Starring: The voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman
Running time: 97 minutes
Bottom line: A return to classic Disney form
“The Princess and the Frog” marks a return to the lush, hand-drawn fairy tales that once defined Walt Disney pictures. All the elements are there: beautiful animation, a princess, wishing on a star, endearing secondary characters and a journey that leads to an epiphany.
In so many ways, this movie feels like a return to the kind of films Disney made when Walt and his famous animators, the so-called Nine Old Men, were still the heart of the studio.
So why does it look so different from all those classic Disney films?
Because Disney has, at long last, learned how to celebrate rather than insult a minority culture. “The Princess and the Frog” debuts Disney’s first African-American princess.
There’s no point dancing around the obvious. Disney’s track record when it comes to representing characters of any ethnicity other than white is, shall we say, questionable? You remember Uncle Remus from “Song of the South,” the American Indians from “Peter Pan” and the African centaurs from “Fantasia,” right?
This is the first time a Disney feature has fully embraced black culture. Time will judge how well they do that, but I can tell you that the girls of all ethnicities who attended the advanced screening, many of whom wore princess dresses and tiaras, loved it thoroughly. And for good reason.
This Disney princess, Tiana, doesn’t just look different, she’s a new kind of princess altogether. Tiana is by far the strongest woman among all the Disney princesses.
Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) grows up in New Orleans’ French Quarter during the jazz age. She and her father (Terence Howard) dream of opening their own restaurant some day. Meanwhile, Tiana’s mother (Oprah Winfrey) works for wealthy white businessman Big Daddy La Bouff (John Goodman), and Tiana befriends his spoiled, spirited daughter Charlotte (Jennifer Cody).
Charlotte wishes on stars and dreams of the day her prince will come. Tiana, though, heeds her daddy’s advice that she can only reach her goals through hard work.
Fast forward several years. Tiana’s father has died, and she is a young woman working two jobs to save up for her restaurant. Charlotte is more deluded than ever, and when royal playboy Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) visits New Orleans to find a bride, Charlotte believes her wish has been granted.
Unfortunately, voodoo practitioner and con man Dr. Facilier (Keith David) uses the prince’s visit to try to bring down Big Daddy.
Facilier’s scheme doesn’t follow the plan, though, and Naveen and Tiana wind up turned into frogs. Now they must survive the dangers of the bayou to get back to New Orleans and set everything right.
Along the way, they meet a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a blind voodoo priestess named Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) and a lovable Cajun firefly named Raymond (Jim Cummings).
The movie updates many of the standard Disney devices in the process, especially the belief in wishing upon a star. For the first time ever, Disney strikes a balance between encouraging everyone to dream big and acknowledging that we must, as Tiana’s father puts it, help those dreams along.
Young girls should love the movie, and the rest of the family probably will, too. If nothing else, most will enjoy a soundtrack that celebrates New Orleans-style jazz and zydeco.
But all fans of classic Disney or hand-drawn animation will cherish “The Princess and the Frog.” Computer-generated animation is doing wonderful things, but it simply can’t recreate the look of hand-drawn animation.
One gets the distinct impression that Disney is using this movie to test the waters and see if audiences still want to see hand-drawn animation.
They already seem to know they’ve produced a winner, because they’ve lined up at least two hand-drawn projects (“Winnie the Pooh” and “The Ice Queen”).
This is great news, especially if all the films hit the mark as well as “The Princess and the Frog.”
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.