The Princess and the Frog

In theaters.

It seems churlish to complain that The Princess and the Frog is rather preachy, considering that its sermon is remarkably similar to one I’ve been delivering since I was about twelve years old. I agree, of course, that aspiring to be a princess, passively wishing on stars and dreaming of princes sweeping in to save the day, warps a girl’s priorities and undermines her own resourcefulness and individuality, but to hear that from Disney—well, let’s just say the messenger warps the message. The movie cuttingly parodies princess culture, lampooning a spoiled little girl who laps up fairy tales and demands countless poufy dresses like those of her bejeweled idols, but the hypocrisy is hard to take. Have the filmmakers ever visited the Disney Store? Who do they think their audience is? They’re doing more than biting the hand that feeds; they’re spitting on it, in a way that often feels hypocritical and occasionally feels cruel.

Maybe that’s not fair, but the movie makes it hard to ignore the metatextual Disney themes when it goes so far as to directly evoke and reject elements of such classics as Pinocchio and Sleeping Beauty. That kind of thing creates a sense of smugness that weighs down what is otherwise a charming, if slight, bit of fairy tale rehabilitation. Set in a sweetly romanticized Jazz Age New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog is beautiful in its way, with a few genuinely lovely moments, but its baggage weighs it down. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a mediocrity—it’s better than that, and the traditional cel animation is worth celebrating—but this isn’t one for the pantheon.

Only loosely inspired by the familiar story “The Frog Prince” (popularized by the Brothers Grimm and directly referenced in this movie), The Princess and the Frog takes as its hero not a pampered princess but a hard-working young woman named Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose). Working constantly toward opening her own restaurant—a dream she shared with her beloved father, now dead—Tiana crosses paths with Naveen (Bruno Campos), a dissolute prince who has arrived in New Orleans to indulge his love of jazz and to find a wealthy wife to fund his lavish lifestyle now that his parents have cut him off. Naveen’s appetite for unearned riches makes him an easy target for Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo magician who turns the prince into a frog for his own nefarious purposes. When the now amphibious prince persuades Tiana to break Facilier’s spell with a kiss by promising her restaurant start-up money, the remedy backfires, for Tiana is not a princess, just a girl decked out in her friend’s finery at a costume ball. Desperate to become human again, Tiana and Naveen must quest through the bayou to find someone who can help, and along the way, of course, they begin to fall in love.

As heroines go, Tiana is a bit stiff, which is the point—she has to learn that one can be too ambitious—but which still makes her a shade insufferable. I wasn’t a huge fan of Naveen either, though his enthusiastic embrace of jazz is endearing. The real sparkle, though, is in the supporting cast: Facilier and his diabolical shadows are truly creepy (they would have scared the crap out of me as a child), and flighty yet good-hearted Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) turns out to be a wonderful character, not the evil stepsister type she could have been and not a generic number-two to our protagonist but rather a flawed but winsome individual occupying the gray area in between. Best of all is the firefly Ray (Jim Cummings). At first he looks like an offensive stereotype of some backwater ignoramus—horrible teeth, thick accent, bad grammar—but then he gets “Ma Belle Evangeline,” easily the best song in the movie, plus a surprisingly delicate and wistful subplot, and by the film’s end, he’s the most beloved thing onscreen.

As for the movie’s other elements, most of the songs, composed by Randy Newman, are generic and forgettable. (Seriously, why does this guy keep scoring Disney movies? I’ll grant him the haunting simplicity of “When She Loved Me,” from Toy Story 2, but everything else is wallpaper. I don’t get it.) The animation, on the other hand, is terrifically appealing. Facilier’s sentient shadow demons are brilliantly conceived and wittily executed. A stylized, deco dream sequence brings Tiana’s aspirations to life with verve and personality. And the Louisiana setting is richly detailed, particularly in the bayou, where the luminous blues and greens envelop you.

I enjoyed the movie. It’s cute, and the filmmakers do manage to suggest that Tiana is too single-mindedly ambitious without chastening her being ambitious, which is more than many romantic comedies directed at adult women can handle and which I appreciate. Ultimately The Princess and the Frog seems to have its heart in the right place, but it bumbles about in expressing that heart. It’s an easy enough movie to like, but I have to wonder whether anyone will really love it.