From the second that it begins with a song about wishing on a star, The Princess and the Frog announces the return of the traditional Disney animated fable. It’s refreshing that Pixar chief John Lasseter has spearheaded a revival of hand-drawn animation in his new position as the head of Disney’s animated studio, and admirable that Princess features the first-ever African-American heroine for a Disney animated feature. But everything else about the movie is bland paint-by-numbers filmmaking designed to replicate the success of directors/co-writers Ron Clements and John Musker’s past hits like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.
- The Princess and the Frog
So there’s a princess of sorts (Tiana, voiced by Anika Noni Rose), who’s really just a waitress mistaken for a princess. There’s a prince (Naveen, voiced by Bruno Campos), who is at first annoyed by the princess but then falls in love with her. There’s a nasty villain (a voodoo priest voiced by Keith David), who wants to keep the prince and princess apart, and use them for his own selfish ends. There are talking animals. There are musical numbers (featuring mostly forgettable songs by Oscar-nomination machine Randy Newman).
Naturally, there’s a happy ending, too, and despite the New Orleans setting and multicultural cast, there’s nothing here that approaches social commentary, aside from a vague encouragement toward hard work. Tiana may be black, but she spends most of the movie green—transformed into a frog along with Naveen, and forced to trudge through a bayou filled with characters that embody various deep-South stereotypes. She’s a thoroughly rote heroine, only slightly more independent than Disney princesses past (she aspires to open her own restaurant, but still needs a man to complete her). Far more amusing is her gold-digging white best friend, who’s a sort of Disney-princess parody, hinting at an edgier film somewhere under all this dull gloss.
That dull gloss is pretty enough, and the chic design for musical number “Almost There” is striking. Princess will play fine for its intended young-girl audience, but mere competence isn’t enough to declare this a return to form.