The Disney princess phenomenon has become a marketing gold mine, spawning special branding, a dedicated website, a Broadway show, and endless frilly products for little girls. So it’s hard not to see The Princess And The Frog as a calculated cash-in, an attempt to add another highly salable princess (and the first African-American one!) to the stable, especially since so much else about the film is a calculated recycling of Disney successes of the past, from the character design to the predictable story beats.
But for those who grew up on Disney’s animated films—or for those too young (and maybe too princess-crazed) to see the gleaming dollar signs in every frame—Disney’s triumphant return to hand-drawn 2-D animation still holds an awful lot of familiar, comfort-food charm. There’s nothing remotely challenging about the story, the usual bantery modern-Disney routine about a couple who initially hate each other, but come to love each other through half an hour of hardships and big musical setpieces. There’s nothing new about the characters, except for their skin color: Hard-working New Orleans waitress Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is yet another Belle/Jasmine/Pocahontas knockoff, a tough, smart, capable girl who fights for her dreams, but nonetheless ends up in a giant poofy gown just long enough to establish the iconography that will be used to sell her princess image for the next several decades. Her inevitable suitor, vain Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), is another in a line of puffed-up, handsome romantic leads whom the heroine has no use for—until she suddenly does. The villain of the piece, a hoodoo man (Keith David) who changes Naveen into a frog for his own nefarious reasons, is Jafar from Aladdin with darker skin and different accoutrements.
But Ron Clements and John Musker—directing partners on Aladdin, Hercules, and Treasure Planet—put them through their preordained paces with a lot of energy and color. They get one boost from Randy Newman’s down-home, radio-ready versions of New Orleans jazz, zydeco, and gospel; they get another from an animation department presumably eager to prove itself after being disbanded in favor of CGI projects, then re-formed under Pixar honcho John Lasseter. The hideous Cajun firefly character maybe borrows a little too much grotesquery from John Kricfalusi’s style, and the bones of the plot are a little too close to Shrek, albeit with a clever twist ending. But for the most part, The Princess And The Frog is Disney business as usual, a little bland but very pretty, and calculated for maximum slick pleasantry. It’s exactly as though the 2-D department never left at all.