“The Princess and the Frog” alternates between adventure and musical interludes that meld seamlessly and build toward an ending that’s predictable but still more than capable of leaving a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat.
Entertaining throwback or subtle racism? It all depends on how you look at Disney’s glossy cartoon musical “The Princess and the Frog.”
On the surface, the combination of anthropomorphic critters, snappy Randy Newman tunes and evocative bayou locations makes the Mouse’s version of the oft-told Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince” a comedic delight. But lurking just below the lily pods rests a disturbing reality that has haunted the studio since the days of “Song of the South.”
Yes, it features Disney’s first African-American heroine in Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young woman of big ambitions and small means. But it’s a hollow attempt at being inclusive when the script cashes in her black beauty for a pale shade of green by turning her into a frog before you’ve had time to digest the opening credits.
Then there’s the matter of the location: New Orleans, home of jazz, baguettes, voodoo and Katrina, one of the most distressing examples of America’s racial divide in history. And the time: the 1920s, an era of Jim Crow, lynching and fear.
The film, however, paints the Big Easy as a virtual racial utopia, where the only visible disparity is between Tiana’s modest home in the “ghetto” and the opulent Garden District mansion inhabited by her best friend, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody).
As for her Prince Charming, Naveen (Bruno Campos), he’s about as black as Michael Jackson after his plastic surgery and skin lightening.
Now, I know it’s silly to nitpick over a seemingly harmless “kids movie,” and normally I would overlook it had the studio not decided to make Tiana’s race part of an advertising campaign intent on spreading the corporation’s name and products beyond its white, suburban core.
They’ve even stooped to bringing in the queen of all media, Oprah Winfrey, to help spread the word by employing her as both a consultant on all things black, as well as providing the voice of Tiana’s mother.
Well, at least “The Princess and the Frog” isn’t as offensive as “Precious,” the other current film carrying Oprah’s seal of approval. In fact, it’s actually quite entertaining, even moving, when taken (no pun intended) at face value.
The script is imaginative and funny, as you’d expect from Ron Clements and John Musker, the team behind two of Disney’s biggest hits, “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” And the way they weave in the Big Easy’s natural, architectural and cultural beauty is impressive, as are their clever homages to N’awlins set movies like “Street Car Named Desire.”
The voice talent, which also includes Terrence Howard, John Goodman and especially Keith David as the villain of the piece, Facilier, is exceptional across the board. And the animation is rich and colorful with a charmingly retro look that recalls Disney classics like “Pinocchio” and “Snow White.”
It’s all in support of a familiar tale about inner beauty and the importance of following your dreams told in a fresh enough way to seem new. Although the Brothers Grimm might take exception to the way Musker, Clements and their co-screenwriter, Rob Edwards, have taken liberties with their timeless tale of a prince turned into a frog by a nefarious master of the dark arts – a spell that can only be broken by a kiss from a princess.
The biggest change comes in the decision to have the princess, in this case, Tiana, also turn into an amphibian after she plants one on the frog prince’s mucus-coated lips. I also don’t recall a trumpet-blowing alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley) or a Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings) being part of the original story. But they sure do make appealing traveling companions for Tiana and Naveen as they scour the Bayou in search of a 189-year-old voodoo queen, Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), to break the spell.
The story alternates between adventure and musical interludes that meld seamlessly and build toward an ending that’s predictable, but still more than capable of leaving a tear in the eye and a lump in the throat.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that Disney has decided to play up the race angle instead of letting the movie stand on its own merit. After all, it is a terrific movie, but as a symbol of the studio’s alleged new push toward racial diversity it’s distressing, no matter what Oprah Winfrey may say.
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (G) Featuring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Terrence Howard, John Goodman, Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Michael-Leon Wooley and Jim Cummings. Co-written and directed by Ron Clements and John Musker. 3 stars out of 4.
The Patriot Ledger