Title: The Princess and the Frog
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Director: Ron Clements, John Musker
Screenwriters: Ron Clements, John Musker
Starring: Anika Noni Rose, Keith David, Oprah Winfrey
It’s still hard for me to find too many occasions to reminisce about the good old days, so here we go: I grew up on the Disney musicals, from their resurrection with The Little Mermaid on down. Their heyday was undoubtedly 1991-1994, with the incredible combo of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King — a streak that’s unmatched, I dare say, even by Pixar. The non-stop visual invention of Aladdin is an animation milestone, and Elton John and Tim Rice’s songs for The Lion King deserve to be revered as classics, if they aren’t already.
The Princess and the Frog, directed by The Little Mermaid and Aladdin‘s Ron Clements and John Musker, is a merry attempt to resurrect the Disney musical tradition, with a few twists. Set in 20s New Orleans, with a musical score firmly rooted in jazz, blues and gospel, and featuring an African-American heroine, the movie wants to be a revolutionary throwback: a fairy tale with a retro vibe and a modern sensibility. It certainly matches the tireless, anarchic energy of the classics, though perhaps not the wit or quaffability. I emerged so exhausted from the movie’s insistent fever pitch that I began to wonder if I might not be the problem — maybe I’m getting old.
Loosely inspired by the Grimm fairy tale The Frog Prince, and more immediately by E.D. Baker’s novel The Frog Princess, the story concerns a poor girl named Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) who works day and night to achieve her dream of owning a restaurant, but whose plans are stymied by greedy financiers and a villainous voodoo shaman who indirectly turns her into a frog. (In fact, he had turned a visiting prince into a frog per the fairy tale, but Tiana’s attempt to kiss the frog prince and turn him human had the diametrically opposite effect.) From there, the film goes on a mad, somewhat incoherent romp through the Big Easy and the bayou, complete with a trumpet-playing alligator, a blind, wisdom-dispensing oracle, and a Creole firefly.
The Princess and the Frog‘s m.o. is the exuberant musical fantasy sequence: the colors pop out, the animation turns surreal, and the characters frolic through a world that ignores familiar laws of physics even more so than the rest of the film. The songs by Randy Newman (who replaced the previously announced Alan Menken) are more intricate and elaborate than those of the film’s musical predecessors, though they’re also not the tight, catchy and memorable pop tunes you might be hoping for; I wasn’t doing any humming on the way out of the theater. The New Orleans setting and jazzy score give the proceedings a distinctive, slightly hokey feel akin to Aladdin‘s “Arabian Nights” milieu.
The movie, in short, is genuinely interesting, and mostly a pleasure to listen to and watch. What might be missing is the germ of inspiration that burns this sort of breezy entertainment into people’s psyches. The hard-working Tiana is, at the end of the day, a little bit bland, and the villain is more of an achievement in design than in personality. Some of the supporting players seemed generically wacky, with a perfunctory nod toward the setting: Louis the Trumpet-Playing crocodile is no Sebastian the Crab. It’s fun stuff, but memorable? I doubt it.
Then there’s the matter of The Princess and the Frog‘s furious pace: it never stops throwing stuff at the screen, and sometimes resembles a revue more than a movie. I remember classics like Aladdin and Hercules taking a similar approach, but after an hour, The Princess and the Frog begins to feel a little like an assault. I like this film, but I like it more in theory than in practice. It’s a decent enough throwback, but a comeback will have to wait.