Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Cast: Anika Noni Rose, Keith David, Oprah Winfrey
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In the late 2000s, many Disney fans believed that the age of hand-drawn animation had finally come to an end. CGI was more popular than ever, and the studios – led by the mighty Pixar – were at the top of their game.
But thankfully, in 2009 the House of Mouse decided to prove everybody wrong with The Princess and the Frog, a good old-fashioned 2D gem that looked forward as well as back. It was a classic Disney fairytale, filled with visual and musical delights, but beneath that charm was a surprisingly progressive story – and not just because it featured Disney’s first black princess.
Our heroine is Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a hardworking waitress in 1920s New Orleans with no interest in fairytales. One evening, she meets the perennially lazy ladies’ man Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), who has been turned into a frog by the evil voodoo master Dr Facilier (Keith David). As tradition dictates, Tiana deigns to lock lips with the frog prince… only to find that, because she isn’t a princess, the spell has backfired and turned her into a frog too.
The pair are forced to go on an epic quest through the dangerous swamps of the Louisiana bayou, battling animals, hunters and Facilier’s evil forces, in order to find a witch who can reverse the spell and turn them human again.
It’s a clever twist on a classic tale and – like Disney’s other big hit at that time, Tangled – a lot of what makes it work so well revolves on skewering the traditional gender roles. Our prince may indeed be charming but he’s also a bumbling idiot and, although love is inevitably in the air, it doesn’t happen quite the way it’s supposed to.
Anika Noni Rose and Bruno Campos have a wonderful chemistry, even as amphibians, but they’re surrounded by the kind of brilliant supporting cast one has come to expect from the House of Mouse: Dr Facilier is a wonderfully creepy villain, a kind of 20th Century Jafar in a snazzy top hat, brought to life by the deliciously dulcet tones of Keith David; John Goodman gets to be brilliantly brash as sugar mill owner Big Daddy; and his daughter Lottie, played by Jennifer Cody, has a wide-eyed insanity that’s rather unique. But the show is stolen by Michael Leon-Wooley as a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis and Jim Cummings as a Cajun firefly by the name of Ray. They’re a superb double act, almost the equal of Timon and Pumbaa, and they’ll undoubtedly have younger viewers rolling in their seats.
The setting is an equally big star. Whoever decided to move the story to the Big Easy is a genius because New Orleans in the 20s is a near-perfect backdrop. There’s a wonderful kind of opulence that permeates every frame, the kind you only get from hand-drawn animation; a kind of visual jazz that’s as bright and colourful as Randy Newman’s typically excellent score. None of the songs reach the lofty genius of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman in their heyday but it’s a fabulous collection of tunes that you’ll find yourself humming days later.
Oh yes. The Princess and the Frog is clearly something kind of special; a movie that bathes in the nostalgia of Disney’s Golden Era but also looks ahead to its future. What a shame it is, then, that the movie doesn’t quite do enough to address that elephant in the room: race. A lot has been made of the first African-American to join the Disney Princess line-up, but the film manages to sidestep the issue entirely. If it had had the bravery to tackle it head on, this might have become a great movie instead of being a very, very good one.
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