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Tiana takes a ride in The Princess and the Frog:

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3 out of 4 stars


The Princess and the Frog

  • Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
  • Written by Ron Clements, John Musker and Rob Edwards
  • Starring Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos and John Goodman
  • Classification: G

A by-the-numbers approach keeps The Princess and the Frog out of the first ranks of Disney's animated films, but this lively, fractured fairy tale should find an extended life in children's DVD collections and on Broadway. The new movie is being doubly promoted as Disney's first featuring an African-American princess and a return to hand-drawn animation. Set in the New Orleans of the 1920s, the story pays tribute to jazz culture, and like last year's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button , gains resonance from the Hurricane Katrina-devastated city itself.

The casting decision seems less of an innovation than a long-overdue correction: Disney has already featured native-American, Chinese and Hawaiian heroines (and, in Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride , even a dead one). Besides, for the one African-American princess breaking new ground, The Princess and the Frog offers plenty of familiar stereotypes, air-headed blondes, malaprop-mouthing Cajuns, toothless hillbillies and a wise old voodoo queen in the bayou.

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Much bolder is the decision to return to pencil over pixel to animate the new musical, a call made by John Lasseter, the former Pixar head and computer-animation pioneer, who's now the chief creative officer at Disney.

The film's directors and co-writers (with Rob Edwards) are Ron Clements and John Musker ( The Little Mermaid, Aladdin ). Two of a team responsible for Disney's nineties renaissance, they recreate the flowing Disney animation style, paying homage to classic examples from Pinocchio to Lady and the Tramp, with scenes that range from spooky gothic to phantasmagoric to art-deco grandeur. Pixar's favourite songwriter, Randy Newman, provides the score, which, if short of memorable tunes, is rich in authenticity, with a mixture of local flavoured ragtime, zydeco and jazz.

A prelude, set in 1912, sees a young Tiana (voiced by Elizabeth M. Dampier) as the child of a labourer, James (Terrence Howard), who dreams of being a chef. Tiana's mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), is a seamstress and nanny to Tiana's best friend, the spoiled little white girl Charlotte (Breanna Brooks as a child, and Jennifer Cody as an adult). Charlotte's the daughter of a wealthy, indulgent widower, Big Daddy La Bouff (John Goodman), who is also the perennial Mardi Gras king. When Eudora reads the Grimm's fairy tale of the princess and the frog to the children, Charlotte says she would kiss any number of frogs to win a prince; Tiana says frog-kissing is where she would draw the line.

Jump ahead a dozen years and the grown-up Tiana (voiced and modelled on Dreamgirls ' vivacious star Anika Noni Rose) is on her own, working two waitressing jobs and saving tips to top her late father's dream by running a fancy restaurant. Tiana's a somewhat dully industrious, if unsappy, heroine, who's more interested in entrepreneurship than romance. Although the period's pervasive racial segregation isn't mentioned, one can't help think that if Big Daddy had simply proffered a small-business loan, there would be no need for Tiana to seek a princely saviour.

Instead, Charlotte's father plays host to a costume ball for a visiting dignitary, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a jazz-loving playboy from the fictional country of Maldovia. With his caramel-coloured skin, Latin accent and Indian name, Prince Naveen (Bruno Carlos) is a handsome, shallow dude with wavy hair and mysterious ethnicity (the subject has been a source of controversy in the blogosphere). In any case, he wears a crown, which is enough for Tiana's friend, Charlotte, who is set on bagging a royal husband.

Unbeknownst to his guests, Naveen's also flat broke, having been cut off by his rich parents for unspecified transgressions. He makes a bad bargain with the movie's most memorable character, a skeletal, Creole witch doctor, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), whose manner echoes such previous dandyish villains as Scar in The Lion King and Jafar in Aladdin . Facilier has, as he explains in song, "friends on the other side," which provides an opportunity for a ghostly séance sequence. Working in cahoots with Naveen's treacherous valet, Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), Facilier transforms the prince into a frog.

Tiana, out on Charlotte's balcony wishing on a star for a financial stimulus package, gets approached by the frog prince, who mistakes her for a princess and asks for a kiss. Charity overcoming generosity, she plants one on him, and unexpectedly finds herself turned into a small, green amphibian. That sets the stage for the two frogs to set out through the bayou to visit a 197-year-old blind voodoo queen, Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis). They're accompanied by a cornet-tooting alligator, Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), and a firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings) with an accent as thick as a mouthful of gumbo, who has fallen in love with a star.

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The sidekicks, it must be acknowledged, feel grafted on, though the frog love story has charm. Because Tiana and Naveen fall in love while at their most green and slimy ("It's not slime, it's mucous secretions"), we know their love must be real and will lead them back to their natural human gorgeousness.

Let's just hope that The Princess and the Frog doesn't do for amphibian terrariums what 101 Dalmatians did for spotted dogs, or Finding Nemo did for pet-fish sales.

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