Saturday, January 16, 2010


It was a sad day when it was announced in 2004 that the pretty awful Home on the Range would be the Walt Disney Company’s last work of hand-drawn animation. The medium responsible for all of that studio’s greatest artistic achievements, from Snow White and Pinocchio to Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, was being thrown overboard in order to better jump on the CG bandwagon, a wagon that was already plenty full with Pixar, Dreamworks, Sony and BlueSky, among others. So it is a relief to see The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s return to what they do best, classical storytelling with hand-drawn style. Sure enough, the film doesn’t disappoint on the visual front, each frame filled with fluid beauty that resonates with equal parts wonder and nostalgia. The mild failings of the movie have been left to fall solely on the storytelling.

Featuring the first black princess in the company’s history (about time!), the story is a smart, if a little derivative, retelling of the Prince who becomes a frog and must be kissed to reverse the spell. The voice work is uniformly excellent with Anika Noni Rose and Bruno Campos as thoroughly delightful leads. The leads are thoroughly charming; the prince dances like Gene Kelly and the princess has a weary grace about her. You see, she’s not actually a princess, but rather a hard-working waitress mistaken for a princess by the frog prince when he stumbles upon her at a masquerade ball on the first night of Mardi Gras. The film takes place in a lovingly recreated 1920’s New Orleans, with zydeco and jazz influencing Randy Newman’s soundtrack and Cajun cooking practically wafting off the screen. It’s an enchanting location for a sweet little adventure, especially since, not being a princess, she becomes a frog post-kiss and the two of them escape to the bayou.

At times though, the thrust of the story is lost amidst the strain of the Disney folks stretching their artistic muscles to the point where it feels like the creative team is working off of a checklist of classic Disney features. There’s an overflow of fully animated musical numbers and, while many are charming and striking, they trip over each other and too few really stick. There are more than enough charming animal sidekicks (a dog, a turtle, a gator, a family of fireflies) and plenty of human types as well (people fat and skinny, tall and short, snaky and prim, white and black, smart and hick). It’s nice to see that the Disney animators have such a wide range of skill in producing so many of the character types that have been used in the past, but were they all needed in the same picture?

So, the movie’s a little busy and at times frantic or just plain unmemorable and the plot muddles a bit more than necessary, but I barely care. There are a host of wonderful moments as well, times where the plot zigs where hundreds of animated features have always zagged and quiet character moments that are genuinely touching. There’s also a memorable villain in the form of a voodoo witchdoctor (Keith David) who gets the most memorable song and some genuinely creepy henchmen. And, above all, I like the leads. They were well-voiced, well-designed, and easy to care about. I only wish they weren’t frogs for so much of the film; they make much more appealing humans.

Now get back to work, you fine folk of Disney. I’m ready for another hand-drawn masterpiece from you.

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