Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Disney's The Princess and the Frog

"If I Can Mince, You Can Dance"

You worry in the first few minutes of Disney's new 2-D animation musical "The Princess and the Frog" (directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, and loosey based—very, very loosely based, as in the Disney tradition—on E.D. Baker's "The Frog Princess") that it's going to be too safe. That the first African-American Princess story Disney produces is going to walk such an inoffensive line that it'll turn into one of those vanilla productions of Disney at its worse, rather than the flip way it handles its European fairy tales. One begins to feel that things are going to get "preachy" when little Tiana (voiced by Elizabeth M. Dampier, and as an adult by Anika Noni Rose) is warned by her parents (Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard) that she can wish on stars all she wants, but she'll only get there by hard work.

Not to worry, though.
When things get rolling, that star gets an earful, and the work ethos is relaxed just a bit. When Tiana gets embroiled in a chance to help the hapless and privileged Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) to escape his fate of being turned into a frog, the two find that their disparate philosophies have to soften a bit, as do their hearts.

Every Disney film has to have a great villain, and "The Princess and the Frog" benefits from a nifty one—
the "shadow man" Dr. Facilier (voiced by the best voice in America, Keith David--oh, you've heard him, yes you have)—a charlaton voo-doo man who only gets his powers with the help of his "Friends from the Other Side," which makes one of the musical tent-poles of the film, and it's one of the most ghoulishly rousing musical highlights of any Disney film of the last several years. It, and eight other songs were composed (as was the score) by Randy Newman,* which was a worry. Usually, Newman is limited to one of two songs per soundtrack, but here he's the whole show, and there isn't a song that disappoints. A native Louisianan, Newman spreads the style around from jazz to dixieland to zydeco to blues, and manages to give every character their own voice. All the major characters have a song—including the Disney familiars, Louis a jazz-loving crocodile (voiced by the splendid Michael-Leon Wooley) and Ramon, a cajun fire-fly (a standout performance by Disney regular Jim Cummings) The traditional "I want" song is "Almost There," which is reprised a couple of times and even used as a diss by the villain, and at one point is backed by API-style animation in a dream sequence supervised by the brilliant Eric Goldberg.

It is very much in the Disney tradition (a second viewing may reveal several "cameo's" from past Disney productions)
of colorful characters, including the wise elder, but there is one departure that I found surprising...not that it's NEVER happened in a Disney film...that deepens the film and even makes it more enchanting. It certainly didn't bother the people I saw the film with, adults and children alike and that's what Disney aspires and caters to. Among the capering and the slap-stick, there's a lot of beautiful imagery, and even some nods to Chuck Jones a time or two. That they've made another triumphant return to traditional animation (although it's not pen and ink this time) from what seemed to be a slight coasting recently merely reinforces that the Disney group always manages to define the state of the art and update it as the decades go by.

"The Princess and the Frog" is a Full-Price Ticket.

* There is a pop R&B song in the End-Credits by Ne-Yo. And in case this is a big issue for you, Randy doesn't sing...but has one line of dialog.

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