‘The Princess and the Frog:’ Hop to it
December 17, 2009
‘The Princess and the Frog’
Running time: 97 minutes
Starring the voices of: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos and Keith David. Now playing at the West Theater.
Since 1937, the output of Walt Disney Animation Studios always has amounted to top-quality, full-length cartoons. After more than 70 years, the content still remains riveting, although for "The Princess and the Frog," perhaps a better word would be "ribbiting."
There are a lot of dreamers in the French Quarter of 1920s New Orleans, but ambitious young woman Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) is not one of them.
Sure, the haggard waitress has dreams of owning her own restaurant, but her goals come with a selfless, exhaustive work regimen that leaves her with no social life. Still, it will all pay off when the talented chef can open the eatery that her parents (Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey) always wanted for her.
But one thing Tiana didn't count on in her plans was meeting a talking frog who claims to be the visiting dignitary Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), whose American junket has been interrupted by the spells of a voodoo conman (Keith David).
Fortunately, Naveen is familiar with "The Frog Prince" and assures Tiana that one kiss from her will restore his humanity.
But the smooch backfires, leaving both of them in amphibian form. In order to return to their former bodies, Tiana and Naveen will have to venture out into the bayou, finding friends, frog hunters and maybe a spark of romance.
Although she may have been in the background behind Jennifer Hudson and Beyoncé Knowles, Rose and her superb singing voice are front and center here, whether she's singing as a woman or a frog.
Campos is regal as the suave, self-centered prince, who in contrast to Tiana never has worked a day in his life.
David provides a sinister snarl as voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier — aka the Shadow Man — whose scheme for taking over the Big Easy hinges on Naveen, usurped in form by his beleaguered butler (Peter Bartlett).
Not everyone who practices magic is evil, though. Enter Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), a feisty, 197-year-old blind priestess whose second sight can help solve Tiana and Naveen's crisis.
Assisting the frogs are Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a friendly swamp gator with a hunger for jazz, and, in a show-stealing sidekick role, Ray the Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings), whose great love is the Evening Star that illuminates New Orleans.
Besides being the first fully 2-D animated feature to come from the entertainment giant in years, the movie is a welcome reinstatement of the musical style not seen in Disney movies in more than a decade. Composer Randy Newman's mix of jazz, zydeco and gospel fully celebrates the New Orleans area, which is staggeringly captured by the lush animation, ranging from Bourbon Street to the bayou.
Thankfully, creators Ron Clements and John Musker don't merely recycle the plots of the films from Disney's renaissance era of the 1980s and 1990s, to which they contributed "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin."
Tiana, the first African-American Disney princess, is a more independent and positive female role model compared to others who have come out of the studio, though Pocahontas and Mulan made strides in that respect.
Completely contradicting the example set by passive, docile characters of Snow White and the like, the newest princess is a refreshing change, following the example of Gisele in 2007's "Enchanted."
Like Tiana's signature gumbo, "The Princess and the Frog" is a delectable blend of everything. Whether you prefer timeless elements like fairy godmothers or more modern ideas like a heroine who can think for herself, it will satisfy.