"I was starting to think wishing on stars was just for babies and crazy people!" sighs Lottie, the antiheroine of Disney's new animated feature The Princess and the Frog, a movie that takes a dim view of wishing on stars and hoping your dreams will come true. The Princess and the Frog represents a course-correction for Disney's multibillion-dollar princess franchise: It attempts to celebrate the virtues of hard work and pluck, even if the movie itself can feel at times like a lesson rather than an enchantment.
For parents exasperated with their daughters' princess obsession—fueled by such earlier Disney features as Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty, or more accurately by Disney's (genius) decision to brand those characters under the "princess" line in 2000—The Princess and the Frog will feel heaven-sent. As earthy as the previous movies were dreamy, and featuring the company's first African-American animated heroine, The Princess and the Frog is set in 1920s New Orleans, a locale it treats with due respect—from the jazz- and zydeco-inflected soundtrack to the prominent role of beignets and gumbo in the movie's plot. (At the very least, New Orleanians should find nothing as objectionable in the movie's portrayal of their city as Arab-Americans found in Aladdin's regrettable lyric "It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home!")
We first meet the new Disney princess, Tiana, as a young girl, listening to the story of the Frog Prince alongside her friend Charlotte. Charlotte is rich and white, the pampered daughter of Big Daddy La Bouff (voice of John Goodman), a N'Awlins mover and shaker who spoils his little girl rotten. Tiana's mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), is a seamstress, kept in business by Charlotte's insatiable demands for new princess dresses. (Her room will be familiar to contemporary parents, packed as it is with frilly pink numbers and shelves that are stocked with suspiciously Disney-esque dolls.) When the girls grow up, needless to say, their paths diverge. Lottie's a hottie with a motor mouth, a face-splitting grin, and a hunger for happily ever after; she dreams of the day a real prince will come to New Orleans and sweep her off her feet. Tiana, for her part, takes her father's long-ago advice: Wishing on a star, he told her, "can only take you part of the way. You have to help it along with some hard work of your own." So Tiana toils at two waitress jobs, saving up pennies to open her own restaurant.
When a real prince does arrive in New Orleans, he's not all he's cracked up to be. Prince Naveen of Maldovia (Bruno Campos) is a feckless Lothario with a love of jazz and empty pockets. (His parents have cut him off.) Evil witch doctor Facilier transforms Naveen into a frog; when frog-Naveen convinces a dubious Tiana to kiss him, she too finds herself slimy and green.
Tiana, of course, must learn to loosen up and have a little fun. Naveen must learn to appreciate the value of hard work. The journey to those unsurprising revelations will be, for most parents, a smooth one, thanks to terrific voice acting and some exceptionally beautiful hand-drawn animation. (After a brief abandonment of cel animation in favor of computer-generated movies, it's nice to see Disney back doing what it does best.)
If the songs, by Randy Newman, are blandly aphoristic, with titles like "Dig a Little Deeper" and "Almost There," they're at least catchy enough. And if Tiana isn't the most exciting heroine—she's as straight-arrow as they come, and even her eventual cutting loose comes in the form of some chaste dancing—she's one that little girls will love and to whom no parent can object. (Dreamgirls' Anika Noni Rose, who knows her way around a ballad, provides Tiana's voice.)
And who was the last Disney princess who wasn't a good-hearted snooze? At least Tiana's boring for good reasons, and doesn't fritter away her time dreaming of a prince. That's Lottie's job. Lottie, one of the funnier animated creations in recent memory, prances like a show pony and somehow delivers her lines with both a Southern drawl and a machine-gun cadence. (The exceptional voice work is from Broadway actress Jennifer Cody.) Though she stands in the way of Tiana's dreams, she's a lovable, addle-pated character, a not-so-wicked stepsister: chirpy and flighty but with a good heart. The wickedness comes from Facilier, who has Keith David's entrancing baritone and a long, lean, slippery physique recalling Plastic-Man mixed with Michael Jackson. His big number, "Friends on the Other Side," is the best-written in the movie and a great showcase of spooky, voodoo-inflected animation; his comeuppance is appropriately spectacular.
As always, a team of Disney writers has packed the margins with lively supporting characters: Ray, a snaggletoothed Cajun firefly; Louis, a lovable trumpet-playing gator (with sharp horn provided by Terence Blanchard); Facilier's henchmen, a pack of creepy shadow-creatures who wouldn't be out of place in a Miyazaki movie. The directors, Ron Clements and Jon Musker—Disney vets with Aladdin and The Little Mermaid on their résumés—keep the story moving.
But efficient, well-practiced storytelling is what we expect from a Disney animated feature. The real story here for parents is the clever and careful recalibration of the princess archetype. Even as previous Disney movies tweaked the concept, they still maintained a vision of princesshood based on wealth, beauty, and happily ever after. The Princess and the Frog does away with those notions. Tiana's palace is a restaurant. The princess spends most of the movie secreting mucus and hungering after bugs. And happily ever after may come, but only after the movie's heroes roll up their sleeves and get to work. Sound square? It is. But as the dad of two daughters, I'll take it.
Slate V: The critics on The Princess and the Frog and other new releases