If The Princess and the Frog had been released in the 1980s or ’90s — during the time the Disney Animation Studios had its historic run with The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast — the movie would have been deemed a minor but pleasant stopgap between classics.
Today, though, The Princess and the Frog carries much more weighty expectations as the first pen-and-ink Disney cartoon in five years. The previous two films, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range, cost so much to make and grossed so little that the studio went into computer animation full time.
And those expectations are much too great for this amiable but slight reworking of the familiar fable. Directed by The Little Mermaid‘s John Musker and Ron Clements and peppered with not-quite-memorable songs by Randy Newman, the picture already feels somewhat dated — a throwback to a formula that went out of style after Pixar rewrote the animation rule book.
Most notable about The Princess and the Frog is that it features the first African-American heroine in Disney history: Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), a hard worker who longs to fulfill her late father’s dreams of someday owning a five-star restaurant in jazz-era New Orleans.
The movie’s main twist on its classic source material is that when Tiana kisses a prince (Bruno Campos) who has been turned into a frog by a voodoo shaman (Keith David), she, too, becomes a green-skinned fly-eater, and the pair hops into the swamp in search of a priestess to lift their mutual curse.
Many spirited critters (including a trumpet-playing crocodile), musical numbers and manic adventures await, but there’s a prevailing familiarity to this material that even the inspired Big Easy setting cannot completely overcome. You know your cartoon is in trouble when your characters are much more engaging in human form than they are as animals. (Tiana’s endearingly spoiled and bratty childhood friend, a real princess voiced by Jennifer Cody, practically steals the movie.)
And if you partake of the belief that Disney films are only as great as their villains, then The Princess and the Frog‘s witch doctor, whose main objective is of the vague and dull “rule the world” variety, is a big disappointment. The animation in The Princess and the Frog is beautifully rendered, and the movie doesn’t lack for energy. But this is minor Disney at best, forgettable at worst: Even the underrated Treasure Planet, box-office flop notwithstanding, had a compelling and inspired conceit at its center — something The Princess and the Frog sorely lacks.
Voices: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, John Goodman.
Directors: John Musker, Ron Clements.
Screenwriters: John Musker, Ron Clements, Rob Edwards.
Producer: Peter Del Vecho.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 95 minutes. No offensive material.