Hard working waitress Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose, "Dreamgirls," HBO's "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency) has saved almost enough money to realize her dream of opening the finest restaurant in Jazz Age New Orleans. Fun loving Maldenoian Prince Naveen (voice of television actor Bruno Campos) is drawn to the city for its music, but a run-in with devious magician Dr. Facilier (voice of Keith David, "All About Steve," "Coraline's" cat) leaves him feeling a bit amphibious. When the spellbound prince convinces Tiana to kiss him, things do not turn out the way they normally do for "The Princess and the Frog."
It's been years since Disney has released a traditional 2-D hand-drawn animation and over a decade since they've delivered a new 'princess' and cowriter/directors Ron Clements and John Musker ("The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Hercules") prove that the old format has life to spare. This charming twist on the classic fairy tale follows the standard Disney outline splendidly, updating itself with self-referential cheekiness and its first African American heroine.
Tiana is the daughter of a seamstress, Eudora (voice of Oprah Winfrey), who is regularly hired by 'Big Daddy' La Bouff (voice of John Goodman, "Monsters, Inc.'s" Sulley) to create sugarspun frocks for his spoiled little princess Charlotte (voice of Jennifer Cody) who plays with Tiana as her mother works. Tiana's dad James (voice of Terrence Howard, "Hustle & Flow," "Iron Man") works two jobs to support them, but dies before realizing his restaurant dreams. When Prince Naveen arrives, it is Charlotte who is all a'twitter, her daddy throwing a masquerade ball to reel a prince in for his princess with Tiana's famous beignets as a lure. But the voodoo charlatan Dr. Facilier sees an opportunity to play a one-sided game of "Prince & the Pauper" with Naveen's resentful aide Lawrence (voice of Peter Bartlett, 2005's "The Producers") and Lottie's none the wiser when the substitute prince arrives. Meanwhile, Tiana's discovered that she's been outbid on the old sugar mill she's been eyeing for her eatery and has only until midnight to come up with more cash. When a slick frog arrives promising to make her dreams come true for a kiss, she obliges, but as she is only a masquerade princess, the only green she sees is her own skin.
What follows is a fun adventure into the bayou, where Naveen and Tiana search for old voodoo crone Mama Odie (voice of Jenifer Lewis, "Cars'" Flo, "Not Easily Broken") to reverse the spell, with the assistance of trumpet-playing gator Louis (voice of Michael-Leon Wooley, "Dreamgirls") and romantic cajun firefly Ray (voice of Jim Cummings, "Merry Madagascar's" lead reindeer) as, back in the city, Facilier is wrestling with mojo growing too weak to keep Lawrence looking enough like Naveen to propose to Charlotte and acquire her riches. There are a multitude of great song and dance numbers, ranging from Disney Broadway-bound standards to those paying homage to the music of New Orleans. I cannot recall when a Disney animation has been so vested in its location as it is here, and the story hits all the New Orleans notes - food, music, drink, masquerade, voodoo, the bayou, even a New Orleans style funeral. There is also some real playfulness with the Disney tradition going on as Lottie is indulged as a young girl with her princess dress-up, a sleepyhead is called Sleeping Beauty, midnight becomes a deadline to make a dream come true and an insect is in love with a star which everyone wishes upon. Even Facilier's big number recalls "A Nightmare Before Christmas's" Oogie Boogie number, with its dancing burlap voodoo dolls (later replaced with some really sinister shadow spirits).
The characters are wonderfully realized and voices well cast. Anika Noni Rose has a musical voice as Tiana, drawn with African American features - Disneyfied, sure, but as much as any of their characters. Naveen has a bit of Peppie Le Pew about him, a hero who has to learn responsibility. Louis could be right out of "The Jungle Book" and Ray with his big lit bottom and haphazard dental arrangement is one charmer of a Cajun firefly, a truly terrific Disney sidekick character. Perhaps most surprising is the character of Charlotte - a spoiled husband hunter who twirls daddy around her little finger and yet remains likable, a flapper who treats Tiana as a true friend. A trio of Cajun frog hunters are an amusing throwback.
"The Princess and the Frog" is a marvel - a period Disney animation that follows their standard outline and yet puts a twist on a classic fairy tale while tweaking their own history. The inventiveness is still there - check out the movie's poster where the 'O' in 'Frog' is created with a crown that is also a frog's footprint.
Robin did not see this film.
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