Mark Reviews Movies


2  Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Ron Clements and John Musker

Cast: The voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, John Goodman, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard

MPAA Rating: G

Running Time: 1:37

Release Date: 11/25/09 (limited); 12/11/09 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 10, 2009

There's a big brouhaha being made over Disney's latest animated movie The Princess and the Frog for two reasons: 1.) It's a return to traditional, 2-D animation from a studio that was supposed to quit that venture for computer animation, and 2.) it's the first such offering to provide a lead African-American heroine. These will be the focus of most talks about The Princess and the Frog, so I'll dispel their seeming importance right off the bat and get to the movie itself.

First, it's only been five years since Disney offered us a hand-drawn animated feature (the terrible Home on the Range, if you've graciously forgotten it), which isn't that long of a hiatus in the big scheme of things, especially considering how long it can take for production on such a project. Personally, I was skeptical of eliminating this type of production, but in that five years, there have been leaps and bounds in technology, and it's really allowed studios, Pixar obviously being the pinnacle, to give us some wonderful sights that nevertheless focus primarily on good narratives.

Second, Disney heroes have been pretty diverse over the years, so while it's strange that's it's taken this long for an African-American as the lead character in an animated Disney production, it's nothing about which to lose sight over the rest of the movie.

lus, our heroine spends most of her time as a frog, a bait-and-switch move of sorts that I'm happy to point out but will let others who are more politically inclined tackle, as they already have started doing.

Remove these two elements from the equation of analyzing The Princess and the Frog, as it's probably more honest to do than to concentrate entirely on either one of them as the primary source of examination (They are, after all, more marketing than artistic concerns), and we're left with an almost passable but entirely forgettable entry into the classic Disney formula.

And this is a formula, established as early as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and reestablished with much success during the Disney Renaissance through the 1990s. It takes a classic story, here the Grimm brothers' "The Frog Prince" as re-imagined in E.D. Baker's novel The Frog Princess, adds some music, throws in a villain, inserts some anthropomorphic sidekicks, and focuses the narrative on a fairy-tale love story.

Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) has never dreamed of becoming a princess, like her best friend Charlotte (voice of Jennifer Cody); her ambition is to fulfill her deceased father's dream of opening a restaurant. After years of multiple waitressing jobs, she comes close, but her deal to buy a building is one-upped at the last minute.

After wishing upon a star (Her father wisely taught her that the wish is only the first part of the process; hard work is the next, more important one), she discovers a talking frog who says he is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), visiting New Orleans to marry a rich woman and continue his privileged lifestyle and transformed by the voodoo-practicing Dr. Facilier, or the Shadow Man. He thinks she's a princess, and she thinks he still has a fortune. If she kisses him, returning him to his human state like in the story they both heard as children, he will provide her the money to open the restaurant. The twist this time around is that, by kissing the frog, Tiana becomes one herself.

Tiana and Naveen encounter a few quirky assistants on their quest to rid themselves of the curse of the Shadow Man. They include a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis (voice of Michael-Leon Wooley), who once attempted to play along with a riverboat band (probably the movie's best gag), a firefly named Ray (voice of Jim Cummings), who is in love with the evening star he believes is another firefly, and Mama Odie (voice of Jenifer Lewis), who tries to set the two on the right between what the want and what they need.

There is certainly a genuine sense of nostalgia watching all of these familiar elements come into play once again, but the combination of seeing this recipe play out so many times before and seeing how others have expanded animated films beyond the Disney musical formula has softened their impact. The jazzy songs by Randy Newman are entirely unmemorable, pretty much reasserting information that's already been established outside of the music (I do like the style an early number by Tiana, which looks like a New Yorker cartoon). The one possible exception is "When We're Human," which has a catchy, occasional chorus that's hampered by unfortunate phonetics.

Facilier has an eerie shadow that interacts with the world and does some nasty voodoo that brings dark spirits from the Other Side, but his motivation is so shakily established that it never makes much sense, let alone turns him into a solid villainous force.

The rest of the movie is hit or miss throughout. The most success comes from the development of Ray from a goofy sidekick to a mildly tragic hero, while the strangest moment comes from a trio of inbred, Cajun stooges who want the amphibious Tiana and Naveen for dinner. Yes, it's a really odd moment.

I would love to say that The Princess and the Frog is a proud return to the olden days of traditional Disney animated musicals, but a lot has changed in the animated realm during the studio's temporary hiatus. It's not to say that this formula couldn't work again; it simply doesn't pass muster with this attempt.

Copyright 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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