Disney's new animated feature film, "The Princess and the Frog," is a lush, beautiful homage to the quality animated films they made years ago. Forget what any naysayers may say, and go see this film!
If you have tired of the proliferation of CGI (computer generated imaging) films that have populated the film and television industry, "The Princess and the Frog" is a welcome respite from characters suffering from the plastic-y look and writing that is predominantly sarcastic to downright rude.
Disney altered the traditional storyline from the medieval princess who must kiss a frog to find her princes to a waitress working three jobs to save money for the down payment to start her own restaurant. (So where is the "princess"? You'll have to watch the movie to find out.)
Randy Newman's musical numbers are trademark, quality musical theatre fare and are all expertly performed by the vocal cast. Whether scoring a jazzed up party number or a wistful ballad, Newman's musical characterizations hit every note perfectly. (And it is still a travesty that his emotionally gripping song from Toy Story 2, "If Somebody Loved Me," lost the Oscar for Best Song to Phil Collins' one-note Tarzan tune.)
The settings are superb, from the little house Tiana (the Princess) shares with her family, to the exquisite renderings of the swampland lit by fireflies. My heart skipped a beat seeing Tiana's restaurant/night club in her "dream sequence." The Art Deco architecture and stylings surrounded elegant men and flapper-esque women, and I wanted to jump into the movie and be right there. Tiana's transformation from waitress to entrepreneur was inspiring.
Tiana is voiced by Tony Award-winner, Anika Noni Rose, who also played Lorrell in the 2006 film version of "Dreamgirls", alongside Beyonce` and Jennifer Hudson. John Goodman plays Big Daddy La Beouf, and Oprah Winfrey voices Tiana's mother, Eudora. Outside of these three, there are no readily familiar "stars" on the cast list, just many actors who *should* be household names. This fact alone shows Disney was going for substance not just star power.
Disney set this film in the 1920's South, specifically New Orleans. As a Southerner, specifically Mississippian, any time I hear a big studio wants to make a film about the South, I cringe. Stereotypes and misperceptions of the South and Southerners tend to win out over the truth of what we are like. (Not to belabor the point, but yes, we can read, wear shoes, and get along with most folks.)
This "getting along" has had some critics complaining that this film does not accurately portray African-Americans and their plight. However, this film is set in the 1920's not the 1850's, and it is not about social justice issues but finding true love, looking beyond the exterior to see the heart that resides within. It is important to note, though, "The Princess and the Frog" is the first Disney film to feature a black princess, and not just because the African or African-American characters are usually four-legged.
Critics also want to make an issue out of the fact that there are no race issues in the film. Even though this film takes place in the 20th century, the Civil Rights movement did not see real success until 1964. So in the timeframe of the 1920's, segregation still existed. However, the people of New Orleans are not just black or white. Many pride themselves on being Creole, a blend of ethnicities ranging from American Indian, Italian, French, Spanish, African, even Portuguese. Does it make sense that white Big Daddy would sit in a restaurant amongst the Creole or African-Americans, maybe not elsewhere, but in New Orleans, I could see it.
The not-so-New-Orleanian accents were much more subtle than the sidekick caricatures themselves. The aptly-named larger-than-life Big Daddy evoked a hybrid of KFC's Colonel Sanders and Looney Tunes' Colonel Shuffle, and at any moment, I expected to see ol' Beauregarde laying on a front porch eating a bucket of fried chicken. The little rich girl, Charlotte, is initially presented as someone you just want to hate (rich, blonde, spoiled, only wears pink), but later proves that while her head is stuffed with cotton, her heart is filled with sincere care for her friend, Tiana.
Critics first raised their disapproving voices in 2006 when Disney released production stills. Prince Naveen, the human form of the frog with whom Tiana falls in love, appears to be a white guy while the conjurer of misdeeds, Dr. Facilier, is African-American. The almost toothless Cajun firefly, Ray, also set off rants of discrimination. The portrayal of the toothless, blind, cackling, ancient Voo-Doo Priestess, Mama Odie, came under fire, which just goes to show they have never met a real Voo-Doo Priestess. (Real Voo-Doo Priestesses come in all personalities, from fun to frightening. Never tick them off.) Even with the melodramatic characterizations, this menagerie of dancing frogs, Cajun bugs, and a trumpet-playing alligator easily passes through the "suspension of belief" required for any musical theatre production.
This brings me to the overall production value of "The Princess and the Frog." Disney has bottomless pockets, and they could have done anything for any amount of money. Instead they spent their money on the laborious, time- and money-consuming art of handmade animation. (Did they use computers to help a little? Who cares!) What they achieved with "The Princess and the Frog" is not only another shining example in their catalogue of animated greats, but they have given cause to the need to preserve the handmade arts.
I feel like a fuddy-duddy at times with my insistence of building basic skills as an artist and not relying on technology, but in this case, I feel justified. Whether it is a music composition, a painting, a novel, or a sculpture, handmade art takes time and patience, something young whipper-snappers of today just don't want to wait for.
"The Princess and the Frog" is a film that is perfect for everyone in the family, and you will not be sorry you made the journey with the wacky cast of characters. With all the hoopla surrounding Disney's first black princess, the end result is a gorgeous film embued with perfectly scored music and a strength of heart that takes your breath away one frame at a time.