The Princess and the Frog
Directed Ron Clements and John Musker
It's been years, but Walt Disney Feature Animation has decided to reach back into their history and resurrect a once-popular technique for their new film. No, not 2-D hand-drawn animation, which has only been sidelined at the company since 2004's negligible (though attractively drawn) Home on the Range. Disney is really resurrecting the princess story, which has been in hibernation for eleven or thirteen or seventeen years, depending on how you define princess: comma warrior (Mulan), of the natural world (Pocahontas), or just chick who marries a prince (Beauty and the Beast).
Of course, The Princess and the Frog is hand-drawn, too, or at least hand-assisted, and vividly so: the New Orleans images pop out wildly, and you can feel the animators reveling in the warmth and energy of old-fashioned brushstrokes (and, yeah, a bit of leftover ADD from the computer world, where characters tend to move faster and speak louder). But for a cartoon that's so much fun to simply look at, the story carries some weight, too. Rather than indulging the half-hearted (and third-witted) spoofery of the animation/live-action/Shrek knockoff hybrid Enchanted, The Princess and the Frog sets about the long-overdue business of reconstructing the Disney Princess.
Yes, Belle was bookish and Princess Jasmine was headstrong, but Tiana (voiced by erstwhile Dreamgirl Anika Noni Rose) is smart, honest and an actual minority—a young black woman from a modest background. Semi-miraculously, the fact that Tiana posses a major work ethic, laboring as a waitress and saving her tip money to open her own restaurant, plays less like a disturbingly racialized Cinderella and more like a realistic treatment of class in a cartoon.
Okay, semi-realistic, but still: fairy tale magic is repeatedly pitted against economic realities; visiting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a charming layabout, is kinda broke, too, since his parents cut him off. In a neat and cartoon-friendly twist on the old Frog Prince story, both Naveen and Tiara find themselves transformed into little frogs by the scheming Dr. Facilier (subject of much wonderfully spindly animation, as well as the menacing tones of Keith David). They accrue animal sidekicks and go on a mission to realize their dreams, as Disney heroes tend to do, but despite the occasional clamor it's all quite zippy and sweet, with set pieces pitched more like production numbers bursting with color than smashing action sequences. Disney Animation is trying to shake off its status as the minor leagues to Pixar's majors, and if they aren't hitting the same level of inspiration that they came across, almost on the sly, when they made The Emperor's New Groove and Lilo & Stitch, The Princess and the Frog certainly represents a welcome return to form. That Disney: they can make rebranding downright adorable.
Opens November 25