In this age of computer animation, the hand-drawn variety has nearly gone the way of the dodo, so it’s always nice to see a new example of the old style. That’s reason enough to welcome Disney’s first traditionally animated feature since 2004. Unfortunately, “The Princess and the Frog” isn’t appreciably better than its immediate predecessor, “Home on the Range.” Neither is awful—and they’re both certainly preferable to most of the computer-produced stuff that’s proliferated so rapidly in recent years. But by the highest standards of Disney animated product, they’re middle-grade, reminiscent of the animated features the studio produced in the lean years between the sixties and the eighties rather than the classics of the forties and fifties or those of the new golden age represented by “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin.” This one is a pleasant but undistinguished addition to the Disney animated canon.
The story is a revamped version of the old tale about the princess who kisses the frog that’s really a magically transformed prince to change him back. Moved to New Orleans in the 1920s, it focuses on Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), a poor girl who juggles several waitress jobs to earn the money she needs to open the restaurant that was her late father’s dream. (He was, it appears, killed in the Great War.) A down-to-earth type who believes in hard work and determination rather than fairy tales, she’s not much interested in the visit by Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a self-absorbed gadabout who’s the amorous target of her childhood friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), a society debutante who dreams of marrying royalty—something her daddy (John Goodman), the richest man in the city, aims to help her do. Unfortunately, Naveen is turned into a frog by wicked voodoo chief called Facilier, a.k.a. “Shadowman” (Keith David), and replaced by his long-suffering factotum Lawrence (Peter Bartlett), who romances Charlotte in that guise.
The froggy prince turns to Tiana, who’s dressed like a princess for a dance, and begs her to smooch him and change him back. But since she’s not a true princess, the kiss turns her into a frog too, and before long the duo are hopping through the bayou in search of good voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), who they hope can change them back. Being totally different sorts of erstwhile people, they banter and bicker along the way, of course, before learning exactly how strongly opposites attract. And they pick up two chums in the process: a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), who aims to be a second Armstrong, and a goofy Cajun firefly called Ray (Jim Cummings) who’s in love with a star he calls Evangeline. In the end, of course, they follow Mama Odie’s advice to “Dig a Little Deeper”—the big production among the movie’s musical numbers—and discover that what’s important isn’t so much what they want as what they need. And that’s…well, you know. A big chase, several reversals (including a “Three Stooges”-style interlude with a trio of yokel frog-hunters that’s like a separate cartoon), and some obligatory sadness precede the flamboyant finale in which the villains get their comeuppance and love triumphs against the odds.
As “The Princess and the Frog” proceeds, you can almost tick off the required elements of the formula that the scripters string together like items on a menu. The heroine might be African-American, but she’s still entirely recognizable from previous Disney incarnations, and though the couple who bicker their way to one another isn’t from the standard Disney playbook, it’s certainly familiar from romantic comedies since time immemorial. The villainous Facilier has a second-hand feel too, and so do Louis and Ray, however crowd-pleasing they might be. Randy Newman’s songs, moreover, are instantly forgettable; no Menken-Ashman show-stoppers in the bunch. (A pity they didn’t have the froggy prince warble “Hello, My Ragtime Gal” at some point, but that was Warner Brothers, after all.) Still, the tunes do the job decently enough, which is pretty much what one can say about every bit of “The Princess and the Frog,” including the voice work (which includes such big names as Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard in smaller parts) and the background score.
The title of “The Princess and the Frog” may be an attempt to recall “Beauty and the Beast,” but it can’t hold a candle—or a singing candlestick—to that movie. Though no Disney classic, however, it’s an agreeable throwback to a type of animation one doesn’t see much of anymore.