by Tony Dayoub
Not necessarily destined to be a Disney classic, The Princess and the Frog goes one better by effortlessly capturing the regional and temporal flavor of New Orleans in the Jazz Age. That means lots of French Quarter Architecture, Dixieland-style musical numbers (by Randy Newman, on loan from Pixar), creole-spiced food, and even a welcome touch of Cajun-style Zydeco in the form of "Gonna Take You There," sung during a short side trip into the swampland.
To some extent, credit for this minor gem—a return to Disney's traditional two-dimensional animation—should go to John Lasseter (Toy Story) who became Chief Creative Officer for Disney Animation after the company acquired Pixar. While Disney cartoons became grander and grander over the previous decade—reaching for Oscars after their unexpected Best Picture nomination for Beauty and the Beast (1991)— Lasseter's influence over Pixar drove that animation factory into doing narrower-scoped stories which grew increasingly more resonant with audiences than the out-scaled fantasies by the more established animation house.
Of course, the origins of this production stem from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, "The Frog Prince," so Disney hasn't completely abandoned their traditional template. But by concentrating the story in a specific time and place there is a transportive quality to this story that beckons the viewer in a different way than say, Sleeping Beauty ever did. That is because the French Quarter is somewhere one can actually visit. Sure, it may be a lot rougher around the edges (especially post-Katrina) than the magical New Orleans depicted in The Princess and the Frog, but if you squint you can kind of see it.
One inspired sequence in the film is complete fantasy, though. Taking a cue from the yellow dress Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) wears before the setpiece begins, it is a monochromatic dream in which she imagines opening her own Cotton Club-style restaurant in a flat, art moderne-influenced style. Broadway star Rose performs her solo, "Almost There," with verve, bringing some independence and moxie rarely seen in even the pluckiest Disney princesses.
Another welcome bit of casting is the deep, rich, sonorous voice of Keith David (The Thing) as the evil voodoo priest, Doctor Facilier. His mellow tones show surprising elasticity in his solo, "Friends on the Other Side," a showstopper where he rallies the spirits of the underworld in his effort to magically manipulate the prince (Bruno Campos) for his own needs.
Zeroing in on a landmark era in African-American cultural history, The Princess and The Frog fuses the smaller scale sensibilities of Pixar with the classic fables of traditional Disney to create a charming little return to two dimensional animation. It should have audiences anticipating Disney's inevitable followup.