Disney’s The Princess and the Frog means to tap into nostalgia for the studio’s traditionally animated musicals of the 1990s, but it may have picked the wrong year to do so.
What with the 3-D breakthrough of Coraline; another Pixar exercise in CGI artistry (Up); Wes Anderson’s audacious foray into stop-motion animation with Fantastic Mr. Fox; and the latest effort from master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki (Ponyo), 2009 was an exhilarating year of looking forward in animation, not back.
And so the comfortable delights of The Princess and the Frog – hummable ditties, a headstrong princess figure, comic supporting characters and the soft lines and deep colors of the 2D animation – are endearing but never exciting. This doesn’t come across as the latest Disney wonder because, well, new wonders have appeared.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) have updated the fable to New Orleans in the Jazz Age, where a hard-working waitress named Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) aspires to open her own restaurant. Social hurdles stand in the way – she’s black, a first for a Disney “princess” – but things become even more complicated when Tiana comes between a frog prince and the voodoo witch doctor who made him that way.
There is an admirable frankness to the class and racial issues at play; near the start, a lovely dissolve takes us from the mansions on the bayou to the shacks where Tiana lives. As the first Disney feature to focus on an African-American heroine, The Princess and the Frog handles its landmark status with grace and aplomb.
The animation also has its moments – the villain’s shadow has a life of its own, like a more dangerous version of Peter Pan’s – but ultimately The Princess and the Frog feels like a curiosity rather than a triumphant revival. Maybe it’s only because of the other offerings this year, but I left the movie wondering if the world of animation has passed this particular subgenre by.