Young viewers of The Princess and the Frog won’t give a croak that the marvelous new ? adventure from Walt Disney Animation Studios has been created using the same hand-drawn, 2-D techniques that entertained those viewers’ Bambi-loving grandparents more than 65 years ago. But adults should: This old-fashioned charmer holds its own beside the motion-capture elegance of Disney’s A Christmas Carol, the engrossing stop-motion universes of Coraline and Fantastic Mr. Fox, the CG-enhanced genius of Up, the wonder of 3-D technology, and, indeed, the unique, hand-drawn Japanese artistry of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo as the year’s deepest, most affecting, and most inventive movies.
Still, for the greenest or the grayest in the audience, the inclusive story of a resourceful African-American girl in 1930s New Orleans who kisses a frog with unexpected, funny results is its own reward: This A-level, G-rated entertainment is a fresh twist on the classic fairy tale about a handsome prince temporarily out of commission due to a malicious magic spell, a royal catch requiring the smooch of the right kindhearted, risk-taking heroine to restore him to his waiting throne. (As an added benefit, the smoocher gets to stand alongside her royal as his princess.) Only this time, the kiss that the lovely heroine, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), bestows on frog-bodied Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) backfires. He ends up in the same shape that he hopped into — and Tiana turns amphibian too. The patient, beautiful, hard-?working, entrepreneurial young woman is particularly irked because she has no desire to be a princess at all; what she really wants to do is open her own restaurant.
Great swampy mess! The race to restore happily-ever-after order involves a jazz-loving alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley); Ray (Jim Cummings), a bebopping Cajun firefly; Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a shady New Orleans gent who dabbles in dark arts; and Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), ancient royalty of the bayou magic world with the power to undo Dr. Facilier’s treachery. And this being the Disney kingdom under the beneficent creative rule of veteran directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and composer Randy Newman (Cars, Toy Story), the frolic also includes songs of gumption (”Almost There”), mischief (”Friends on the Other Side”), optimism (”When We’re Human”), spiritual uplift (”Dig a Little Deeper”), and ? the love of something up above — in this case, an evening star (”Ma Belle Evangeline”).
But while little kids laugh at the froggy humor (summed up in the excellent, repeated punchline ”that’s not slime you are secreting — it’s mucus!”), the firefly antics, and the cute sight of a fat alligator wailing on his trumpet like Louis Armstrong, adult viewers are rewarded with something more moving — a Proustian remembrance of the durable ? power of Disney at its old-school best. The filmmakers trust in story over special effects, and character over celebrity voices (there are almost none here, save for a brief cameo by queen-of-all-she-surveys Oprah Winfrey as Tiana’s saintly mother, Eudora). They steep the movie in colloquial American culture. They offer a sophisticated musical experience (ragtime, zydeco, gospel, Tin Pan Alley) ? accessible even to the youngest ears. And in doing so, the creative team behind The Princess and the Frog upholds the great tradition of classic Disney animation.
The Princess and the Frog happens to introduce an African-American heroine, a Disney animation first. The story also ? happens to be set in an idealized New Orleans of an earlier time, a city whose historic beauty and cultural importance will forever be ? filtered by contemporary adults through grimmer awareness of the natural and man-made disasters of Hurricane Katrina. It’s all the more effective, though, that this Big Easy of a movie needs no overt mention of Katrina to move our hearts, and inserts no overt lesson in the history of civil rights to distract from the groundbreaking matter-of-factness of Tiana’s equality. What matters is that Tiana triumphs as both a girl and a frog, that dreams are fulfilled, wrongs are righted, love prevails, and music unites not only a princess and a frog but also kids and grown-ups. A