I have not seen a traditionally animated Disney film in years. I don't know how many, but it's been quite a long time. However, I can say that I have not seen an animated feature, traditional or otherwise, produced in-house at Disney in theaters for nearly a decade (that being The Emperor's New Groove back in 2000). Since then, Pixar has ruled the roost, producing top-notch computer-animated content that puts other studios to shame. Now, with animation nut John Lasseter in a position of power at the company, the studio is making a much-hyped return to traditional animation with The Princess and the Frog, a well-meaning but perhaps overly calculated effort to please everyone.
Our heroine this time is Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose), who toils at two jobs every day in order to save up enough money so that one day she can own her own restaurant. Since Tiana was very young and her mother worked as a dressmaker, Tiana has been acquainted with the powerful La Bouff family, namely Charlotte (voice of Jennifer Cody), who invites Tiana to prepare some food for a costume party she's throwing to celebrate the arrival of Prince Naveen (voice of Bruno Campos). Charlotte is desperately enamored with fairy tales, and believes that she's got a chance to become a princess by sweeping Naveen off his feet. Through a series of incidents, however, it's Tiana who ends up staring up at the skies in one of Charlotte's dazzling princess-style dresses, wishing on a star, and fate responds in the form of a frog claiming to be Prince Naveen. Tiana kisses him, but since she's not a princess, instead of solving his problem, Tiana too is turned into a frog and the two end up stranded out in the bayou.
I hate to sound cynical, but sometimes I felt like Disney took a checklist of things they wanted to do to move their classic trademarks into the 21st century and started trying to check them all off at once. Revive 2-D animation and classic Disney musical storytelling? Check. First black Disney princess? Check. Tweak the formula with a level of self-awareness? Check. Unfortunately, some of these gears seem to be grinding against each other as the movie progresses. Whenever the movie is being winky and postmodern, it makes the old-fashioned stuff seem, well, old-fashioned, and when the old-fashioned style is in full swing, it makes the new stuff seem lackluster in comparison. Sure, characters in The Princess and the Frog burst into song more than a couple of times, and some of these numbers contain wonderful eye-popping feats of animation, but half the time it feels like the characters do so out of obligation -- they're in a Disney movie! -- more than anything.
The two major things that fall by the wayside in all of this back-and-forth are the plot and the movie's sense of spontaneity. Rose sells a few moments the movie can't on its own, but the developing attraction between Tiana and Naveen is awkwardly shoehorned in (a scene where Naveen serves Tiana fruit on a boat clatters around inside the film like a broken part), as do all of the familiar romantic comedy beats (particularly the always-aggravating third-act misunderstanding). The movie's villain, Dr. Facilier (voice of Keith David), also flaps around on the back of the movie an errant plot thread; there's little reason for his character to exist when Naveen's slimy assistant Lawrence (voice of Peter Bartlett) might as well ask the curse upon Naveen himself, other than to provide the movie with a couple extra voodoo-themed musical numbers. Facilier asks for some shadowy ghouls to capture the two frogs and bring them to him, and it's telling that the ghouls seem menacing but Facilier remains uninteresting.
That said, most of the material that occurs while Tiana and Naveen are stranded in the swamp is pretty good. Most importantly, the two frogs meet Louis (voice of Michael Leon-Wooley), a joyous, friendly alligator who dreams of playing jazz trumpet. The character is wonderful, providing the first solid blast of confident material to what starts as a well-meaning but unsteady movie. Louis also brings with him the first perfect musical number in the movie, a song called "When We're Human", which made me think of "The Bare Necessities". Most of the music in the movie is fine -- I particularly liked the reprise of "Almost There" and the song "Dig a Little Deeper" -- although I don't know that any of it is classic. I was also less enthused by Randy Newman's score, which is perfectly serviceable, but sounds pretty much identical to the stuff Newman composed for the Toy Story films in more ways than one, failing to mesh with the film's jazzy aesthetic.
At the very least, the movie makes a star out of Anika Noni Rose, whose vocal performance is a real charmer. Fellow OFCS member pointed out that it's a shame that the first black Disney princess isn't really a princess at all, and I agree, but Rose gives Tiana the drive and determination to take 'em all on anyway. Just like Louis, she seems genuine: invested in her dreams, nice but not sanitized, strong-willed but not stone-hearted. Hopefully she's got stardom in her future, because she seems like she deserves it. Everyone else ranges from comedically sound (Cody had my audience in stitches) to the passable (I don't know that Oprah Winfrey or John Goodman brought anything to their negligible roles, but they're here anyway). My only point of contention is Ray (voice of Jim Cummings), a firefly the two frogs (and their gator friend) meet in swamp. It's not Cummings' fault, but the fact that the character is portrayed as missing several teeth seems like a questionable decision to me, especially when the only other Cajun characters are a trio of dimwitted frog hunters, but maybe I'm overreacting.
All in all, the experience is a mixed bag. There are some wonderful moments in The Princess and the Frog, amazing examples of the great things that animation can achieve and classic Disney storytelling, and then some of the moments feel calculated, filled with look-at-me animation desperately trying to revive the art form and tired Disney cliches. Even though I have not watched, say, The Little Mermaid since I was very young, just a few bars of "Part of Your World" brings back all of those indelible memories, and ultimately, I'm torn: at first, I'm inclined to say that if people remember this movie two years from now, that in itself will be this film's most notable achievement, but then I find myself humming a few bars of "Almost There", and think again.