Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, like the best of fairy tales, begins and ends with a good story. A dynamic 19-year old African-American woman dreams of owning her own restaurant. Accidentally turned into a frog with a kiss, she’s drawn into a funny adventure, twisting and turning through Louisiana’s bayous in a quest to become human again. It’s a fanciful tale set in 1920s New Orleans, alive with Cajun culture and jazz, beignets and gumbo, bayou and voodoo. The “Big Easy” is a character itself.
Tiana continues the recent tradition of cracking the archetypal Disney Princess mold. Anika Noni Rose shines as Disney’s first African-American princess; with true American grit, she does for herself, thank-you-very-much. Tiana’s Louisiana African-American heritage gifts her with work ethic and legacy of good food and family.
No moping around hoping “someday my prince will come;” Tiana juggles two jobs, saving for her restaurant. She knows wishing upon a star only gets you halfway to your dream; work makes up the rest. Modern gal’s dilemma: Who has time for romance?
Prince Naveen (Campos) of Malcedonia, cut off by his parents, travels to New Orleans searching for a rich wife to finance his cushy lifestyle. Naveen, although somewhat forgettable, oozes charm, humor, and a suave accent. His frog stint opens his googly eyes even wider to the world around him, where honest work trumps royal entitlement.
Naveen is attended by prissy valet Lawrence and both become easy pawns of the villainous Dr. Facilier (David), a witch doctor seeking easy riches, who schemes to cheat big-hearted Big Daddy and his spoiled-but-loveable daughter, Charlotte. As bad guys go, he’s more slimy than scary. His voodoo goes comically awry when Naveen-turned-frog escapes.
No worries — Mama Odie (Lewis), more spiritual advisor than wand-waving godmother, makes things right with magical gumbo. Although blind, she sees straight into the heart of the matter.
Then there are the pals that Tiana and Naveen, as frogs, meet along the way: Raymond, endearingly stereotypical Cajun firefly, and Louis, a loveable jazz-playing alligator. Their journey through the bayou hatches some of the silliest scenes and gags, especially for kiddos.
But my favorite element of The Princess and the Frog is the music. Everyone — prince to firefly — sings and dances, and their songs are infectious. Randy Newman’s classic Disney score meets Louisiana jazz, zydeco, and gospel in showstoppers like Tiana’s “Almost There,” and it works.
The film’s lushness (Disney’s first hand-animated film since 2004) is post-CGI eye candy. An impressionist canvas of the bayou’s muted palette. Pop-art explosions of pulsating voodoo spirits. Tiana’s dream place is infused with Art Deco elegance.
The evil here isn’t so much Facilier as it is the American ideal that money equals happiness. Money will surely seal the deal on Tiana’s restaurant, set up Naveen comfortably for life, and bring Facilier fabulous riches. So what? Some post-modern soul-searching is in order. Mama Odie, with full gospel-choir accompaniment, belts out her advice to “Dig a Little Deeper” beyond their “I wants.”
Tiana and Naveen grasp what the philosopher Jagger crooned: “You can’t always get what you want/ But if you try sometimes you just might find/ You get what you need.”
Give up something for someone and you just might be surprised by the results. This goes for insects and amphibians, princes and princesses alike. — Melissa Tarun