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The Princess and the Frog

Back to the Drawing Board

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

With the release of Disney’s of the box office failure Home on the Range four years ago, traditional, hand-drawn animation — animation that had made Disney a well-respected family brand for more than 80 years — was seemingly dead. First pioneered by Pixar Animation Studios, computer animation has become the present and the future, and 2D animation the antiquated past. But through the efforts and guidance of John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney’s animation division, Disney has returned to traditional animation with The Princess and the Frog, a loose adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, “The Frog Prince,” and E.D. Baker’s novel, The Frog Princess.

The Princess and the Frog is set in 1920s New Orleans. The princess in the title, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), isn’t a princess, at least not in a traditional sense. She’s a hard-working, African-American waitress. Carrying on her late father’s most cherished dream, she works long hours, saving her tips for a down payment on a restaurant lease. Her childhood friend, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), is a pampered debutante, the daughter of “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman), one of the richest men in New Orleans. La Bouff showers his daughter with everything her heart desires and with the arrival of an actual prince, Naveen (Bruno Campos), from a land far, far away, Maldonia.

What Charlotte and Tiana don’t know, however, is that the prince’s parents have disowned Prince Naveen for partying. To continue to live in comfort, he needs to marry a rich woman. Charlotte’s happy with any man, as long as the word “prince” is part of his name. The local voodoo man, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), sees a perfect opportunity to become more powerful: he offers Naveen’s long-suffering valet, Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), the chance to switch places with Naveen, romance Charlotte, and retire to a life of luxury and ease. The body-switching curse turns Naveen into a frog, but when he tries to reverse the curse with Tiana, who he confuses with a princess, she becomes a princess too.

From there, The Princess and the Frog leaves New Orleans behind as Naveen and Tiana flee Dr. Facilier and his shadow servant for the bayou where they meet Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a trumpet-playing alligator, and Ray (Jim Cummings), a lovesick Cajun firefly, but only Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) can help Naveen and Tiana reverse the curse.

Per journey-oriented storytelling, both Naveen and Tiana learn valuable life lessons. He learns personal responsibility, and she learns to loosen up. Both, apparently, learn that there’s nothing more important — not comfort and luxury (for him) or self-sufficiency as a restaurant owner (for her — than love.

That retrograde, though not unexpected, perspective on relationships and personal fulfillment makes The Princess and the Frog similar to, if not identical, to Tiana’s predecessors as a Disney princess. Tiana might talk a good game, but in the end, there’s only one road to self-fulfillment. Mama Odie repeatedly talks about wants and needs, but the answer and resolution is never in doubt. And even if Tiana fulfilled the dream of owning a restaurant, a difficult, if not impossible task for an African-American woman in 1920s America, it’s not her dream, it’s the dream her late father passed on to her.

But whatever The Princess and the Frog says about gender roles, it says even less about race, an issue raised the moment Disney revealed that Tiana is an African American. Tiana spends more than half of The Princess and the Frog’s running time as a frog and when she’s in human form, there’s almost no indication that race plays a role in either her status as a working-class waitress or her ability to rent the space for her restaurant. The building’s landlords are depicted as greedy, but not overtly racist or even mean-spirited.

That also applies to the olive-skinned Naveen. He looks Middle-Eastern, but he sounds Latin American — he’s voiced by a Latino actor — and hails from a fictitious country. He’s acceptable to Charlotte and her father due to his status as royalty, but also acceptable as Tiana’s romantic partner since he isn’t Caucasian. It’s half-clever, but also disappointing. Then again, Disney hasn’t become a multi-billion dollar brand by taking risks (quite the opposite actually) and here it’s banking on a combination of Tiana’s status as the first African-American princess, Randy Newman’s songs (mostly forgettable, if inoffensive), and the nostalgia for 2D animation. In the last respect, at least, The Princess and the Frog delivers.