“The Princess and the Frog” represents Disney’s big comeback to feature-length, traditionally animated filmmaking. Granted, it’s only been away for five years, but a comeback is a comeback, and I’ll take any renewed interest in 2-D storytelling I can get. Playing it safe to rekindle the animated magic that once defined the Disney name, “Princess and the Frog” is a joyful lap around familiar Mouse House artistic elements, looking to help rebuild the kingdom brand name with a cushy tale of a princess, smooch-happy amphibians, and the grandeur of turn-of-the-century New Orleans.
Struggling to make her father’s dream of a raging New Orleans restaurant a reality, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) works multiple jobs while the world passes her by. Offered a chance to earn the last pile of money she needs to make a down payment on a prime location, Tiana takes the job, making delicious beignets to celebrate the arrival of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos). Unfortunately, also heralding the prince’s visit is the shadowy voodoo man, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who wants to use the new balance of power to his villainous advantage, turning Naveen into a frog. Now green and slimy, the prince labors to coax Tiana into helping him transform back to a human through the fairy tale convention of a single kiss. Instead of a return to normalcy, Tiana is also made a frog. As time ticks away and Dr. Facilier begins to realize his wicked plans, the two amphibians hop their way through the bayou, making friends and avoiding peril on the path to Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), a blind voodoo priestess who might be able to change them both back.
Not leaving anything to chance, Disney has brought back animation directors Ron Clements and John Musker to oversee “Princess and the Frog,” to preserve whatever magic touch was left from the men who ran the show on “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” After some experimentation with tepid adventuring (“Treasure Planet,” “Atlantis”) and mild comedy (“Home on the Range”), works that ultimately stuck a fork in the medium, “Princess and the Frog” is a vibrant return to the Eisner/Katzenberg years, putting on an enormous show of song, dance, and colorful characters -- a Broadway matinee riff that exudes joy out of every pore. The energy is infectious with this picture, which broadly attempts to reclaim what was lost to poor management and the rise of Pixar.
While working with slick CG tools, the animation positively leaps off the screen here. “Princess and the Frog” is a dazzling picture, and while the story is chained to the ground, the numerous animation styles and expressive character designs take on a special life. The New Orleans locations are ample inspiration for the production team, gulping down the flavors of French Quarter life, cheerfully animating the hot jazz, powdery beignets, and puffed facial features with palpable love. The picture romanticizes The Big Easy to a point of ache in this post-Katrina world. A regional highlight comes when the images from Tiana’s beloved restaurant poster (the single image keeping her dream alive) are brought to life, pulling the dreamer into her dream world of graphic wonderment, spotlighting a few irresistible challenges the animators take on while working through the routine.
“Princess and the Frog” soon slips into creature feature mode, following Tiana and Naveen as they hurriedly hop through the backwaters to seek out Mama Odie. The duo is joined by Louis (voiced by Michael-Leon Wooley), a hulking alligator with a dream to play Dixieland jazz with the humans. There’s also a Cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings), a lovesick bug who pines for the brightest star in the sky. The comic relief fails to bring rolling waves of the funny to the feature, but their joviality flavors the film wonderfully, maintaining a solid tempo of humor that helps to pad out the proceedings.
Again, to help increase the odds of box office gold, Disney has brought composer Randy Newman, a Pixar vet and Louisiana legend, to oversee the musical moods of the picture. The vitality of the numerous songs is undeniable, taking distinct zydeco, Dixieland jazz, and gospel cues to convey a specific time and pitch of culture. A few of the tunes are certainly tuneless, and most of the soundtrack relies on a personal appreciation for the New Orleans soundscape, forgoing the universally beloved act of show tune supremacy. The songs are handsomely performed by the cast, with special attention given to Rose, who both voices and musically conveys the determination of Tiana flawlessly.
Formula is a Disney staple -- a needed sense of repetition to help coax younger viewers into a sense of comfort. However, there’s a strain of fatigue in “Princess and the Frog” keeping the material from truly exploding into greatness, or least Disney legend. There’s an effort made in the animation and the songwriting to challenge the audience with distinctive sights and sounds reflecting a specific location and era, yet the story is pure princess exertion, building an inert love story between Tiana and Naveen that doesn’t develop the sort of romantic traction as previous Disney classics have enjoyed. There’s also the ineffectiveness of Dr. Facilier, a dreary villain agreeably voiced and drawn (with forbidding voodoo accouterments), but seems more of an afterthought than a fiendish roadblock our heroes must conquer. The Disney habits are an unnecessary drag and too calculated for comfort.
While the demands of mass acceptance tend to spoil the fun, “Princess and the Frog” remains a skillful, enjoyable picture, helped along by a superb voice cast (which also includes John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, and Terrence Howard) and a sustained explosion of color, missing from the big screen for far too long. If the picture signals a rebirth of Disney 2-D animation, that’s a wonderful thing. However, there’s no reason the company couldn’t take a few chances for this new generation of hand-drawn entertainment. They may stumble across greatness once again.