The Princess and the Frog (G)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Is it too churlish to complain about The Princess and the Frog? Disney finally gives us a black princess ... and she spends most of the movie as an amphibian? Disney finally gives us a black princess ... at the same moment it decides to give us a "realistic princess," one who works hard for a living to achieve her down-to-earth dreams and isn't waiting on romance?
I mean, that's good ... but they couldn't stick with fantasy just a little longer? The white girls all got to be mermaids splashing in undersea fantasylands or book-loving lollabouts in the French countryside ... and the best that Tiana (the voice of Anika Noni Rose) gets here is the prospect of a long slog in one of the toughest businesses ever, food service?
You almost wish Disney hadn't done us any favors.
Still, it's ironic that there's even a debate over Disney's first black princess, because The Princess and the Frog feels so old-fashioned and familiar, you might think you've seen it before. It has a welcome organic style and lush look that disappeared when most animated movies became CGI productions. But there's no reason why Disney's first hand-drawn feature in years had to cover ground already well-paved by every Disney princess film before it.
This is a pink, pink movie, serving up heaps of by-the-book romantic adventure and show-stopping musical numbers. I use the word pink metaphorically. The Princess and the Frog is mostly warm browns and golds or cool greens and blues that create a visually sumptuous early-20th-century New Orleans. The pinkest stuff comes in the form of Tiana's best friend, the rich, spoiled, blonde brat Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), who is an intentional parody of Disney princesses, but not enough to be intriguing.
That could be the worst flaw of the film: It has no subtext, and is nothing more than an indulgence of already trademarked princess fantasies. Pixar films have succeeded not because they're CGI, but because they're telling us new stories in new ways. But directors Ron Clements and John Musker — who also wrote the film with four credited screenwriters — break as little new ground as possible.
And so we have Tiana, who is saving up her waitressing tips to open her own restaurant someday. Instead of the usual Disney absent mother, dad is gone, leaving her with Mom (Oprah Winfrey). Tiana hangs out with Charlotte and through her meets visiting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos). Naveen is determined to experience all that New Orleans offers, including voodoo, which leads to his being transformed into a frog by witch doctor Dr. Facilier (Keith David).
Of course, he can be turned back by a kiss from a princess, which he mistakes Tiana to be. But she is, instead, turned into a frog. Cue bayou adventure — including encounters with a jazz-loving alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a hopelessly romantic mosquito (Jim Cummings) — as they search for a Cajun fairy godmother to undo the spell.
Need I tell you how it ends?
There are a few good songs by Randy Newman — Tiana belts out the triumphant "Almost There" as she reaches for her dreams; Facilier relishes his supernatural helpers in "Friends on the Other Side" — but they are ringingly familiar even on first hearing. The Princess and the Frog might have been one of the Disney greats, had we first seen it back in 1993. Unfortunately, it's specifically designed to make you feel as if it's already an old favorite, which makes it feel more like manufactured goods.