'The Princess and the Frog' revives some Disney magic, but avoids important issues

Courtesy of Disney
Buy this photo

By Jennifer Xu, Daily Arts Writer
Published December 13, 2009

It’s always difficult to gauge the quality of Disney movies, just because they’re so intricately tied to our childhoods. They’re the films we watched over and over again as youngsters, the ones with songs we memorized and the characters we dressed up as for Halloween. That’s why appraising every scene of “The Princess and the Frog” with a critical hawk’s eye just doesn’t seem right. It’s practically like deconstructing Dr. Seuss.

"The Princess and the Frog"


At Quality 16 and Showcase
Disney

“The Princess and the Frog” has made a small splash for two reasons that have been more hyped up than they should be. First, Disney has returned to 2-D hand-drawn animation for the first time since 2004’s box-office flop “Home on the Range,” and second, it’s the first Disney film to feature a black princess.

Anika Noni Rose (“Dreamgirls”) voices young Tiana, a waitress from New Orleans with big dreams. One day, she encounters frog prince Naveen (Bruce Campo, TV’s “Nip/Tuck”) and gets cajoled into kissing him, only to be turned into a frog as well. As they embark on a journey littered with voodoo magic, the two amphibians encounter a jazz-playing crocodile, a snaggletoothed firefly and a wishing star named Evangeline. In the end, Tiana and the prince succumb to — surprise, surprise — true love.

Over the years, Disney has managed to hold an interesting place in audiences’ hearts. Rather than introducing revolutionary, adult-centric ideas to the children’s fold like its occasional collaborator Pixar, Disney’s priority has always been to tell a treasured fairy tale with finesse and creativity.

There is no place where sheer beauty is more valued than at Disney, and for “The Princess and the Frog,” it’s no different. Jazz-Age New Orleans pulsates and blooms on the screen in a parade of earthy greens and acid purples, reveling in a culture teeming inside the swamps. A nearby bayou unfolds to expose frogs croaking away glitzy melodies with bellies full of soul-pumping gumbo. It’s a fairyland come to life.

But for all its captivating magic, sometimes the film's scenes are too familiar. Maybe it’s because Disney is out of practice, or maybe it’s just the cynical, jaded adult in me speaking, but going back in time seems kind of been-there-done-that — trite, even. Whether it’s witchcraft and transformations (see “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin”) or a frog with a comical accent (“The Swan Princess”), these overused tropes of animation quickly transform the film into less of an exciting new fusion and more of a recycling bin of characters and ideas.

As for the race issue, Disney manages to sustain its reputation for being a company still woefully behind the times, despite all of its efforts to combat this image. For one, according to the film, it’s inconceivable for a black girl to be an actual princess, so of course she has to be a poor waitress first. For another, the young Tiana spends an awful lot of time in amphibian form, as if Disney isn’t quite comfortable with having a fully black princess strut around the screen for longer than a few moments.

Since “Steamboat Willie” in 1929, Disney has been accused of perpetuating racial stereotypes, from the jive-talking Uncle Remus in “Song of the South” to the “What Makes the Red Man Red?” song in “Peter Pan.” If they can’t even show a girl in all of her African-American glory for more than a few spunky minutes, it doesn’t seem like Disney is quite ready to embrace the new, Obama and Oprah-fueled millennium.

Yet for all of its derivations and tentative race-assuaging political correctness, “Princess” still remains a genuinely heartwarming movie. If the purpose of going back to old-school animation was to recreate the magic Disney has been lacking since 1999’s “Tarzan,” it has succeeded. The kids in the theater laughed; they cried; they were silent at all the right parts. Despite its faults, “The Princess and the Frog” remains a throwback to what Disney was founded on — a fairy tale rooted in fantasy, tradition and simplicity.