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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Film Review | The Princess and the Frog

Warts and all

by Thomas Delapa

More than 60 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, Disney has finally leapfrogged into modern times, producing its first cartoon feature with a black heroine. But the royal question behind The Princess and the Frog isn’t “Why did it take so long?” Better to ask, “Why is it so colorlessly average?”

For their story, longtime Disney directors John Musker and Ron Clements go tres retro, reaching back to 1920s New Orleans for a Cajun twist on the Brothers Grimm. In their desire to play it safe, politically and otherwise, Musker and Clements set their fable in an animated universe long ago and seemingly far away. This is not New Orleans of Hurricane Katrina or Huey Long, but a jazzy Big Easy where every day might be Mardi Gras.

There’s nothing lean or facile about the historic prologue, which opens on a middle-class African-American family at home. The quaint, hand-drawn animation (itself a bold move in the Digital Age) immediately draws us into the world of young Tiana, who’s set her heart on one day owning her own restaurant.

Years later, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) has grown into a waitress, but she’s cooked up a plan to buy an old sugar mill and turn it into a fancy cafe. Sweet, doe-eyed and shapely in the tradition of snow-white Disney princesses, Tiana could easily pass as a chocolate-skinned version of the Little Mermaid or Aladdin’s Jasmine.

After the decades it took for Disney to create a black heroine, the grown Tiana weirdly disappears in a puff of smoke. Musker and Clements must figure that if one frog is good for a fairy tale, two are better. First she meets a talking frog called Naveen (Bruno Campos) who assures her that—yeah, right—he’s really a prince in need of a kiss. But that old line backfires when the sloppy smooch only makes over Tiana into a fish-out-of-water amphibian.

There’s a Darwinian difference between quaint and reactionary, and Disney hops between both, finally settling on a fairy tale that, at best, is fairly forgettable. The movie feels like it’s been uncorked from a Disney (or Warner Bros.) cartoon bottle, vintage 1950s, right down to its voodoo-practicing villain, Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a.k.a. the Shadow Man. A spindly Mephistopheles, Facilier has turned visiting Naveen into a frog as part of his slimy plot to take over New Orleans.

Not unlike the mixed-raced movies of old Hollywood, Disney tones down the color line, even to the point of making Naveen a light-skinned black from a foreign land. For the de rigueur stew of comic sidekicks, Musker and Clements toss in a mild blend, including a gap-toothed firefly, a trumpet-playing alligator and saggy Mama Odie, “voodoo queen of the bayou,” who brews up some godmotherly advice for Tiana. Randy Newman’s gumbo of songs uncomfortably leaps between jazz, blues, zydeco and gospel.

Despite the ostensible ethnic breakthrough (and jumping box-office), beauty trumps race in any case, betraying Disney’s knee-jerk biases about romance and attractiveness. The more-than-skin-deep beauty of Tiana and Naveen is always royalty, especially opposite the deep-down ugliness of a fat, big-eared impostor who takes over Naveen’s Adonis body. For Tiana, her lifelong dream of opening a restaurant (Aunt Jemima would smile) still comes in second next to the crowning glory of true love, made even more magical since it’s a handsome prince who sweeps her off her svelte frog legs.


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