Friday, December 11, 2009

Movie Review: The Princess and the Frog

For many months now we've been bombarded with stories both on TV and in writing about Disney's return to hand drawn animation and their first African-American princess, Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog. The movie has been playing in limited release in Los Angeles and New York and today (December 11, 2009) finally was made available in general release. While there was a hint the movie would be hit with Tiana costumes selling out at Halloween, I can say that the movie was worth the wait.

The last attempt at hand drawn animation done by Disney was back in 2004 with Home on the Range. That movie was forgettable. It was so forgettable that I had to look up the movie on IMDB to remember what it was. Since then John Lasseter and the Pixar gang came on board with Disney. One of the qualities that Pixar is known for is having a story with a solid plot and characters that have depth and emotions. With Lasseter as the Chief Creative Officer, that philosophy rubbed off and wa-la, we have a story with charm, character, depth and that holds your attention.

The original story from the Brothers Grimm had been reworked to bring us the story of Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), an African-American waitress in 1920's New Orleans who dreams of owning her own restaurant. In steps Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) and his assistant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) who run into Voodoo practitioner Dr Facilier (Keith David) who wants to bring over his friends "from the other side" and turns Naveen into a frog. In the twist to the story instead of the kiss returning Naveen to his human form, Tiana turns into a frog. Some twist as it's been in every preview and ad for the movie. Naveen and Tiana in their journey to transform out of their amphibian form meet Ray the firefly (Jim Cummings) with a heart bigger than his butt and Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), an alligator who blows a mean horn and has the dream to join a jazz band.

Dr Facilier is right up there with the Disney villains. Called by Tiana, The Shadow Man, with voodoo magic on his side, he uses it to his advantage. While the movie is rated G, the minions that he is able to use to help carry out his plans were somewhat scary. As shadows that were able to grab people and objects, it was a dark side that is normally not explored in these sort of movies.

The scenery is detailed and beautiful. The mansions, the riverboat, downtown New Orleans, and the French Quarter look amazing. Out in the bayou, the greens and other vegetation draw you in. When Tiana and Naveen meet Ray and Ray introduces the rest of his firefly family I sat their with my mouth open. I loved the use of light and the points of light to tell the story and accent points in the journey. Marvelous! There was some computer animation to add to the movie. Just as the ballroom was computer generated in Beauty and the Beast, the computer was an adjunct tool rather than the only tool used.

With Randy Newman providing the music, it filled in the missing pieces to round out the experience. New Orleans is the birthplace of Jazz so of course that was included along with Zydeco and a gospel choir selection. While for me no one song stood out, they all combined to move the story forward.

The one sequence that did stand out for me was "Almost There". Tiana is working hard as a waitress saving her money to be able to achieve her own dream. She is telling her mom about her plans to take a broken down location and turn it into an experience for good food with good friends. The animation changes to a stylized form and the dream that she is passionate about leaps off the screen with the music, lyrics, animation, imagery and color that make you almost taste the gumbo that she wants to serve in her new eatery.

In regards to how the bad guy is finally taken down, I was thrilled that they didn't resort to the age old, time tested and honored method of dispatching the baddy. The Evil Queen, Maleficent, Clayton, and Gaston all met their end falling over some sort of precipice. When Dr Facilier met his end I was like "Yes! This is different!!" A definite thumbs up on how the bad guy was vanquished!

There have been some comments in the press and online about The Princess and the Frog riding on the coattails of the election of Barrack Hussein Obama as the first African-American President. This is a bunch of hog hooey. This movie has been in the making for over three years and then Senator Obama announced on February 10, 2007 his Presidential aspirations. In the second half of 2006 Randy Newman was selected for the music and casting calls went out. Both events predating any announcement of and election of now President Obama. Who knows, maybe he was inspired by the movie to run for the highest office in the land?

Off my soap box. It's a wonderful story about both wishing and working for your dreams to come true. I'll be seeing the movie a second time as I know there were a lot of details that I missed the first time. There are many visuals to absorb in the 97 minute running time.