Proving that you're never too old (or cynical) to be charmed by frolicking Disney cartoon characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the studio's latest animated family film, The Princess and the Frog. Hopefully, Disney is taking cues from the recently absorbed Pixar, and noting that audiences might want more than the same old treacly princess stories.
In fact, despite its title, this film isn't really about a princess. The story, loosely adapted from the old fairy tale about the hopeful bussing of amphibians, is set in 1920s New Orleans. Its heroine -- Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) -- is an African-American working-class gal who wants to open a restaurant, not become an accessory for a prince. (This is the dream of her lifelong friend Charlotte, but that character and storyline is presented as a parody of this desire.)
Through a series of mix-ups, Tiana does meet a prince named Naveen (Bruno Campos), but only after he has been turned into a frog. And all this gets Tiana is her transformation into a frog as well, and a trip to the bayou. With the help of a horn-blowing crocodile named Louis, a Cajun firefly and a blind voodoo queen, the two frogs find their way back to the Crescent City, as well as learn what their hearts truly desire.
Behind the complications is the sinister Dr. Facilier (Keith David). This voodoo shyster may have strolled out of a Max Fleischer cartoon, his face and body all crazy angels, and his true nature depicted by the ever-shifting shadow that trails him.
I loved that the film shamelessly embraced New Orleans' mythic voodoo milieu. The crazy dances with slinky Dr. Facilier and his soul-stealing compadres were deliciously dark (again, recalling more adult-themed animation of the 1920s and '30s). The sorts of suspicious parents who consider Halloween to be a satanic holiday should keep their kids away from these visually engaging, toe-tapping sequences from "the other side."
After all Disney's time- and globe-hopping to exotic locales, it's satisfying to see the gang wind up here at home, in colorful New Orleans: baroque mansions and shotgun houses, streetcars and steamboats, cemeteries and bottle trees, and an unself-conscious mix of white and black characters. (Though these days, watching even an idealized cartoon version of the pre-Katrina New Orleans adds poignancy.)
Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Princess is Disney's first hand-drawn film since 2004, but the old-school technique still delivers a visual treat. The film moves at a lively pace, with plenty of organic humor, both spoken and situational. (A frog lands on a drum kit, and the spooked drummer frantically pounding the skins makes the whole band switch from dreary to uptempo.)
The music and songs are by longtime Pixar collaborator Randy Newman. Rather than pen a bunch of goopy ballads, Newman gets to tap his own New Orleans roots and delivers a passel of lively songs that span Dixieland, zydeco, gospel and blues. (Newman also gets a tiny cameo as the firefly "Cousin Randy.")
I'm sure there will be related dolls, bedsheets, sing-along books and spin-offs galore to feed the Disney maw, but Princess felt more like an entertaining story to be shared than an excuse to hit the toy store. And in this frantic holiday season, that's a welcome gift in itself.
Starts Fri., Dec. 11