Hollywood has a knack for turning innovation and excellence into formulaic predictability, and there are few examples more obvious than Disney films. Since that studio's artistic rebirth with The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King, the Mouse House's output has not only settled into familiar conventions, but it's been eclipsed by the company's very own Pixar. Thankfully, The Princess and the Frog deserves some credit for pushing against the restraints of the Disney mold.
Set in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, the movie concerns a poor African-American girl named Tiana who has a knack for cooking, and dreams of opening her own restaurant. Her best friend since childhood is a privileged white girl whose wealthy father employs Tiana's mother as a dressmaker. When the friend's family hosts a party for Prince Naveen of Maldonia, Dr. Facilier, an expert in black magic, turns the visiting royal into a frog. The now amphibious Naveen convinces Tiana that a kiss will reverse the spell, and if she obliges him he'll provide the money she needs to open her dream eatery. However, their smooch not only fails to turn him back into a human, but transforms Tiana into a frog as well. The duo then sets out to find a voodoo priestess who can set everything right.
Right from the start, the movie's New Orleans setting makes The Princess and the Frog unique in the Disney canon. Anybody who has had the good fortune to visit The Big Easy will recognize certain landmarks, and the animators get the city's distinct architecture exactly right. But to capture "N'awlins" in all its glory, you've got to get the music right, and luckily Randy Newman comes through big time with a set of songs that captures the city's many different musical traditions: there's Dixieland jazz, zydeco, blues, and boogie-woogie piano pieces -- all genres well within the Oscar-winning composer's wheelhouse. Working in tandem with the images, the music helps make the movie a triumph of atmosphere -- you get a sense of place that's missing from lots of other Disney films.
Sadly, the movie's story can't escape a paint-by-numbers schematic. Of course the duo befriends more talking animals, and, of course, the prince and Tiana have to kiss before midnight or else they will forever remain frogs, and, of course, the lesson is about learning to be who you are. Sure, there are some fine scenes -- a slapstick fight with some boaters trying to capture our heroes is a comic keeper -- but at some point interest wanes because there isn't anything special about the characters.
Had as much care gone into the story as the music and the animation, The Princess and the Frog might have been on a par with Disney's best, but -- like their Hunchback of Notre Dame -- it ends up being more notable for how close it came to breaking new ground before retreating into formula.