Go ahead and pucker up. Because long before "The Princess and the Frog" is over you'll want to smooch the charming couple, air kiss a romantic firefly and hug a voodoo queen in this foot-stomping, smile-inducing, heart-warming animated twist on the old Brothers Grimm frog-prince fairy tale.
FOR THE RECORD:
"The Princess and the Frog": The review of the animated film "The Princess and the Frog" in Wednesday's Calendar said the lead character Tiana was a maid. She is a waitress. —
The filmmakers have brewed up a delicious roots story in every sense of the word. "The Princess and the Frog" is set in the 1920s jazz age in the New Orleans heart of it all.It's the studio's return to the lush, fluid beauty of hand-drawn animation. It's an old-fashioned fairy tale, even though they've had some fun with the story. And it's set to music in the grand tradition of "Beauty and the Beast," which is to say the neoclassic '90s brand of Disney animation.
FOR THE RECORD
This review incorrectly stated that the character Tiana was a maid. She was a waitress.
That might make "The Princess and the Frog" seem like a creature of ancient times, particularly since kids these days are raised on 3-D flash. The effect, though, is the opposite. After being bombarded by so much computer-generated, motion-captured high-and-higher jinks, the film feels fresh -- a discovery, or a rediscovery, depending on your age.
At the keyboards, we have the always flavorful Mr. Randy Newman creating a spicy gumbo of blues, gospel, jazz, Dixieland and, because we are in the Big Easy, a dash or two of zydeco along with the Tobasco (nothing says "now" like product placement).
There's plenty of razzle-dazzle, starting with Anika Noni Rose, the perky third of the "Dreamgirls," who's lending her fabulous pipes to Tiana, the hardworking lovely with big plans at the center of this story. Yes, a prince on the side might be nice, but this career girl from humble beginnings has her eye on an empty warehouse that will make a fine restaurant where the flappers will be hot, the jazz will be cool and the food oh so divine.
Though there are all sorts of barriers to be broken and despite a day job as a maid that has her forever pinching pennies, Tiana is not one to give up. That shouldn't come as a complete surprise since she has the ultimate overachiever in Oprah as her mama, though for some reason directors John Musker and Ron Clements, who wrote the script with Rob Edwards, call her Eudora. No matter.
This being New Orleans, the dark arts are a major factor in the story with Keith David's Dr. Facilier making so many deals with so many devils it will make your head spin and possibly frighten some little ones when those voodoo masks start multiplying and moving.
In keeping with the ethnic blend, the song and dance man with the Hugh Jackman good looks, only darker, is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), from the mythical kingdom of Maldonia. Whether it's a worry about offending African Americans with "cartoonish" exaggeration, or a desire to make the film palatable for white audiences, or both, the animators have been very careful with their pens when it comes to drawing black characters on the page. Just about everyone here has "good hair," and Tiana could be Halle Berry's kissing cousin. So while it's not Disney's first time at dipping a toe in multicultural waters -- "Aladdin," "Mulan" and " Pocahontas" were there first -- "The Princess and the Frog" still feels like baby steps.
With all of Dr. Facilier's scheming, Naveen is about to be green anyway, which makes him very jumpy, especially since there are gun-toting moonshiners who fancy frying up his legs. He was supposed to be kissed by Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), a rich Southern belle, but in a mistake of monumental proportions, he smooches Tiana instead and we have two frogs, not one, and no happily ever after in sight.
The rest of the film trots out many of the swampy tropes of childhood -- always be good, be careful who you trust, follow your dreams, it's what's inside that counts. But what could be tried as well as true is not, because the filmmakers have done to the bayou what Mardi Gras does to the French Quarter -- put music, magic, light and laughter everywhere.
There are the big Broadway-style numbers we've come to expect from Disney musicals of that only slightly bygone era, the kind that let the animation team go wild. One of "The Princess and the Frog's" best comes when a swarm of fireflies seeks a blind voodoo queen named Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), who might be the only one powerful enough to break Dr. Facilier's curse. Led by a hopeless romantic named Ray (Jim Cummings), a bit of a dim bulb, the bayou turns into a high-kicking extravaganza with singing and dancing swamp critters pulling off complicated choreography while Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a gator with a jazz obsession, blows a really mean trumpet.
Clements and Musker are pretty much Disney born and raised with two of the studio's best musical showstoppers, "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," heading their résumés. With "The Princess and the Frog" they've gotten just about everything right. The dialogue is fresh-prince clever, the themes are ageless, the rhythms are riotous and the return to a primal animation style is beautifully executed.
So shake a stick at those Grimm Brothers, when it comes to princesses and frogs we now have a beautiful, boisterous sister in charge.