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Monday, December 14, 2009

Princess and the Frog (The)

Any human being on this planet in possession of a uterus can attest to the eons-old adage that “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” What that saying doesn’t tell you is that almost all of those frogs are really only a bunch of horny toads and you’ll be lucky if all you end up with is a bad case of warts once you give ‘em a lit puck. My pucker was blessedly good enough to sift out a true Noble prince on my second time around, but don’t think I didn’t learn the hard way during my first go when I made the mistake of choosing a husband who was worse than a frog or a toad. He was a low-down snake in the grass.

Fortunately, none of this foul reality besieges the fantasy realm of Disney’s latest money-making machine, the lovely-to-look-at The Princess and the Frog. Much will be made (and already has been) concerning the “revolutionary” decision by Disney to add to its bevy of Princesses™ an African American model. Some call it a step forward inclusivity, but anyone who has ever worked for Disney knows it is actually a step forward in marketing. Yes, now every little girl (and middle-aged queen with a Barbie™ collection) can have a “black version” of its Cinderella, Aurora, Belle, Jasmine, and Ariel dolls. Those are the signature Princesses™ that Disney uses to mint a sizeable fortune every year. Incredibly, the company has only now realized that there are Black people in the world outside of those little animatronic folks in “It’s a Small World” and these folk have money Disney hasn’t yet snatched away from them. Apparently Disney doesn’t care so much about Asian or Native American dollars because even though Mulan and Pocahontas were both successful movies long before The Princess and the Frog neither has made the cut as a Princess™, instead taking to the back of the bus to give more room for Ariel’s gigantic scaly-ass fishtail. But I digress.

There’s no need to harbor bad feelings towards The Princess and the Frog’s main maiden, Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose; the least well-remembered of the Dreamgirls). Tiana is a hard-working young woman scraping by in 1920s New Orleans as she strives to save enough money to open the restaurant she and her now-deceased father dreamed of opening together during a brief prologue to the actual story. Daddy is voiced by Terrence Howard of Iron Man fame (or infamy considering he has been replaced by Don Cheadle in the upcoming sequel), and I’m actually relieved he doesn’t make it beyond the opening credits because every time I see (or, apparently, hear) him I am reminded of a totally  unnecessary interview he gave to Elle magazine in 2007 in which he told reporter Andrew Goldman he could never “be” with a woman who did not sanitize her va-jay-jay with Baby Wipes® first. Talk about giving out “Too Much Information!” 

Of course, this being a Disney movie, the beloved (or hygienic) parent always dies in the first reel so the protagonist can grow and learn from the dead one’s example, and Tiana is no different. In the tradition of Bambi or even Nemo, Tiana grows stronger and more determined to make it, though, ironically, since she wants to open a restaurant she may end up serving both Bambi and Nemo as entrees on in given night. In the meantime though, she toils for tips as a “common waitress” (and the words haven’t sounded so demeaning since Joan Collins uttered them back in her “Dynasty” days), and she wishes upon a star for her ship to come in. Voila! ~ that ship does come in, literally, carrying the enchanting Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos; Wake) from the fictional country of Maldonia on his first trip to the United States. Naturally, their paths cross and they can’t stand one another ~ a sure sign they were meant to be together forever like all married folks.

In little time, Naveen gets into a whole heap of voo doo poo poo and is turned into the frog of the title by the bewitchingly vile Dr. Facilier (Keith David; All About Steve), sort of a male version of Sleeping Beauty’s Maleficent. Facilier is working with Naveen’s valet, Lawrence (Peter Bartlett aka Nigel Bartholomew-Smythe of tv’s “One Life to Live”), to get hold of a fortune by duping the fabulously wealthy man-hunter Charlotte (big screen debuting Jennifer Cody) into marrying a faux Naveen, actually a magically transmorphed Lawrence. This is where it falls upon Tiana to do the requisite good deed by kissing the frog and thus returning him to all his royal glory so he can expose the deception. Except… in a twist on tradition, when Tiana puts her lips on his something unexpected happens and the story really takes off.

Like all great Disney animated features it’s the supporting cast of characters who put the taste in this gumbo and I see visions of plush alligators and fireflies exploding out of souvenir booths and gift shops all over Disney resorts around the globe. Yes, it’s the fun-loving reptile (albeit dimmer than Pumbaa on a good day) Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley; Ghost Town) and sentimental beetle Ray (Jim Cummings; Pete on tv’s "Mickey Mouse Clubhouse") that bring on the funk and the funny in this tale as the action shifts from New Orleans to the Louisiana Bayou. It also provides the show-stopping backdrop for a singing voo doo Priestess, Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis; Meet the Browns), to belt out the movie’s biggest and best “choreographed” number “Deep a Little Deeper” featuring The Pinnacle Gospel Choir, just one of sixteen snappy tunes written by Toy Story maestro Randy Newman.

This probably won’t mean beans to the kids in the audience, but for viewers of a certain age (*ahem*), The Princess and the Frog heralds back to an earlier era in Disney animation when films were actually drawn and colored by hand. This is Disney’s first foray back into hand-made features since the studio shuttered its Animation Department (supposedly) for good in 2004. Now, thanks to The Princess and the Frog, the clout of co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, Hercules, and The Little Mermaid among others), and along with the support of Pixar and Disney Creative Chief John Lasseter (also Producer of Bolt), this is the first of several new projects in this medium on the horizon, including a big screen Winnie the Pooh scheduled to bow in 2011.  The lushness of the backgrounds, the intricacy of details and shadows and the minutiae within different scenes provide a subtle homage to earlier classic Disney films (Tell me Tiana’s ball gown doesn’t harken back to Cinderella’s), and this tender loving care truly makes The Princess and the Frog the best Disney can offer and yet seemed to have forgotten how to be. Great looking, terrific music, lots of laughs and a touch of genuine sentimentality (yes, even I teared up a bit), this is one to see whether you have kids or not. 

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