Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Princess and the Frog

3.5/4

Starring (voices): Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Woodley, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Jennifer Cody, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terence Howard, John Goodman

Rated G

In some ways, "old-fashioned" can be seen as a criticism.  That's not the case here.  "The Princess and the Frog" is a throwback to Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."  While not as good as either of those, it comes close.

Tiana (Rose) is a hard-working waitress in New Orleans.  Her dream, nursed by her parents James (Howard) and Eudora (Winfrey), is to open a classy restaurant in the city.  She works two jobs to reach her goal, but money is hard to come by.  At the same time, Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Campos) is visiting, and Tiana's friend Charlotte (Cody) is hoping to marry him.  Before that can happen, the evil Dr. Facilier (David) has put a curse on him and turned him into a frog.  He asks Tiana to kiss him, believing that it will make him human again.  Instead, it turns Tiana into a frog.  Oops!  Now the two of them, with the help of a jazz-loving crocodile named Louis and a lovestruck firely named Ray (Cummings), have to find Mama Odie (Lewis) so they can become human again before Dr. Facilier takes control of New Orleans.

"The Princess and the Frog" is the first Disney movie to have a black princess.  However, the original story, in which Tiana was a maid named Maddie, caused a lot of controversy.  Not having read the original script or the novel, I can't comment on the film's possible quality.  However, I will say that "The Princess and the Frog" overcomes the notorious obstacle of dramatically changing a story mid-production ("Gigli" being perhaps the most infamous casualty of this sort of thing) and is a great movie.

The voice acting is strong.  While there are big stars in the cast (John Goodman, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard), their roles are small.  The film goes back to the Disney tradition of using character actors.  Soft-voiced Anika Noni Rose is good, but lacks real charisma.  Still she remains appealing.  Bruno Campos is also very good as the womanizing Prince Naveen.  As cocky and self-centered as he is, he grows on us.  Keith David, the talented character actor that he is, makes for a ferocious villain.  I don't think anyone else could have played the character.  And Michael-Leon Woodley and Disney animation mainstay Jim Cummings are also solid.

What I really liked about it is how New Orleans comes alive.  It's not realistic, and I'm guessing it's not how it was in real life, but it feels real.  It captures the infectious nature of jazz, the quirkiness of voodoo and the laid-back southern atmosphere.  It's one of those movies that makes you want to touch the screen and let yourself get sucked in.

Co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker clearly know their stuff.  They were behind movies like "The Little Mermaid," which launched the New Golden Age of Disney Animation, "The Great Mouse Detective," and "Hercules."  Their love and affection for these movies is evident in every frame, as is their knowledge of what made them great.  This movie works.  The characters are appealing, the story is well-told, and the music is catchy.

As soon as the film ended, all I wanted to do was press "play" again.

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