The Princess and the Frog -- Film Review

The narrative behind "The Princess and the Frog" is that Walt Disney Animation has rediscovered its traditional hand-drawn animation, which has been supplanted by computer-generated cartoons. But this misses the point about what allowed Pixar -- which Disney now owns -- DreamWorks and other CG-animation companies to upstage the one-time king of the animation world. It's a thing called story.

So "Princess and the Frog" really marks Disney's rediscovery of a strong narrative loaded with vibrant characters and mind-bending, hilarious situations. Under the direction of veterans Ron Clements and John Musker (the team behind "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin") and the watchful eye of Pixar guru John Lasseter, now chief creative officer of Disney Animation, "Princess and the Frog" celebrates old and new: It's a musical fairy tale that dates back to the days when Walt Disney was a person, not a brand. Yet it deftly mingles with the new sensibilities in animation where fairy tales must get fractured, settings must be fresh and humor pitched to many age levels.

Check, check and double check.

This is the best Disney animated film in years. Audiences -- who don't care whether it's cel animation, CGI, stop motion, claymation or motion capture as long as it's a good story -- will respond in large numbers. A joyous holiday season is about to begin for Disney.

The title performs a sly bit of misdirection. In the old fairy tale, of course, a princess kisses a frog, the unlovely amphibian turns into a handsome prince and ... everyone yawns. In this new fractured version, something quite different happens.

The scene is New Orleans during the Roaring '20s, and Clements and Musker go crazy with period details drawn from decorative arts, architecture and design styles. This is not just hand-painted animation; it's characters and backgrounds lovingly drawn by animators in love with that city, the bayous of Louisiana, the black magic of its underworlds and the 1920s themselves.

Meanwhile, Randy Newman has composed foot-tappin' songs and a melodious score that weaves together jazz, blues and gospel.

One other thing marks this as the new Disney: Most of the story's characters are black. They might turn into green frogs or appear as Cajun fireflies or a trumpet-playing 'gator, but these characters act and talk exactly the way you would expect in an American city whose influences are French, Spanish, African and Creole.

There is no princess here, but there is a prince, Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos), a n'er-do-well who is penniless because his parents cut him off. The heroine is Tiana (Tony winner Anika Noni Rose), a hardworking servants' daughter who dreams of owning her own waterfront restaurant. There also is a menacing magician, the cunning Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who lives to thwart happy endings.

So when that big kiss of a slimy creature comes -- "It's not slime, it's mucous!" the frog insists, as if this will make all the difference -- oh boy, do things go wrong from there.

The story transports Tiana and the prince from the French Quarter's jazz-drenched streets and Garden District's lavish mansions to a mystical, alligator-ridden bayou where good and bad magic battles for their souls. They are aided by the romantic firefly Ray (Jim Cummings), the jazz-loving 'gator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and the bayou's own queen, Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis).

Voicing memorable smaller roles are John Goodman as Southern aristocrat Big Daddy (a name borrowed, perhaps knowingly, from Tennessee Williams), Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard as Tiana's loving parents and Jennifer Cody as Big Daddy's spoiled Southern debutante daughter.

So "Princess and the Frog" is one big jambalaya. Disney traditions do get more than lip service. Animals talk -- and given that at least some are really humans, this makes perfect sense -- and the directors along with co-writer Rob Edwards are unafraid to let several characters actually wish upon a star. Also, the rambunctious spirit of today's computer geeks and their CG cartoons brightly flavor the recipe.

Then there's this: Computer animation has yet to lick the warmth factor. Hand-drawn and painted animation has a richness to its textures, brilliance in its colors and humanity in its characters that digital 0s and 1s can't quite hack. "Princess and the Frog" reawakens your appreciation of the timeless beauty of the classic style while evoking a fantastic world with such warmth, vigor and confidence that you surrender to its happy lunacy.

Opens: Wednesday, Nov. 25 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production: Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios
Rated G, 97 minutes