In the current climate of cutting edge 3D-enhanced cranked-to-11 CGI spectacles comes this knowingly nostalgic animated crowd pleaser, created with the modest objective of replicating the winning formula that underpinned Disney’s many triumphs of the 90s. The Princess and the Frog is the Big Mouse’s first hand drawn feature in five years but directors Ron Clements and John Musker seem intent on making that gap feel a lot longer. It’s very old hat and that’s precisely the point.
The film’s soft-toned pastel coloured aesthetics look decidedly retro by today’s standards. Ditto for its film’s fairytale story, which comes with a slight revisionist twist but nothing along the lines of the infuriatingly smug post-modernism of the Shrek franchise. And, glory halleluiah, it is also bereft of the incessant pop culture references that have plagued mainsteam animation in recent years.
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The Princess and the Frog is a significant addition to Disney’s stable only in the sense that it marks the first African American heroine in the company’s 71 year history of feature film animation. She is Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose), a hardworking waitress who has long dreamt of opening her own restaurant. To the fetchingly funk-a-rific lilt of Dr John’s Down in New Orleans the opening sequence sets the tone for Disney musicals 101 in which the central setting – Jazz age New Orleans – is established through toe-tappin’ song.
The storyline kicks into gear at a high society bash where Tiana, the caterer, ruins her outfit. A buxom blue-blooded friend insists she change into a blue gown and, alone on a balcony, Tiana is confronted by a prince whose been transmogrified into a frog. Mistaking her for a princess, the cursed Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) pleads for a smooch. Their lips connect, Tiana turns into a frog, and the rest of the movie revolves around the repressed sexual chemistry between two slimy green amphibians as they endeavour to find a magic-channelling blind woman capable of turning them back into humans. Along the way – no surprises here – they pick up an assortment of talking animals, including a trumpet playing alligator and a bunch of Cajun fireflies, one of whom features in the film’s most memorable moment – a beautiful funeral sequence that strikes an uncharacteristically solemn note.
There is a comfortable albeit unexciting familiarity in the way the film pans out, Clements and Musker rehashing bits and pieces that comprise the Big Mouse’s fabled formula: breezy songs, a nefarious crook with a connection to the occult, big mean looking lugs who turn into sweet and goofy sidekicks and a rags-to-riches story underlined with didactic messages about resisting temptation, working hard to achieve your dreams and not trusting suspect personalities – like, say, the shady voodoo man with tarot cards, a wicked grin and a skull and bones on his top hat.
The story hits a slow spot when the characters drift down a creek, the obligatory stretch of journeying exposition in which dangers are narrowing avoided, new friendships formed etcetera etcetera. The songs are pleasant enough, though they don’t hold a candle to the iconic sing-along hits lovingly performed by children and drunken adults – i.e. A Whole New World (Aladdin), Under the Sea (The Little Mermaid) or The Circle of Life (The Lion King).
The screenplay – which like most Disney flicks was penned by a small army of writers – could have benefited from a more innovative approach because The Princess and the Frog ultimately feels disappointingly commonplace, as if it only exists as a salute to the past. However there is no doubting the quality and craftsmanship of this proudly by-the-numbers rehash. It may be a minor work skewed too greatly to the side of familiarity, but it’s a winner. Clements and Musker provide good ammunition for an argument that this breed of animation is considerably more thoughtful than the kind we are accustomed to these days, which are generally either self-conscious pop culture-drenched talking animal storylines or experiences based largely on spectacle and visceral thrills.
You’d almost call this film a breath of fresh air, if that air didn’t feel so musty. A lot of people like the smell of aged books. Well, The Princess and the Frog is the cinematic equivalent of a new book that’s been specially printed to emulate the texture and aroma of an old one.
The Princess and the Frog’s Australian theatrical release date: January 1, 2010.