Disney's The Princess and the Frog is an instant classic and one of the year's best films.
An enchanting story told with a healthy helping of heart, it marks a return to the style of animation that made Walt Disney's studio famous. And it's a return to form for a studio that milked 2-D animated fairy tales to death in the '90s.
Disney's first African-American "princess" tale is set in Roaring '20s New Orleans, with the classic frog prince story translated to hard-working waitress Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose, Dreamgirls) who tries to help a suave frog (Bruno Campos, very Antonio Banderas) become a prince again with a kiss.
But she's not a real princess, and the ne'er-do-well prince, Naveen, who is visiting "N'awlins" to soak up the jazz and marry a rich girl, needs to learn the value of hard work and true love.
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So Tiana is transformed into a frog, too, and each of them learns a better way to live and love as they're dodging gators and the minions of The Shadow Man (Keith David, perfect), who has set up a fake prince with designs on finally having the money to rule the city.
Disney summoned its Little Mermaid team to direct this, and John Musker and Ron Clements zero in on the emotional center of the story even as they and their co-writers find jokes and jokey characters to juice this thing up. So we see Tiana grasp that achieving her dream — her own restaurant — without love would be empty, and we see Naveen learn to think of someone other than himself.
There are story elements borrowed from many a Disney 'toon, even The Jungle Book, as a trumpet-playing gator wants to be human so he can blow that jazz. Musker and Clements even name a bluetick hound "Stella" just so Big Daddy La Bouff can summon his dog Tennessee Williams style: "Stellaaaaa!"
Big Daddy spoils his daughter Lottie (Jennifer Cody, an adorably daft voice to match her character) but never thinks of lending his daughter's lifelong pal Tiana the money to open a restaurant. That's just as well: This movie's "hard work" ethos suggests that she wouldn't take it.
Randy Newman, a songwriter with deep New Orleans roots, conjures up a dazzling collection of tunes, with a couple of gospel-inspired call-and-response show-stoppers — I'm Almost There and Dig a Little Deeper (a bayou chorus of roseate spoonbills!). And if this lyric doesn't give the city a new theme song — "Rich people, poor people, all got dreams. And dreams do come true in New Orleans" — somebody's missing the riverboat.
Musker and Clements invent a great new Disney villain in The Shadow Man, and, like Walt and the Brothers Grimm, they don't shy away from letting death show its face, lending urgency and poignancy to the tale.
It's been 20 years since The Little Mermaid, but with this classic story classically told, The Princess and the Frog can proudly take its place among Disney's great princess pictures. Yes, "every little girl is a princess" is true. And if the spirited Tiana inspires more African-American princesses to don tiaras, their daddies will just have to live with it.