By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic
“When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are.”
For decades Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures has been the king of animation, going back to Snow White (1937) all the way up to WALL…E (2008). It has made the world safe for young kids who want to dream. Now, not without controversy, it has specifically opened its animated doors up to the hopes and ambitions of little African American kids. And, what is the result? A story everyone can enjoy.
As a little girl in living in New Orleans’ French Quarter during the Jazz Age, Tiana had a dream; she wanted to own a restaurant. Her dad James (Terence Howard) instilled strong blue collar working values in her. So did her mom Eudora (Oprah Winfrey); she was a seamstress who made clothes for a wealthy clientele, like “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman, TV’s Roseanne) and his spoiled daughter Charlotte (Jennifer Cody).
Years go by. James has passed away. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), now a young adult, is a waitress who’s been saving her tips so she can reach her goal of turning an abandoned building into a restaurant. Fate takes her on a different path the day she meets a frog that swears he is Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) from the kingdom of Maldonia. A treacherous local con man named Dr. Facilier (Keith David) has consorted with evil spirits, cast a spell and turned the Prince into a frog and the Prince’s valet into the Prince. If that weren’t bad enough, Tiana kisses the frog and turns into a frog herself. Their journey back to being humans hooks them up with an alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley, Dreamgirls), a firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings) and a 197-year-old, mystical Bayou woman, Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis).
The character of Tiana, the creation of writer/director Ron Clements and writer Rob Edwards (Roc, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, A Different World) is a black Snow White with backbone. Unlike her predecessor, she is not passive. Tiana, a vulnerable yet spunky and determined protagonist, wrestles with all the demons that come her way. She is aided by a flurry of oddball characters that never give up on her. And in this post-feminist age, she has her head firmly planted on her shoulders; it’s her flaky male suitor who needs a reality-check. For little girls, Tiana is a heroine. For little black girls, specifically, she is blessing – a mini Oprah.
Setting the young woman’s story in New Orleans was a smart idea. The region is ripe with colorful culture (costumes to folklore), was one of the first areas in the U.S. to send black legislators to the House of Representatives (way back in the 1800s) and topical (Hurricane Katrina). The Black community in New Orleans is strong and close-knit. Their experience may not be mainstream to the rest of America, but what is mainstream black culture these days? Not every African American family lives in Harlem (Precious…), or South Central (Boyz ‘n The Hood), or Chicago (Good Times). Why not explore the bayou, voodoo and all. After all, the Princess and the Frog is pure fantasy.
Ms. Rose not only talks the Princess talk, she sings the Princess’s songs in a lilting, bewitching soprano voice. The other clear standout voiceover belongs to character actor Keith David, who plays the venomously sinful Dr. Facilier. David played a judge in the movie First Sunday, and has done voice-overs for countless animated movies and TV commercials. He’s a class act and seasoned actor. Wooley hits all the comical notes as the portly gator. Winfrey seems wasted in the mother role. Howard gets too little screen time as the dad. Goodman and Cody make a nice father daughter team.
The colors in this hand-drawn animated movie are rich and textured, very old school. The pacing is quick and easy. The music elevates the right moments, courtesy of new songs composed by Randy Newman that flirt with jazz, blues, gospel, Dixieland and zydeco. Ne-Yo sings the movie’s them song “Never Knew I Needed” with certain conviction. Overall, the film’s production elements are solid.
Some will stumble over the fact that a Brazilian actor, Bruno Campos, plays a Prince with a tan complexion from a fake country, but little kids won’t care as we head into a post-racial, multi-cultural society. Others will complain that voodoo is not a subject fit for children, but kids won’t distinguish voodoo from any other magic that is depicted in a make-believe movie. What they will take away from this film is that if you strive, help others, have good parents and stick to core values someday, after you’ve wished upon a star, your dream may come true. Even if you have to kiss a frog in the process.