The last time we heard from the hand-drawn animators at Disney, they offered up the forgettable barnyard tale “Home on the Range.”
Thankfully, the spirit of animation maestro Walt Disney lives on. The studio has gone back to its roots with a fresh, funny retelling of a classic fairy tale in “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation after a five-year hiatus.
Updating the Brothers Grimm tale “The Frog Prince” into a toe-tapping musical set on the Louisiana bayou in the 1920s, directors Ron Clements and John Musker deliver a satisfying gumbo of snappy dialogue, lovable characters and bright-hued images, spiced up with just the right touch of voodoo peril.
The film centers on hardworking waitress Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), who saves every dime in hopes of opening the restaurant that was the dream of her late father (Terrence Howard).
Tiana is sidetracked by some dark magic after Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a jazz-loving dreamboat from a land far, far away, comes to sample the vibrant New Orleans music.
Naveen falls under the spell of voodoo practitioner Dr. Facilier (voiced with oozing menace by Keith David), who turns the prince into a talking frog as part of a plan to unleash his evil “friends on the other side.”
The frog prince encounters Tiana dressed as royalty at a costume ball in the mansion of her childhood pal Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) and her genteel dad (John Goodman).
The inevitable kiss Naveen talks Tiana into doesn’t restore his human form, though. Rather, Tiana is transformed into a frog herself, and the two wind up pursued by Facilier’s evil allies through swamp country.
In fine Disney inter-species tradition, Tiana and Naveen find comic sidekicks in Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a goofy alligator who dreams of playing trumpet with a jazz band, and Ray (Jim Cummings), a gap-toothed Cajun firefly with a heart as big as the heavens.
The songs and score by Disney stalwart Randy Newman – including a tune sung by Dr. John – are brisk and catchy, while there’s plenty of action and slapstick humor for boys and dads in what is largely a love story for girls and moms.
“The Princess and the Frog” mostly ignores the racial divides of the times. Tiana’s a poor black girl, her best friend’s a rich, spoiled white girl. How often did that happen in 1920s New Orleans?
But this isn’t “Roots,” it’s a Disney family affair. In her favor, Tiana joins a list of ethnically diverse Disney heroines – Pocahontas, Mulan, Lilo – that show how far things have come from the days when a pasty-faced princess hung out with seven little white dudes.