The Princess and the Frog
Different ‘Princess,’ same dilemma
In the year of America’s first black president, it makes sense that
For an additional measure of inspiration, the movie is set in old-time French Quarter New Orleans and hits every box in the city’s checkered checklist: gumbo; riverboats; a toothless, turbaned conjure woman (with Jenifer Lewis’s voice); chase sequences all over the bayou. Powdered sugar sits like a cloud on the beignets. And Randy Newman’s songs swing from big band and gospel to zydeco and, well, Randy Newman.
But the renovations are merely cosmetic. Alas, “The Princess and the Frog’’ still forces Tiana into the same conundrum that every Disney heroine faces: the marriage fantasy. She puts up a fuss, but it’s no use.
Voiced warmly by Anika Noni Rose, Tiana was raised by her seamstress mother (Oprah Winfrey) and dreams of being a chef and running a nightclub restaurant in honor of her late father (Terrence Howard). Tiana refuses to believe in fairy tales and princes. She waits tables, saves her tips, and sings about how hard she’s working. No fun please, she’s a serious black woman.
When Naveen (Bruno Campos), a randy, racially ambiguous jazzbo prince from someplace called Maldonia, makes a sour deal with the voodoo man (Keith David) that turns him into a frog, he needs a princess’s kiss to break the spell and chooses Tiana, who happens to be wearing a tiara and sky-blue gown. It’s a costume. So instead of turning him back into a man, her kiss shrinks this upwardly mobile woman into a proud frog, and a kind of screwball comedy ensues.
The movie isn’t short on pleasure. Naveen is a more commanding frog than he is a prince (that neck; those giant, delicious-looking legs!). Tiana’s restaurant looks like something from the Harlem Renaissance - all the expressionist angles and silhouettes; the ochres, mustards, and chocolates; the bubbling champagne flutes that rise like girls in a Busby Berkeley musical. These sequences are an Aaron Douglas painting come to life. The whole movie should have been drawn in such an inspired scheme.
The voice actors are also excellent, especially Michael-Leon Wooley as a bouncy trumpet-playing alligator and Jim Cummings as a lovelorn Cajun firefly. When those two arrive, the Claudette Colbert-Clark Gable movie Tiana and Naveen have going on expands into a sort of swamp-faring “Wizard of Oz’’ caper, in which they look for a way to become human again.
But there’s a rub. Even as Tiana and Naveen hop together through the bayou, she continues to assert her self-reliance. So while she knows she’s headed for love, I just never felt her heart was in it. It’s not a man she wants. It’s professional success. The way she resists the fantasy formula is admirable, but ultimately (and disappointingly) futile.
Early on, it looked like the directors, Ron Clement and John Musker, who also did “The Little Mermaid’’ and “Aladdin’’ together, were close to turning things completely upside down. Tiana’s rich, white, man-hungry counterpart, a creature of comical breathlessness named Lotte (Jennifer Cody), is a lurid joke on old Disney princesses. With her big eyes and tornado gumption, she’s like Dorothy Malone the Bratz doll. I do like how the movie doesn’t turn her into Tiana’s rival. In her selfish way, Lotte is a friend. But her lustiness makes Tiana’s falling in love seem more reasonable.
It’s not. As charismatic as Naveen is (Campos pumps the character full of enjoyably obnoxious oomph), it’s inconceivable that his flirting would make a romantic impression on Tiana. The fairy tale here is ultimately a business transaction. She doesn’t love his money, but it is nice to have, no? In that sense, “The Princess and the Frog’’ does transcend race. The color that truly matters is green.