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Movie Review

The Princess and the Frog

Different ‘Princess,’ same dilemma

'The Princess and the Frog' Tiana (voiced warmly by Anika Noni Rose) dreams of being a chef and running a nightclub restaurant in old-time New Orleans in "The Princess and the Frog." (Walt Disney Pictures)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / December 11, 2009

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In the year of America’s first black president, it makes sense that Disney would introduce its first black princess. On the surface, this feels revolutionary. Her name isn’t Ariel or Belle. It’s Tiana. And she and all the black characters in “The Princess and the Frog’’ have been drawn, by hand, with an appreciable degree of love and care - wide noses and full lips realistically scaled for each bright, brown face. Even the somewhat stereotypical voodoo man, a light-skinned toothpick with purple pupils and a gap in his teeth you could sail a boat through, looks like one of my uncles.

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.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

Related

Anika Noni Rose

Wearing the crown

Anika Noni Rose may be the voice of Disney's first black princess, but she hopes moviegoers will see her character's resilience first.

THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG Directed by: Ron Clement and John Musker

Written by: Clement, Musker, and Rob Edwards

Starring the voices of: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Jennifer Cody, Jim Campbell, Keith David, John Goodman, Terrence Howard, and Oprah Winfrey

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 97 minutes

Rated: G (although there is the sight of two frogs tangled in each other’s tongues as well as several potentially scary images involving voodoo)

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