Who’s In It: The voices of Anika Noni Rose, Keith David, Bruno Campos, Jennifer Cody, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jim Cummings, Jenifer Lewis, Terrence Howard, Oprah Winfrey
The Basics: Working-class girl Tiana (Dreamgirls’ Anika Noni Rose) hustles two jobs in 1930s-era New Orleans and dreams of opening her own restaurant. A chance meeting with the dashing prince-turned-amphibian Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) turns Tiana into a frog as well, and the reluctant pair must hop their way through the bayou to find a witch doctor during Mardi Gras in order to return to human form. Spoiler alert: singing and happy endings ensue.
What’s The Deal: This is Disney Animation’s not-so-secret bid to return to 2D animation greatness, a retro dream in a Pixar-dominated world. So directors John Musker and Ron Clements call upon the magical formula that made their ‘90s Disney classics The Little Mermaid and Aladdin enormous hits (and million-dollar merchandising franchises). That means we get a feisty heroine, plenty of catchy tunes, and a colorful (no pun intended) cast of supporting characters who border on stereotypes, but cheerful and gosh darn lovable stereotypes at that. And while it doesn’t quite approach “classic” territory, The Princess and the Frog succeeds at least enough to entertain the little ones and prove that there is still an audience for hand-drawn, two-dimensional, animated musicals yet.
You Go, Girl… Just Don’t Work Too Hard: Tiana must be the first blue-collar Disney princess in history who is too hardworking for her own good. (Cinderella had it much easier, the opportunistic wench.) While it’s refreshing that Tiana doesn’t just hope that a rich, handsome prince will come along to save her from a life of labor and ramen noodles, telling a poor girl to lighten up with all that work business seems like a weirdly irresponsible message. And while it may be historically correct that Tiana, the black girl, is really good at cooking and baking and serving her rich white BFF Charlotte (the excellently-ditzy Jennifer Cody), the mix of realism (“See, back in the day black folk catered to white folk”) and fantasy (“But you know what, you’ll get everything you want anyway!”) feels incongruous. Do you have to work hard in life, or will you just marry a prince in the end? The Princess and the Frog doesn’t quite know how to resolve that dilemma for a 21st century audience.
Disney + Racial Themes = Good Try, But… Critics wary of Disney’s bid to appeal to African-American audiences might have been onto something. For starters, what’s up with Prince Naveen’s ethnicity? With a made-up country (Maldonia) and a cappuccino-colored complexion he’s vague already, but Brazilian actor Bruno Campos’ slightly Latin accent makes it even harder to pin down. (Fun fact: Campos played the bisexual, incestuous Dr. Quentin Costa on Nip/Tuck!) More specifically stereotypical are the bucktoothed Cajun firefly Ray (Jim Cummings) and the eccentric old voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), who resembles a California Raisin – both of whom are actually so winning, you forget how offensive they are.
Two Dreamgirls, A Goodman, And Keith David: The film’s voice cast is top notch, especially when belting out Randy Newman’s catchy-if-forgettable tunes. Tony winner Anika Noni Rose, who got a huge career boost with a role in the 2006 film Dreamgirls, and Jenifer Lewis, who originated the role of Effie when Michael Bennett work-shopped the original Broadway play, lead energetic numbers like “Almost There” and “Dig a Little Deeper.” (Both are accompanied by Art Deco/Busby Berkeley-style visuals, something new and different in a Disney film.) John Goodman turns in an effervescent performance as Charlotte’s well-to-do dad, Big Daddy La Bouff, while Keith David is a perfectly sinister black magic voodoo man.