Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2009

The Princess and the Frog: Big Fun on the Bayou

Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements
With the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos and Keith David
Opens Nov. 25 (limited), Dec. 11 (wide)

The joke about the princess and the frog must be nearly as old as the original fable: she gives the homely amphibian a smooch, and rather than turning him into a handsome human, she instantly becomes a frog. Hardly less antique was the Disney company's notion to turn the gag into a cartoon in the old, hand-drawn, "2-D" style. Disney introduced this feature-length format with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 and, over the next 60 years, just about perfected the mixture of story, illustration and pop music. Today, virtually nobody does animated features as original musicals. As for the technology, CGI — the computer-driven animation used in Pixar's and DreamWorks' hit movies — is the princess, and 2-D the frog.

But frogs have more fun. The Princess and the Frog, which opens Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles, and Dec. 11 in the rest of the country, is a start-to-finish delight. It proves that 2-D can be more than 3-D, when gifted filmmakers put old-fashioned snap back into animation. The lines are freer here, the character movements more supple, the sense of fun unfettered. The movie is a triumph for its directors and co-writers, John Musker and Ron Clements — the guys who jump-started Disney's cartoon renaissance with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and created a whole new world with the 1992 Aladdin, then coasted (Hercules, 1997), flopped (Treasure Planet, 2002) and vanished. Entrusting an expensive, freighted project like this to a couple of 56-year-olds might seem like letting an Old Timers' Day pitcher start a World Series game, but Musker and Clements show no sweat. Their piece has the lightness of an inspired improv session by New Orleans jazz masters.

Louisiana in the 1910s and '20s is the locale for P&F, which set itself the further challenge of being the first Disney cartoon feature with an African-American princess. The heroine, Tiana (voiced and sung by Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose), is a seamstress's daughter and would-be chef, and her frog-consort the dusky-hued Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Nip/Tuck's Bruno Campos). Musker and Clements might have worried about being considered racially insensitive — or racially hypersensitive, which would put a clamp on both the comedy and the characters. Instead, they used the period setting as the springboard for an easy mixture of fantasy and reality, and for a full musical score, nine songs, by Randy Newman. They also were savvy enough to cast Oprah Winfrey, foolproof Racial Insensitivity insurance, as the heroine's mom Eudora. The strategy has already paid off: Tiana merchandise is a boom pre-Christmas industry.

Every Disney princess has to find two things: independence and love. Tiana, a culinary prodigy, dreams of turning an abandoned building into her own restaurant. Tiana entertains the attentions of the dashing playboy Naveen, but he's fallen under the spell of the black-magical Dr. Facilier (Keith David). The fateful kiss sends Tiana and Naveen, now frogs, into the bayou for refuge and retransformation. Among the Jungle Book-type denizens they meet there are Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a friendly, trumpet-playing alligator; Ray (Jim Cummings), a Cajun firefly; and the 197-year-old blind seer Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), among whose gifts may be the power to restore Tiana and Naveen to humanity.

And we're just short-listing the creatures that Musker and Clements toss into this savory gumbo. It's as if, in the dozen years since Hercules, their last comedy feature, the pair had stockpiled so many funny characters that a few drop in, get their laughs and are whisked off stage. You'll be tickled by Charlotte (Breanna Brooks as a child, Jennifer Cody as an adult), the adorably addled rich girl whom Eudora babysits, and by her father Big Daddy La Bouff (John Goodman in full bluster mode), who certifies his connection to Tennessee Williams' riper alpha-males with a booming, "Hey, Stella!" In any animated comedy, the funny supporting figures threaten to overwhelm the leads; but Tiana has the class and grit, and Naveen the immature charm, to carry the story. Their cozying up while mincing mushroom for a bayou stew is one of the film's emotional highlights.

Aside from reviving the moribund animation form, the early features of Musker and Clements and Disney's other renaissance directors restored the importance of movies as a prime source for generation-spanning pop tunes: Oscar-winning hits like "Under the Sea," "Beauty and the Beast," "A Whole New World," "Can You Feel the Love Tonight" and "Colors of the Wind." Newman, the singer-songwriter who lived in New Orleans as a child and used the city as the setting for several songs on his finest album, the 1988 Land of Dreams, has the musical milieu in his muscle memory and flexes it knowingly here. The motifs span Dixieland, zydeco, blues and spirituals, and give the animators solid foundations for their creativity.

Tiana's restaurant dream song, "Almost There," might be a standard I-want ballad for a Disney heroine. Here, it cues a fantasy production number, which Disney vet Eric Goldberg (he did Robin Williams' Genie in Aladdin) has gorgeously rendered in the silhouette fashion of Lotte Reiniger, whose The Adventures of Prince Achmed was the first animated feature. In "Friends on the Other Side," Dr. Facilier morphs into a Cab Calloway Mephistopheles for a strutting skeleton dance. The movie lovingly ransacks the signatures of nearly a century of cartoon stylists, from the body-stretching acrobatics of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett to the suave character intonations of Snow White's famed animators, the Nine Old Men.

Musker and Clements, the New Old Men, have bucked the odds and made a cartoon feature that is true to vintage Disney traditions (like wishing upon a star) yet moves with a contemporary verve and bounce. In an amazing year for animation, The Princess and the Frog is up at the top. Go on, give it a big kiss.