Ah, to be a kid again.
The retro-splendor of Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, written by Clements, Edwards, Greg Erb, Don Hall, and Jason Oremland, will make you forget about special effects and spectacle divorced from storytelling and think about magic and enchantment.
Clements and Musker have crafted an old school Disney tale that that transports you to a magic kingdom of all-things-possible if you can but dream. Indeed, the detail, the scope, in short, the drop-dead boldness will make you want to play hooky from work, from school, from life.
It’s set in New Orleans, way before the Katrina era. That much we know from colloquialisms, clothes, and cars. So it’s as much an homage to the Big Easy’s before-the-Flood’s bacchanal Mardi Gras of food, music, and dance as it is to hoping, wishing, praying, and loving.
A little girl, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), wants to open a restaurant. That was her father’s dream and now it’s hers. Food is her life. Though her family is impoverished, they still manage to feed their neighborhood. She works two waitress jobs, saves her tip money in coffee cans, ignores boys, dancing, fun – anything that will distract her from her dream.
A possible short cut to this dream appears in the person of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a prince from Maldonia. You think, She could marry him, problem solved. But her work ethic prevents says no. Anyway, he’s as broke as she is (his family disowned him; he’s broke) and wants, needs to marry a rich woman. Enter her best friend, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), who’s got stacks of money. She wants to marry the Prince, not for the money but for the fairy-tale-ness of it all.
But shadow man Dr. Facilier (Keith David) has his own diabolical agenda. It involves an hilarious case of mistaken identity, people turned in frogs who in turn face all manner of peril (as Kermit said, It’s not easy being green), voodoo-wise, swamp-wise, and, most tricky of all, romance-wise.
Does wishing upon a star prevail? Of course it does.
The palette of Clements and Musker is magnificent. Their compositions are striking and lush. The colors seem to exist independent of any rainbow. With boldness and vibrancy they render palatial manors, simple blockhouses, an empty factory, an imagined restaurant, even a streetcar ride and a swamp odyssey into grand lovescapes of street festivals, horn-playing gators, smittten fireflies, and ghosts that look (and move) like oil slicks.
From the get-go you’re absorbed and enchanted. Tatiana’s dream-restaurant, her dressing up like a princess when she and Charlotte are little girls, the constant, perfectly-timed breaking out into song (with a smacking soundtrack by Randy Newman) and, most of all, the various dreams enacted on the screen will remind you of being a kid.
The minute touches are brilliant, especially those that describe a journey down a peril-laden swampy river on the back of an alligator, guided by an elderly, love-pining firefly, to Mama Odie’s (Jenifer Lewis) magic spell emporium. Does she prescribe some magic potion? Nope: you just need to distinguish between want and need.
Even the character of Dr. Facilier and his minions are scary-spooky without prompting visits to therapists when you get older. They serve as the minor keys in this symphonic musical lovefest.
The romance between Tatiana and the Prince is utterly convincing. It’s funny, it’s heart-breaking, it’s magical. By the time they’re in first flowering even the most jaded of you will forget this is a cartoon because you’re wondering if they'll end up together.
Rose’s Tatiana makes you think of Audrey Hepburn in either “Roman Holiday,” or “My Fair Lady.” She’s lovely, she’s driven, she’s vulnerable, she gets knocked head over heels into love. And God can she sing.
David’s Naveen is an innocent-enough rogue, a ladies man who almost goes over to the dark side but love makes him respectable and accountable.
You may think Disney is simply cashing in on the tail end of the princess-craze; that the emotions are overwrought, that the characters are jejune, that the conclusion is velveeta. But no: Disney has created an enchanted environment where a story (with credible characters, a plausible plot) and the way its told fall by the wayside and you’re once again in the prelapsarian world of innocence and simple beauty.