The Princess and the Frog (review)

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Is it too churlish — or maybe even downright contradictory — to complain about The Princess and the Frog? But I can’t help but think: Wait, Disney finally gives us a black princess… and she has to spend most of the movie as a frog? Disney finally gives us a black princess… at the very same moment it decides to give us a “realistic” “princess,” a decidedly nonroyal gal who works (hard!) for a living to achieve her realistic, down-to-earth dreams and isn’t waiting on romance for her life to begin? I mean, that’s good — Tiana here is an independent adult, not a woman-child — but they couldn’t stick with fantasy just a little while longer? The white girls all got to be mermaids splashing around in undersea fantasylands and book-loving lollabouts in the French countryside… and the very best reward that Tiana here can be said to get is the prospect of a long difficult slog in one of the toughest businesses there is, the restaurant one?

You almost wish Disney hadn’t done us any favors.
Still and all, it’s actually pretty ironic that there’s such a kerfluffle over Disney’s first black princess, because The Princess and the Frog feels so old-fashioned — and not entirely in a good way — and so familiar — definitely not in a good way — that you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a movie lost in the early 1990s and just rediscovered. (Surely there’s been a black princess for years, hasn’t there?) It’s true that a certain fluid, organic style and a certain lush, cozy look has changed since animated movies have mostly been turned into CGI productions, but there’s no reason at all why a traditionally created movie like this one — Disney’s first hand-drawn feature since 2004’s Home on the Range was supposed to have been the final one — also had to cover ground already very well covered indeed by all the Disney princess films of the late 80s and 90s.

Except, of course, that Disney isn’t about to let go of its stranglehold on the hearts and minds of princess-addled five-year-old girls of all ages and genders. You know how they say that cops come in only one color, blue? Well, Disney princesses come in only one color: pink.

This is a pink, pink movie, serving up heaping great servings of by-the-number romantic adventure and de rigueur Showstopper(TM) musical numbers. That wasn’t the case with wonders like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin, when these elements truly were fresh. But those were from the days before Disney had a franchise called Disney Princess catering to all your princess needs.

I use the word pink metaphorically, of course. The Princess and the Frog is mostly warm browns and golds and cool greens and blues that serve to create a visually sumptuous early-20th-century New Orleans — the film is lovely to look at, indeed. The actually-pinkest stuff here comes in the form Tiana’s best friend, the rich, spoiled, blonde brat Charlotte (the voice of Jennifer Cody), who is an intentional parody of Disney princesses, but not enough of one to be intriguing in any sort of meta way. That could be the worst flaw of the film. It has no subtext, and is nothing other than what it appears, on its surface, to be: an indulgence of princess fantasies Disney has trained us to crave. The reason the Pixar films have been so wildly successful is not because they’re CGI but because they’re telling us new stories in new ways. But directors Ron Clements and John Musker — who also wrote the film with assists from four additional credited screenwriters; in the past, Clements and Musker gave us Treasure Planet, The Little Mermaid, and other Disney toons — don’t appear to care about breaking any new ground at all, or at least as little as possible.

And so we have Tiana (the voice of Anika Noni Rose), who is saving up her tips from waitressing jobs so she can open her own restaurant someday; she’s an awesome cook. Instead of the usual Disney absent mother, it’s her dad who’s left the scene, leaving her alone with Mom (the voice of Oprah Winfrey: Bee Movie, Charlotte’s Web). Tiana bums around with Charlotte — there’s fantasy for you: a rich white girl in pre-WWI New Orleans is BFFs with a poor black girl, the daughter of her seamstress — and it’s through Charlotte that she meets the ne’er-do-well Prince Naveen (the voice of Bruno Campos). He’s visiting from “Maldonia,” which sounds vaguely Baltic and perhaps explains his middle-brown Mediterranean look. (Again, it’s a dilemma whether to complain about this: On the one hand, yea mixed-race romance that no one seems to have a problem with, but on the other hand, boo no black prince.) Naveen is determined to enjoy all that New Orleans has to offer, including voodoo, which is how he ends up turned into a frog by the spooky witch doctor Facilier (the voice of Keith David: All About Steve, Gamer). He can be turned back into a human by the kiss of a princess, which he mistakes Tiana to be. But since she isn’t a princess, she gets turned into a frog instead. Cue bayou adventure — including encounters with a jazz-loving alligator (the voice of Michael-Leon Wooley) and a hopeless-romantic mosquito (the voice of Jim Cummings) — as they go in search of a Cajun fairy godmother who can turn them back again.

Need I tell you how it ends?

There are a few pretty good songs by Randy Newman — Tiana, on the verge of seeing her entrepreurial dreams come true, belts out the triumphant “Almost There”; Facilier relishes his supernatural helpers in “Friends on the Other Side” — but even they are ringingly familiar even on a first hearing. The Princess and the Frog might have been one of the greats had we first seen it back in 1993. Of course, it’s specifically designed to make you feel as if it’s already an old favorite, which makes it feel more like manufactured goods than a movie. Though even Hollywood usually has the grace to pretend it’s not merely selling you a prepackaged product.

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