Over the 1990s and 2000s, something went terribly wrong with Disney. Though virtually synonymous with the phrase “animated feature”, a string of insipid, humourless offerings —yes, The Lion King was boring — and bottom-of-the-barrel mush a la Brother Bear and Home on the Range left some film-goers wondering if they’d be better off waiting for the videogame. Mercifully, The Princess and the Frog pulls the studio out of its creative inertia and shakes some life back into the house that Walt built. Finally: snappy dialogue, characters with actual personalities, and music that isn’t maudlin to the point of outright despair — for audiences.
Jazz Age New Orleans provides the backdrop to this hoodoo-recast of the ‘Frog Prince’, which also features Disney’s first black heroine. Though Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) isn’t required to do much in her voice-work for Tiana, the small-time waitress with big-time dreams, and Bruno Campos (Nip/Tuck) plays the Prince part straight and goofy, Keith David (Crash) steals the show with his genuinely terrifying growl for Doctor Facilier, the hustling witchdoctor who transforms the pair into frogs. Toss in a Cajun firefly in love with the moon, a tubby alligator with a trumpet, a slightly batty, blind, voodoo priestess, and voila: cinematic jambalaya.
While the plot is fairly rudimentary — prince is cursed and made frog, lowly girl kisses prince and is also made frog, froggy duo find romance in the swamps of Louisiana and must break curse before they’re doomed to forever be frogs — the film is brilliantly executed and washes away painful memories of such travesties as The Jungle Book 2 and Bambi 2 (spoiler: his mother’s still dead). The unspeakably suave Prince-as-frog, who bears more than a passing resemblance to rival studio Warner Bros’ classic Michigan J Frog, is one of the more likable Disney characters in recent memory, and his scene with redneck frog-hunters is a real treat.
Musical jack-of-all-trades Randy Newman supplies an energetic, suitably French Quarter score and the film’s songs are compact and catchy. The big band N’awlins arrangements, with appropriate nods to gospel, jazz and zydeco, complement the action nicely and the ‘serious’ bits are never mawkish.
Perhaps deciding that CG animation was better off in Pixar’s hands after all, the movie marks Disney’s return to its hand-drawn roots after a five-year hiatus. More than that, it seems that Disney has, at long last, gotten over its run of terrible-to-mediocre features and remembered that its films are supposed to be entertaining.