The Princess and the Frog is finally here! How does it measure up? After the jump, critics weigh in on Disney's first Black princess.
The buzz surrounding the movie has been building for months. Not only is this the first hand-drawn Disney movie in five years, it's also the debut of the entertainment behemoth's very first African-American heroine. Long before the movie hit theaters, there was already a good deal of criticism circulating, which centered on the possibility that P&F would feature some familiar and none-too-progressive stereotypes, including a potentially Mammy-ish character. Both Dodai and Latoya (writing for Racialicious) took on the task of exploring the potential for racism in the film, which is set in the 1920s in New Orleans, and includes a voodoo princess and a (sadly) light-skinned prince. Probably the most bothersome part is the fact that the two main characters - Tiana and Prince Naveen - spend a good portion of the movie as frogs. When Disney has waited this long to introduce a Black princess, couldn't they give her a little more screen time?
However, it seems that critics are, at least for the most part, still charmed by Tiana (feelings for Naveen are a little more divided). Unlike some of Disney's other princesses, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) isn't a passive damsel in distress, relying on fairy godmothers and magical kisses to do all the hard work for her. Instead, she's a 19-year-old hardworking waitress, with dreams to own a restaurant of her own. Things are going well until she meets the racially-ambiguous Prince Naveen (Nip/Tuck's Bruno Campos), who comes from some fictional country and is looking for a wealthy southern gal to pay for his lavish lifestyle. A local voodoo-peddler turns Naveen into a frog, and through a complicated-sounding plot twist, convinces Tiana to kiss him. Since she's not a princess, she turns into a frog, and the two spend the rest of the film trying to figure out how to change back. Their frog-status allows them to get to know each other without looks playing a factor, which apparently helps ground the whole "skin-deep" message. However, race seems to play a very minor role - which is either fitting for a children's film, or a real shame, depending on who you ask. While it sounds like there are still some issues with the film (Naveen's one-dimensionality being a frequently mentioned problem), most critics enjoyed the music and magic. There is some disagreement as to whether it measures up to Aladdin or The Little Mermaid, but it sounds like The Princess and the Frog could become a Disney classic.
Fairy-tale princesses, especially those in the Disney pantheon, have always been a product of their times. Generations ago, it was enough for them to be hardworking and docile, to accept suffering with grace and fall into deep sleeps when the plot required it. It was revolutionary when "Beauty and the Beast's" Belle came along in 1991, with her love of books and her disdain for the handsomest guy in town. Tiana takes the princess role a step further — she's not just Disney's first African-American to wear the crown, she's the first one with a regular job. (Unless you count Mulan's gig as a warrior.) She also, like "Ratatouille's" Remy, makes the case for great food as a social leveler and the cornerstone of a good life. Tiana knows that food "brings people together" with more reliable results than even voodoo.
Every Disney princess has to find two things: independence and love. Tiana, a culinary prodigy, dreams of turning an abandoned building into her own restaurant. Tiana entertains the attentions of the dashing playboy Naveen, but he's fallen under the spell of the black-magical Dr. Facilier (Keith David). The fateful kiss sends Tiana and Naveen, now frogs, into the bayou for refuge and retransformation. Among the Jungle Book-type denizens they meet there are Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a friendly, trumpet-playing alligator; Ray (Jim Cummings), a Cajun firefly; and the 197-year-old blind seer Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), among whose gifts may be the power to restore Tiana and Naveen to humanity.
And we're just short-listing the creatures that Musker and Clements toss into this savory gumbo. It's as if, in the dozen years since Hercules, their last comedy feature, the pair had stockpiled so many funny characters that a few drop in, get their laughs and are whisked off-stage. You'll be tickled by Charlotte (Breanna Brooke as a child, Jennifer Cody as an adult), the adorably addled rich girl whom Eudora babysits, and by her father Big Daddy La Bouff (John Goodman in full bluster mode), who certifies his connection to Tennessee Williams's riper alpha-males with a booming, "Hey, Stella!" In any animated comedy, the funny supporting figures threaten to overwhelm the leads; but Tiana has the class and grit, and Naveen the immature charm, to carry the story. Their cozying up while mincing mushroom for a bayou stew is one of the film's emotional highlights.
The songs by Randy Newman — working in the jazz, blues, gospel, zydeco, Dixieland and Broadway idioms — are very catchy, belted out in style by a great voice cast. I especially liked Dr. Facilier's big spooky number "Friends on the Other Side" and Mama Odie's showstopper, "Dig a Little Deeper."
Overall, the film is not quite up to "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid" from the same directing team of Ron Clements and John Musker, not to mention the recent string of masterpieces from Pixar.
The prince, disappointingly if not surprisingly, becomes not only Tiana's salvation but also that of the movie, largely by bringing some slapstick comedy and a touch of suspense into the proceedings, along with the expected romance. Though he catches Tiana's eye (and she his), Naveen is soon set upon by both Charlotte, who's angling for a match, and Dr. Facilier (a terrific Keith David), a villain who, as is true of many movies, easily steals the show. As thin as an exclamation mark and just as excited, Dr. Facilier wears spats and a top hat emblazoned with a skull and bones. Long, inky shadows follow his every step, sprouting around him like dark thoughts, as in the bravura musical number "Friends on the Other Side."
The filmmakers have brewed up a delicious roots story in every sense of the word. "The Princess and the Frog" is set in the 1920s jazz age in the New Orleans heart of it all.It's the studio's return to the lush, fluid beauty of hand-drawn animation. It's an old-fashioned fairy tale, even though they've had some fun with the story. And it's set to music in the grand tradition of "Beauty and the Beast," which is to say the neoclassic '90s brand of Disney animation.
That might make "The Princess and the Frog" seem like a creature of ancient times, particularly since kids these days are raised on 3-D flash. The effect, though, is the opposite. After being bombarded by so much computer-generated, motion-captured high-and-higher jinks, the film feels fresh — a discovery, or a rediscovery, depending on your age.
"Princess and the Frog" mostly ignores the racial divides of the times. Tiana's a poor black girl, her best friend's a rich, spoiled white girl. How often did that happen in 1920s New Orleans?
But this isn't "Roots," it's a Disney family affair. In her favor, Tiana joins a list of ethnically diverse Disney heroines - Pocahantas, Mulan, Lilo - that show how far things have come from the days when a pasty-faced princess hung out with seven little white dudes.
Unlike most tales of its type, in which the heroine spends the whole movie in pursuit of Prince Charming, "The Princess and the Frog" follows the modern romantic-comedy template, granting its amphibious duo plenty of shared screen time and making them polar opposites — he's cocky and lazy, she's uptight and bossy — who initially can't stand each other... All of this is delivered in the usual riotous explosion of color and song. From the mansions of the city's upscale Garden District and the cast-iron balcony railings of the French Quarter, New Orleans clearly offered the animators no shortage of visual inspiration and architectural variety.
Part of the problem with "P&F" is that Tiana and Naveen's connection feels superficial. Plus, unlike some of his modern princess-courting brethren - the Beast, Aladdin, even John Smith in "Pocahontas" - Naveen's inner change from shallow to decent seems as perfunctory as his physical one from man to amphibian.
Other elements work better, including the jazz-age setting and Randy Newman's zydeco-tinged music. And while Dr. Facilier's scary shadow monsters may be too intense for young kids, they're effective nightmare-makers in the classic Disney tradition.
They say it ain't easy bein' green, but it's certainly a hell of a lot easier than being black. So writer-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (whose 1992 Aladdin proffered a sinister, ear-cutting Middle East) send newly anthropomorphic Tiana and Naveen hopping off into the bayou rather than continuing to dodge ol' Jim Crow on the streets of the Big Easy. There, Princess's rampant a-historicism gives way to a veritable Mardi Gras parade of risible stereotypes: an Acadian firefly with the most exaggerated Cajun dialect this side of celebrity chef Justin Wilson, I gua-ran-tee; a 197-year-old voodoo priestess named Mama Odie; and, lest no Deep South caricature remain unturned, a trio of toothless hillbillies.
The movie captures the traditional Disney aesthetic, with some up-to-date spins. Tiana is African-American, while Naveen's ethnic origins are less evident. The film embraces diversity in a natural way. The film's ethos is summed up by voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) in her native patois: "Only thing important is what's under the skin."
Where Pinocchio was about wishing on a star, The Princess and the Frog emphasizes backing up wishes with hard work. That proviso is a thoughtful message for young moviegoers.
So Disney has, naturally, been nervous, wanting to serve a broader audience but knowing that no good deed goes unpunished - or, at least, goes without being heavily, politically analyzed.
"The Princess and the Frog" will be, too - and there are things here to annoy all sorts of people. The white characters are all, at best, buffoons; rural whites are portrayed as vicious and deformed; and even in the depths of the bayou, every African-American character has "good" hair.
But while little kids laugh at the froggy humor (summed up in the excellent, repeated punchline ''that's not slime you are secreting - it's mucus!''), the firefly antics, and the cute sight of a fat alligator wailing on his trumpet like Louis Armstrong, adult viewers are rewarded with something more moving - a Proustian remembrance of the durable power of Disney at its old-school best. The filmmakers trust in story over special effects, and character over celebrity voices (there are almost none here, save for a brief cameo by queen-of-all-she-surveys Oprah Winfrey as Tiana's saintly mother, Eudora). They steep the movie in colloquial American culture. They offer a sophisticated musical experience (ragtime, zydeco, gospel, Tin Pan Alley) accessible even to the youngest ears. And in doing so, the creative team behind The Princess and the Frog upholds the great tradition of classic Disney animation.