‘Princess’ belongs among Disney royalty

Film review

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In stills from Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” a young Tiana, our heroine, is shown with her parents, and, with a touch of “Fantasia,” is shown dancing with Prince Naveen after both of them were turned into frogs by dark voodoo. Surprisingly, “The Princess and the Frog,” in addition to its visual and auditory elements that will delight the kiddies (as well as the adults), seems to make progressive sociopolitical statements almost as boldly as Disney’s “WALL-E” makes.

I’m such a fag. I love Disney movies.

Not the live-action Disney movies. Most of them suck. The animated Disney movies. Most of them rock.

Disney lost its mojo with its animated films for a while from the 1960s to the 1980s and then regained it with 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.” Since then we’ve seen a string of modern classics from Disney, including “Aladdin,” “The Lion King” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” all worthy to be categorized with Disney’s classic animated films from the 1930s to the 1950s. (I’m not including in this list some of the other excellent animated films by Disney, such as “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E” and even the current “Disney’s A Christmas Carol,” since they are computer animated, and computer technology wasn’t available to the Disney artisans way back in the day.) 

“The Princess and the Frog” is worthy of Disney’s finest, such as “Pinocchio,” “Cinderella,” “Peter Pan” and “The Jungle Book,” and while “Princess and the Frog” has many elements of past animated Disney films — such as the charming prince, the damsel who dreams of a better life, the spoiled brat who competes with our heroine for the hand of the prince, the evil sorcerer (although it’s usually an evil sorceress), and even the wishing upon a star – it modernizes the genre as well.

“The Princess and the Frog” gives us Disney’s first black heroine at the time that we have the nation’s first black president. “Princess and the Frog” also shows us New Orleans, and we can’t help but think of Hurricane Katrina when we are shown New Orleans these days, and I have to wonder whether “Princess” was conceptualized before or after Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.

Moreover, “The Princess and the Frog” doesn’t flinch in showing us the raced-based class differences in New Orleans.

The heroine, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), is the daughter of poor black parents. Her father (voiced by Terrence Howard) works hard but can barely keep the family afloat, while her mother (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) is a seamstress to a spoiled rich white girl whose father, Big Daddy La Bouff (voiced by John Goodman), buys her whatever she demands.

In one memorable scene, the “camera” pans from the rich area of New Orleans to the slums of New Orleans, a striking contrast that seems to be a political statement, except how can simply portraying things as they are be deemed “political”?

While “Princess and the Frog” shows these socioconomic differences based upon race, and makes it clear that Tiana’s main obstacle in achieving her dreams is the color of her skin, it at least somewhat sanitizes the racism, too. Tiana’s mother is portrayed as healthier and happier and brighter than someone in her station in life probably would be, and even the spoiled rich white brat (whose tantrums and loud-mouthed antics, even as an adult, lend the film a lot of laughs) ends up redeeming herself, which is unlikely in the real world.

Unlike most of Disney’s princes, the prince in “Princess and the Frog,” Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos), isn’t noble and admirable, but is a playboy who needs to grow up; he’s more like Peter Pan than he’s like “The Little Mermaid’s” Prince Erik. The chemistry between the responsible Tiana and the irresponsible Prince Naveen is inevitable, of course, and a bit reminiscent of the chemistry between the responsible Princess Leia and the irresponsible Han Sol0 (if I may geek out for a moment). 

Ray the Cajun firefly (get it? Ray of light?) reminds me a bit too much of Sebastian the crab of “The Little Mermaid” (Roger Ebert compares Ray to Jiminy Cricket, but I think that’s a weak comparison), but the character of Ray nonetheless works wonderfully, and his seemingly unrequited love affair with Evangeline (I won’t go into any detail about that) gives the already poignant film even more poignancy.

Louis the alligator, who, with Ray, helps Tiana and Prince Naveen in their quest to be turned from frogs back into human beings, also wants to be human so that he can be a jazz musician, and this is a bit reminiscent of wooden puppet Pinocchio’s desire to be a real little boy.

“The Princess and the Frog” also takes on the subject of good food, not to the extent that “Ratatouille” does, but to a significant extent, as Tiana’s dream is to open a restaurant — one that brings people together, she proclaims — and the one thing that she inherits from her father is his gumbo pot.

The villain in “The Princess and the Frog” who is responsible for the protagonists’ amphibianization is Dr. Facilier, also called the “Shadow Man.” He’s a wonderfully conceived villain – I love his purple eyes — even if he is a bit too reminiscent of the X-Men character of Gambit (a.k.a. Remy LeBeau), who also hails from New Orleans and who also possesses a black top hat and cane and, especially, a flying deck of cards.

And it’s nice to see a male Disney villain for a change. Most of Disney’s villains seem to be women — think of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “One Hundred and One Dalmations” and “The Little Mermaid” (and in “The Lion King” the villain was an effeminate male [come on, now, Scar is gay, and come to think of it, Captain Hook seems to be a bit light in the loafers as well…]).  

The “Shadow Man’s” voodoo opposite is the good voodoo practitioner Mama Odie, of whom we don’t get enough. (She’s a bit too reminiscent of the good voodoo priestess Minerva portrayed in “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” however.)

If Disney’s portrayal of the stark socioeconomic differences between blacks and whites in New Orleans doesn’t get the wingnuts going (crying “class warfare”), then Disney’s unapologetic portrayal of voodoo and occultism – with even silouetted evil spirits conjured by the villain to pursue our protagonists – will get them going (crying “Satanism” or “witchcraft” or the like).

If the wingnuts hate it, then it must be good.

With all of the apparent progressive sociopolitical statements that we didn’t see in the earlier Disney animated films but that we surprisingly saw in “WALL-E” (with “WALL-E’s” anti-corporate, pro-planet and apparent anti-baby-boomer messages), in “The Princess and the Frog” we also get excellent, infectious music (the setting is New Orleans, after all) that made me tap my feet like Larry Craig on crack. (My favorite song is titled “Dig a Little Deeper,” which delivers a timely message.) We also get some breathtaking Fourth-of-July-like visuals, not only with the purples and greens and blues of the watery settings, but the whites and the yellows of the fireflies and even the Halloween-like purples and greens of the voodoo magic.  

While it often feels derivative, which might be unavoidable, given the number of films that precede it, “The Princess and the Frog” is undeniably entertaining and is a near-perfect film.

My grade: A

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