker turn their movie into a celebration of the good ol' bright Disney musical animated features of the '90s. For those of us who loved those movies, The Princess and the Frog is a heady dose of nostalgia, and the question left in our heads after seeing it is, "why did they ever stop making these?" This movie is entertaining from head to toe, suffering nothing from being traditionally animated as opposed to being computer animated; rather, the traditional animation enhances it, as I don't believe it could achieve its particular sense of style and atmosphere without its very look, from the charming simplified art of the "Almost There" number to the memorably caricatural appearance of the sinister Doctor Facilier (voice of Keith David) and his evil army of shadows.
I also thought the writing was particularly strong, amending the classic "wish upon a star" theme with some welcome practicality and wrapping up the ending with particular sentiment and cleverness. If the movie has any major weakness, it would be that it can't escape feeling self-consciously referential -- everything about it is a reflection of or a reaction to the more beloved and successful of Disney's past animated features, whether the subject be style, formula, comedy, or audience expectation. This makes the film feel more concocted, less organic; but behind it is a recognition of the kind of work this studio can do well and, hopefully, an understanding that what you do with the format and not the format per se is what fuels a wondrous movie.
(Released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and rated "G" for general audiences.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.