When audiences clap during and after a film’s screening in the third week of its release, chances are something went incredibly right. When they stay in the darkened auditorium simply to enjoy the jazzy ambiance and the rewarding emotional afterglow, that spectacle is surely the bee’s knees.
While it may not be up to par with “The Lion King,” as many critics would have you believe (though, honestly, almost nothing is), Disney’s latest animated release, “The Princess and the Frog,” more than exceeds expectations and is a delightful, adventurous romp; a mardis gras of laughter, romance and charm.
This is Disney’s first return to traditional, two-dimensional animation in years and marks a barrage of firsts. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is its first African-American protagonist, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) – or “Lottie” – is its first friendly debutante (and one that happens to be younger than the protagonist, to boot) and its first interracial romantic relationship.
There was a lot of negative controversy surrounding Tiana’s extended amphibian appearance and presentation of its premiere princess, but either Disney took heed or the naysayers needlessly needled. Either way, “The Princess and the Frog” surpassed all previously hatched attempts at classics for the last several years, though given its competition, the feat hardly seems comparable to its quality.
Taking place in 1920s New Orleans, a spicy gumbo of music, language and culture, the plot follows Tiana, a young waitress with a dream of one day opening her own, fancy riverside restaurant. A classic workaholic, she regularly puts in double or triple shifts, saving every penny, to make “Tiana’s Place” a reality. She’s an exceptionally talented chef, you see, with a work ethic and sense of virtue inherited from her father, James (Terrence Howard), who presumably perished during the first World War.
Meanwhile, a young and entirely irresponsible Maldonian Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is scheduled to visit the city, supposedly in search for a bride (his parents had apparently disinherited him and he needs a steady influx of cash – fast. Life as a layabout can get incredibly expensive), and Lottie couldn’t be more thrilled (she’s always wanted to be a bona fide princess). In fact, she’s so expectant that she fronts all the remaining cash that Tiana needs to make the long-awaited down payment on her dream-palace in exchange for some of her “man-catching beignets.”
There’s only one problem: it seems that local voodoo man, Doctor Facilier (Keith David) has his eye on the prize, as well, and will use any means necessary to attain it, including manipulating Naveen’s life-weary valet, Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), to trade places with the soon-to-be-amphibian non-heir.
Without providing further soil-some spoilers, the two would-be lovers (though at this point, they’d never believe it) meet a fascinating cast of characters along the way, effectively evoking the enchanting innocence of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Jazz-loving alligator, Loius (Michael-Leon Wooley) has always dreamt of playing trumpet with the big boys, but sadly, they never took too kindly to his enthusiastic attempts. (Look out for his hilarious flashback aboard a local riverboat.) Meanwhile, Ray (Jim Cummings), a Cajun-accented firefly longingly dreams of the day he would finally be united with his one true love, the evening star, whom he affectionately calls “Evangeline” (likely a reference to Longfellow’s poem about the Acadian mass deportation), thinking that it is another firefly.
The magic indubitably comes together and Tiana gets her fairy godmother, though she is definitely a modern woman. Favoring hard work (a trait passed down from her honorable father) over simple dreams of lavishness and romance, she serves as a remarkable role model for today’s growing young girls. She’s honest, fair and undeniably just, and she doesn’t need a knight in shining armor to protect her. She only needs to loosen up a tad and remember what’s truly important, but she’s also intelligent enough to learn it when she needs to.
The film also lightly touches on the subject of racism, though given that it’s a Disney feature more meant to incite magic and wonder than teach life lessons, attempt was subtle, though generally effective for what it is.
Rose’s remarkably warm and saccharine voice was the perfect touch of icing for the casting. While remaining strong and courageous, it had a sincerely comforting quality and provided the distinct impression of being wrapped in a familiar blanket. Though when it was time for her to belt those powerful tunes, Rose’s claws came out and what was once a soft flame became a fiery inferno of gusto and passion.
Oprah Winfrey’s casting as Eudora, Tiana’s sensible, supportive and indubitably wise mother was ultimately the perfect decision, as she almost held paradoxically nurturing authority. She was a woman who understood what Tiana had yet to learn, but she would allow her daughter to follow her heart.
“The Princess and the Frog” is without doubt an instant classic, though only time will tell the extent. It is definitely, however, a step in the right direction for the re-emerging tradition, proving yet again that heart does not need a third dimension.