Monday, December 14, 2009

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog *** ½
Directed by:
Ron Clements & John Musker.
Written By: Ron Clements & Rob Edwards & Greg Erb & Don Hall & John Musker & Jason Oremland.
Starring: Anika Noni Rose (Tiana), Bruno Campos (Prince Naveen), Keith David (Dr. Facilier), Michael-Leon Wooley (Louis), Jennifer Cody (Charlotte), Jim Cummings (Ray), Peter Bartlett (Lawrence), Jenifer Lewis (Mama Odie), Oprah Winfrey (Eudora), Terrence Howard (James), John Goodman ('Big Daddy' La Bouff).

It has been a number of years since Disney has made an animated film in their classic style. The last one was 2003’s Brother Bear, but it was another disappointment – both artistically and financially – for the studio following The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Lilo and Stitch and Treasure Planet. In response, Disney decided to all but shut down this wing of the animated branch. The glory days of the 1990s behind them, they decided they couldn’t compete with the new computer animation, so they didn’t try. For people like me, who loved Disney animation, this was a sad time. It wasn’t that people didn’t want to see this style of animation anymore – it’s that Disney got away from what they did best.

This alone makes the release of The Princess and the Frog a major event. I am also glad to say that this is in fact Disney’s best since the glory days of the 1990s that ended with Tarzan in 1999. It is a fun, family friendly musical comedy with catchy songs, a heartwarming story and a good message for the kids. It is in short, another classic from Disney.

The story takes place in New Orleans, sometime earlier in the 20th century. As a little girl, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is taken along with her mother Eudora (Oprah Winfrey) on her seamtress jobs to the house of Big Daddy La Bouff (John Goodman), and his spoiled little girl Charlotte (Jennifer Cody). All Charlotte wants to do is grow up and marry a Prince, so she can become a real princess. Tiana on the other hand, wants to make her daddy’s dream come true and open her own restaurant. When we flash forward to the kids now as adults, nothing much has changed. Charlotte is still a spoiled girl (she has a good heart though), and is very excited at the arrival of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) of Maldonia in New Orleans. Tiana is working two jobs just to save enough to make her dreams come true. The arrival of Naveen though brings out an evil plot by Dr. Facillier (Keith David), who practices voodoo. With the help of Naveen’s put upon manservant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), tired of running behind the spoiled Prince who does nothing but party, Dr. Facillier turns Naveen into a frog, and has Lawrence take his place. The plan is to get Lawrence to marry Charlotte, to get their hands on Big Daddy’s fortune. Naveen, now a frog, comes across Tiana, dressed in one of Charlotte’s Princess dresses, and mistakes her for the real thing. He convinces her to kiss him, but because she’s not a real princess, he remains a frog. Worse, she becomes one as well. Chased into the Bayou by Dr. Faciller, who needs Naveen back for his blood, they meet two friends – Louis (Michael Leon Wooley), a confused gator who can play the trumpet and wants to be in a jazz band, and Ray (Jim Cummings) a Creole firefly. They decide to take them to Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis), to try and get them changed back.

The Princess and the Frog is lovingly animated and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements – the directors responsible for such films as The Great Mouse Detective (a childhood favorite of mine), The Little Mermaid and Aladdin. In short, they know how to handle a Disney animated film, and they do a great job her. The characters are wonderfully animated, and the pace never lets up. The songs by Randy Newman, while they may not be as great as songs in past Disney movies, are still excellent, and allow for some great musical numbers. The wonderful “Down in New Orleans” is a loving tribute to the city, the great “Almost There” is a inspirational little song, and the creepy “Friends on the Other Side” is a wonderfully spooky tune.

The voice work is also wonderful. Forgoing a trend in animated movies, this one does not fill up the cast with name brand stars. True, you recognize Oprah’s voice, but she blends in well with the rest of the cast. Anika Noni Rose has wonderful voice work, and is a great singer, and Bruno Campos makes a lovable, playboy prince. Best of all is Keith David who is creepy and spooky as Dr. Faciller.

I also liked the message of the movie. After generations of stories about helpless Princesses who have to wait for their Prince Charmings to come along, Tiana is the exact opposite. She works hard for everything she has, and this time it is the Prince who needs to grow up, and be saved, by the woman. The fact that for the first time, we have an African American woman at the heart of the movie is just icing on the cake.

I suspect that kids are going to love this movie. Even little boys, who may be dragged along with their mothers and sisters, are going to have fun with The Princess and the Frog. It’s hard not to. This is a joyous film. Welcome back Disney.

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