Disney animators go old school in fun ‘Princess’

The Walt Disney company makes a nod toward the past with “The Princess and the Frog,” the latest feature from the greatest animation studio in film history. The backward look is twofold.

The movie’s story is set in the past, yes. But this is also a return to traditional hand-drawn animation for Disney, which has embraced computer animation in many of its recent projects.

Based on a Brothers Grimm tale about a Frog Prince, “The Princess and the Frog” has attracted some advance publicity for being the first big Disney cartoon to feature a heroine who is black.

True enough. She is also green for about half the picture, so the Disney people really have their bases covered this time.

Green? Here’s how it goes. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose, from “Dreamgirls”) is a young woman living in 1920s New Orleans. Through circumstances too difficult to recount, she finds herself kissing a frog (Bruno Campos), because the frog has explained that a kiss will return him to his normal human state. In which he’s a prince, of course.

Sadly, the kiss turns Tiana into a frog, too.

Thus begins an interlude with the two amphibians hopping through the bayou country and meeting all sorts of new friends: a jazz-loving alligator (Michael-Leon Woolley), a Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings) and a swamp witch (Jenifer Lewis).

It wouldn’t be a Disney movie without a good villain and Dr. Facilier (Keith David), the voodoo man who turned the prince into a frog in the first place, is a dandy. He’s kind of like Cab Calloway crossed with Mephistopheles and he’s got the movie’s most colorful production numbers.

The songs are by Randy Newman, a songwriter who’s had a longtime affinity for New Orleans-style sounds. His music, and the purple-green visual palette, indeed steep the film in Louisiana gumbo.

It’s a fun picture, with likable characters and sparky dialogue. One prominent character dies before film’s end, which gives just the right amount of weight to the proceedings.

The subject of race is mostly treated gingerly, which seems fine given the fact it’s a cartoon. There is one pointed example of someone telling Tiana she should forget her dream of opening a restaurant, because someone “of her background” might not cut it — and we know what he’s really saying.

Disney has played it safe, bringing in “Little Mermaid” directors Ron Clements and John Musker to helm, and using some tried-and-true character types: The gator is a dead ringer for Baloo in “The Jungle Book” and that firefly looks an awful lot like Jiminy Cricket.

Maybe that’s why “The Princess and the Frog” just misses the level of many past Disney efforts. It’s very good, but it doesn’t conjure the magic.

“The Princess and the Frog” ½

A Disney animated film (hand-drawn, not computer-generated) about a 1920s New Orleans gal who abruptly finds herself amphibian after she kisses a frog prince. Fun stuff all the way across the board, even if the movie doesn’t quite reach the magic of former Disney efforts.

Rated: G

Showing: Alderwood, Edmonds, Everett, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Olympic, Stanwood, Metro, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall

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