An act of revitalization as much as continuation, The Princess and the Frog seeks to breathe fresh life into both a moribund 2D animation field crushed under CG’s foot and a Princess brand that’s lucrative at the cash register but hasn’t made substantial big-screen noise since 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Little Mermaid heavy-hitters Ron Clements and Jon Musker have been brought in to energize Disney’s latest royal saga while also carrying on—after Princess stepsisters Pocahontas and Mulan—the franchise’s “recent” trend of multiculturalism, here epitomized by the first African-American tiara-wearer Tiana (Anika Noni Rose).
Early outcries implied that this further outreach into inclusionary territory might be problematic, what with the film’s stereotypical vilification of evil voodoo, its decision to pair the chocolate-colored Tiana with a light-skinned prince in Naveen (Bruno Campos), and most of all, the narrative decision to pivot the story around Southern black culture and then force its groundbreaking heroine—a workaholic waitress who places her restaurateur dreams (passed down from her dearly departed daddy) above all else—to spend a good 85% of the proceedings in bland frog form. Considering that such early critical forecasts can now be confirmed as valid, progress, it seems, thy name is one step forward, two steps back. That Disney has reduced New Orleans to a bright, vibrant stew of Creole accents, swampy bayou locales, and black magic practitioners is neither forward-thinking nor surprising. Yet the studio treads no more thoughtlessly in this area than it did in its prior Chinese and Native American Princess tales, using regional touchstones primarily as flavorful seasoning for a rather familiar be-yourself, love-conquers-all dish.
Though it borrows liberally from all of its predecessors, Mulan is the template it most closely resembles, as both stories involve not only a princess in disguise, but one trying to thrive in a male-dominated world while being helped by a bevy of anthropomorphic sidekicks. Except, of course, that in this case the princess kisses a frog and actually becomes one, a narrative decision that allows the Mouse House’s creative team to indulge whole-hog in talking creatures (including a trumpet-playing alligator and a snaggle-toothed Cajun firefly) and, consequently, multiple animal-kingdom musical set pieces. From a purely dramatic standpoint, this has the unintended effect of shifting the tone of the piece away from The Little Mermaid and more toward The Lion King, specifically during a bayou-set chapter that feels like a descendant of the latter’s Timon-and-Pumbaa passages—save for songs that take up permanent residence in your head.
Yet it’s the socio-cultural suggestions of this storytelling choice that’s ultimately most troublesome. A voodoo priest in touch with the dark side through demonic ooga-booga masks and blood rituals, Dr. Facilier (a smoothly villainous Keith David), a.k.a. the Shadow Man, certainly flirts with ugly clichés, especially in light of the discrepancy between his clearly African-American facial characteristics and the Caucasian-ish nose, forehead, and cheekbones of honorable Prince Naveen. Such a black-is-malevolent implication might be more forgivable had Princess and the Frog countered it with a portrait of Tiana that, per usual Disney formula, equated her beauty with inherent goodness. By relegating her to amphibian status for the vast majority of the proceedings, however, the film proffers a message that’s at best mixed and at worst noxious, feigning a celebration of African-American life via raucous Southern jazz and down-home aphorisms while in reality serving up semi-subtle signals about the incompatibility of African-Americanism and heroism, kindness, and righteousness.
To read too far in this direction is to inevitably land in a quagmire, as the script (credited to five different authors) flails about in search of a coherent moral compass, as evidenced by the clumsy tight-wire balance between Tiana’s admirable professional drive and said ambition’s simultaneous interference with her need for what’s most important in life: true love. Nonetheless, the sublimation of Tiana’s racial status remains a disconcerting element throughout.
Irrespective of the fact that its intended progressiveness is compromised (a state of affairs also true of its superficial rich-poor dynamics, present in Tiana’s friendship with Jennifer Cody’s wealthy white bimbo Charlotte and its hoary Nawlins caricatures), Princess and the Frog only intermittently delivers on its promise of glitzy and glamorous Princess bliss. Consigned to hopping about and wielding long tongues for fly-catching and derring-do, Tiana and Naveen inhabit conventional independent-woman and buffoonish-hunk types, respectively, but their non-human appearance makes their romance (and its flaccid conclusion) feel limp and obligatory rather than heartfelt. A similar flatness typifies the musical sequences, which feature passable melodies and lyrics more on-the-nose than usual, and reach a relative high point with friendly voodoo priestess Mama Odie’s (Jenifer Lewis) kaleidoscopic “Dig a Little Deeper.”
A gorgeous early scene has the action’s hand-drawn animation, which typically exudes a satisfactory bounciness reminiscent of the cartoon moments from Enchanted, assuming a more stylized, expressionistic ‘20s jazz-age look. It’s a flash of inspired risk-taking that, alas, stands out like a sore thumb in this newest Princess movie-cum-synergistic corporate product, a fleeting instant of enlivened daring amid a film that’s otherwise content, despite its outward appearances to the contrary, to maintain both Disney’s stale narrative—and questionable racial—status quo.