It should come as a surprise to no one who has not suddenly awakened from a hundred year sleep that The Princess and the Frog is the first Disney animated film to feature an African-American heroine. But the message of the film surely isn't that it's not easy being black. It's not easy being green is more like it. Tiana, the enterprising young woman at the center of The Princess and the Frog, spends most of the movie in a state of slimy green hoppyness, as a frog. And as much as a Disney fairy tale is all about the happily ever after, the suspense in this one is mostly about whether Tiana will live hoppily ever after.
The prince is a frog too. He's a feckless amphibian, a ne'er-do-well formerly human prince named Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos), from the kingdom of Maldonia. The king and queen are about to disown him, so he arrives in New Orleans with his heart set on snagging a wealthy bride, so that he might continue with his hard partying ways. The girl most likely to be snagged is Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), daughter of Big Daddy La Bouff (John Goodman). Charlotte's best buddy since childhood is Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a waitress working night and day to save enough money to open her own restaurant. That was her hard-working daddy's dream, and now it's hers. Another departure from the classic Disney canon: no dead mother in The Princess and the Frog. Tiana's mama (Oprah Winfrey) is alive and well, a seamstress whose best customer is Charlotte (who dresses like a princess, all the better to catch her Prince Charming).
Naveen is waylaid by a voodoo man named Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who turns him into a frog. Just how does Tiana, a frog-loather from way back, end up amphibianized herself? Long story short, she kisses the frog prince, just like in the fairy tale, but the smooch doesn't transform Naveen. Instead, poor Tiana is transmogrified herself. The two fractious frogs end up hopping through the bayou looking for ancient Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), reputed to be a voodoo spell undoer. They're accompanied on their journey by some local comic relief: a plump, jazz trumpet playing gator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a dentally challenged cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings).
The Princess and the Frog throws a lot of obstacles in the path of the froggy pair, but the course of true love never did run smooth. Especially not through a swamp. They are frequently sidetracked by musical numbers too, this being a musical cartoon. Randy Newman wrote the songs, which are not especially memorable, but have the musical diversity of a Big Easy gumbo, minus the spice.
This is Disney's first foray into traditional hand-drawn animation in several years, and the very first since the studio came under the command of John Lasseter (of the Pixar pedigree). The old fashioned animation in The Princess and the Frog, directed by veterans Ron Clements and John Musker (*The Little Mermaid*) is quite lovely, with rich, warm and vibrant colors, and the kind of soft, painterly lines you just don't see in crisp, shiny digital animation. It's very pleasant to look at -- not overly busy or frantic, and definitely an effort to return the Mouse House to its former animation glory. In terms of its visual artistry, The Princess and the Frog shows that Disney is still harboring some genuine pencil and brush artists amongst all the pixel-pushers.
In another homage to old school animated movies, The Princess and the Frog is 100% snark-free, a G-rated-and-they-mean-it movie that gets its laughs from newbie frogs discovering the hazards of long, sticky tongues, and the joys of whoppin' mean ol' frog hunters upside the head. My pint-sized movie companions enjoyed themselves.
So what about that African American heroine? Tiana's got the Barbie doll figure of the classic Disney heroine (she's a skinny frog too), and despite her working class roots, she looks the part of the princess, through and through. Tiana lives in an idealized 1920s New Orleans that looks to be happily racially integrated (this is a fairy tale), where what divides her and Charlotte isn't the color of their skin, but the size of their daddies' bank accounts. It's likely Tiana's daddy (Terence Howard) didn't even have one.
What really sets them apart though -- and what separates Tiana from the swarthy but racially indeterminate Naveen (who is effectively poor but also morally bankrupt) -- is that Tiana is an entrepreneurial American Dream bootstrapper. She believes that hard work will make her dreams come true eventually. And her dreams? No castles in the air, just pretty old antediluvian New Orleans and a big ol' gumbo pot to call her own. She wouldn't be caught dead singing "some day my prince will come." And she makes a point of never dancing. No time -- she's too busy working! The most radical thing about Tiana is that she never wanted to be a princess at all.