Disney heralded "The Princess and the Frog" as a return to the studio's glory days of hand-drawn animated classics, but other than a few flourishes, it amounts to nothing more than a middling, yet enjoyable, diversion. There was also much made about how this is the first Disney animated "masterpiece" that features a black female protagonist. The movie itself doesn't live up to its perceived event status, though.
Our heroine, Tiana, works as a waitress for two or three shifts daily, denying herself fun and romance in Jazz Age New Orleans. She's trying to save enough money to open the restaurant of her -- and her late father's -- dreams. Once it appears she has finally achieved her dream, some dark forces, both realistic and supernatural, interfere.
She ends up kissing a frog who's actually Naveen, a carefree prince from a faraway land who's been cut off from his parents' enormous fortune (and sounds like Antonio Banderas' Puss in Boots in the "Shrek" movies, for some reason). Instead of turning the frog back into a prince, Tiana is turned into a frog herself since Naveen has been bewitched by the charismatic and evil Shadow Man, who is out to seize control of New Orleans. It has the potential to be an interesting twist on the traditional fairy tale, which is referenced several times in the movie, but it ends up denying us for much of the movie the opportunity to really savor Disney's much-hyped first black princess.
I don't need to tell you that the industrious Tiana and the frivolous Naveen don't get along at first but eventually fall in love thanks to the help of some goofy animal sidekicks. It's just that I wish there were something more to the "eventually." The writers of "The Princess and the Frog" are more concerned with stuffing the plot with references from previous Disney classics, from "Pinocchio" to "Cinderella" to "Lady and the Tramp," than with paying more than lip service to character development or plot. But hey, it's a kids movie. Who cares about those things, right?
There is actually a lot to like about "The Princess and the Frog," though. First of all, it looks great. The animation is crisp and clean while still evoking New Orleans' scruffy and humid vibrance. The characters, although given short shrift by the script, are charming. They're brought to work by uniformly great work by the voice actors, particularly the silky menace of Keith David as the Shadow Man, who gets the movie's best musical number, "Friends on the Other Side." It's funky, trippy and perhaps a little too intense for younger kids. Watch it here.
And it's the music that makes "The Princess and the Frog" worth watching. Credit its raucous, jazzy New Orleans setting. Beginning to end, it features the most consistently great music of any animated Disney musical. Even the ballads have soul. If your kids insist on playing the DVD on an endless loop, it won't be so bad. At least you'll be able to get down to the tunes.
Rating: *** out of *****
Original music by Randy Newman
Featuring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, John Goodman, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey, Emeril Lagasse, Randy Newman
("The Princess and the Frog" runs 98 minutes and is rated G.)