REVIEW: The Princess and the Frog

26 12 2009

2009 has been a great year for animation, particularly in the advances that were made in leaps and bounds this year.  Wes Anderson used stop-motion animation to bring “Fantastic Mr. Fox” to life.  Although they hesitate to call it animation, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis continued to perfect the motion capture technology, the former practically reinventing it.  To top it all off, our good friend Pixar, faithfully churning out magnificent movies year after year, had perhaps their finest moment yet with “Up,” and the Academy may just reward it with only the second Best Picture nomination for an animated film.

But what about old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation?

The Princess and the Frog” is one of the best movies of the year not because it sets out to revolutionize its craft or because it tries to impress us with its bravura; in fact, it’s such a joy because it does just the opposite.  It sticks rather simply to the way animation was done in the good old days, and it has the beautiful charm to make you feel like you did as a child watching the Disney animated classics.

“The Princess and the Frog” is able to channel the rapture of the golden age of animation while combining it with a more contemporary ethic.  It doesn’t entirely belittle the power of wishes and dreams, which movies like “Cinderella” and “Snow White” trained us to believe was all you needed.  But the movie’s main lesson is to teach the value of working hard to achieve your dreams, which is just what Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose, “Dreamgirls”) does.  She works two jobs in New Orleans so she can open the restaurant that she and her father (Terrence Howard) dreamed about when she was a child.  He is the main voice echoing in her head, always saying that you cannot rely on the cosmos to give you what you want.  However, in a moment of desperation, she kisses a frog who claims to be a prince in hopes that she will get the fairy tale ending of “The Frog Prince.”  But the frog doesn’t become a prince; Tiana becomes a frog thanks to a voodoo priest (Keith David) that is creepy on a level I reserve for villains like Jafar and Scar.  The two must travel through the bayou to reach Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess that can set things back to the way they are.  To navigate the perilous terrain, they enlist a trumpet-tooting alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a thickly accented, love-struck firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings).  The journey is filled with plenty of spirited musical numbers and enough fun to make your smile as wide as the Mississippi.

I say that the movie isn’t innovative, but that doesn’t mean that it feels trite or like a prolonged homage to the movies with which we grew up.  It’s easy to see that “The Princess and the Frog” is deeply rooted in Disney’s rich past of animation, yet what springs up from those roots is something discernibly different.  It is a tasty hodgepodge of themes old and new, a movie where “do it yourself” collides with “good things come to good people.”

A very happy median between the two principles is reached, and this is one movie where the fun floats through the air like the notes of Randy Newman’s jazzy music.  The songs are lively toe-tappers, ranging from cheery (“Almost There”) to jovially longing (“When We’re Human”) to spiritual uplift (“Dig a Little Deeper”).  Anika Noni Rose has the soft, sweet voice perfect to carry out Tiana’s numbers, and she gets quite a challenge from Michael-Leon Lewis with his plump and perky alligator for the movie’s real show-stopper.

“The Princess and the Frog” may do a bit of catering to our nostalgia, but it has enough merriment on its own merit to deserve a place next to perennial favorites like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”  It doesn’t raise the craft of animation to a new standard, but it reminds us of a level that is gathering dust rapidly.  This is a movie with a exuberant spirit that flies with the classics of Disney’s animated canon.  A /

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