She’s All That Jazz

filmKissTheFrogBig fun on the bayou in ‘The Princess And The Frog’

It’s taken the folks at Walt Disney more than seven decades to create their first African-American cartoon heroine. And when they finally do, she spends most of the movie green when a fairy tale kiss goes awry in The Princess And The Frog. But the movie is so much fun, and—for Disney—culturally rich, with its New Orleans/Louisiana bayou setting, there’s not much else to quibble about. Terrific voice performances, lively songs by Randy Newman, and gorgeous hand-drawn cel animation make this one of the most entertaining Disney cartoon features since The Lion King.

Veteran Disney directors John Musker and Ron Clements (who share story and script credits with a fleet of writers) set the tale in the fertile, loamy milieu of New Orleans in the Jazz Age 1920s. Ever since she was a little girl, Tiana (the lovely voice of Tony Award-winning musical actress Anika Noni Rose) has wanted to open her own restaurant, working day and night shifts as a waitress to save up the money. At a  party thrown by her rich childhood friend, Charlotte (a very funny Jennifer Cody), Tiana is wearing a borrowed gown, complete with tiara, when a talking frog on the balcony mistakes her for a princess and asks for a kiss to regain his humanity. When Tiana reluctantly agrees, she, too, becomes a frog.

The male frog was once Prince Naveen of “Maldovia” (a suitably nebulous Euro-Latino name for a fictional province). With a voice provided by Bruno Campos, oozing charm, wit, and joie de vivre, Naveen is one of the funniest, most appealing heroes ever to appear in a “Disney princess” movie; a carefree layabout who’s been cut off by his royal parents until he learns the value of a dollar. In Nawlins to soak up the jazz and cut a swath through the adoring female population, he runs afoul of slinky voodoo witch doctor, the Shadow Man (marvelously voiced by Keith David) who curses Naveen to froghood, replacing him with a long-suffering servant through whom the doc plans to rule the town.

Naveen and Tiana’s amphibious adventures in the bayou include a trumpet-playing ‘gator, a courtly Cajun firefly (swarming fireflies are among the most haunting and lovely of the movie’s effects), and a rambunctious, blind, 70-year-old voodoo priestess (the wonderful Jenifer Lewis). Voodoo effects are spooky, especially the doctor’s menacing shadow demons. And while there’s no racism, of course, the film acknowledges that Tiana and her seamstress mom live in a poor (yet warm, loving) shantytown a tram-ride away from Charlotte’s rich, white neighborhood. Best of all, the sparring froggy adversaries grow to love and deserve each other in this high-spirited, Dixieland romance.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG ★★★1/2 (out of four)

With the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos and Keith David. Written by John Musker, Ron Clements and Rob Edwards. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. A Walt Disney release. Rated G. 97 minutes.
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