Sometimes, old-fashioned can seem downright revolutionary. “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s first hand-drawn feature since 2004, is a reminder that the high-tech wizardry of computer animation, motion-capture and stop-motion doesn’t mean much without a compelling story. The movie is irresistible because it understands the basics: strong narrative, gorgeous animation and characters that are well-drawn, both literally and figuratively.
“Frog” also marks an overdue first for Disney: leading a film with a black heroine. That alone makes it noteworthy, but the animated movie also happens to be arguably the studio’s best in 20 years. Set in New Orleans during the 1920s, “Frog” follows Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), a hardworking young waitress who scrimps and saves every penny in hopes of someday opening her own restaurant. Just as she nears that goal, Tiana is stymied by a pair of callous bankers. On a whim, she makes the proverbial wish upon a star. But Tiana does it one better, impulsively kissing a frog who happens by.
This is no ordinary jumper. It talks, for starters. The frog is actually Prince Naveen (Bruce Campos), dashing but penniless royalty from a fictitious country. He came to the Crescent City to find a rich woman to marry, but was bamboozled by a voodoo man, the dastardly Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who turned the princely playboy into a frog.
One thing leads to another, and Tiana kisses the newly amphibious prince thinking he will change back into human form. Instead, the smooch turns Tiana into a frog, too. The seemingly mismatched pair must journey through the bayou in search of a voodoo woman (Jenifer Lewis) who can undo the evil spell. Along for the adventure are a trumpet-playing alligator and a lovesick Cajun firefly.
Bathed in lush purples and blues, the visually sumptuous film is reminiscent of Disney’s animation in the 1940s and early ’50s. Particularly stunning is the phantasmagoria surrounding Dr. Facilier’s hocus-pocus, although it might be a bit too spooky for young children.
Such two-dimensional splendor is matched by a witty, funny and occasionally poignant script. It won’t even need much tinkering for the inevitable transformation to Broadway, with Randy Newman’s songs a heady brew of blues, gospel and Dixieland jazz.
The flick serves up the requisite morals about hard work, love and family. There are also more surprising life lessons about looking beyond superficialities. Best of all, it feels sincere.
Some wags have admonished “Princess and the Frog” for being too timid. Granted, directors Ron Clements and John Musker (“Aladdin“) conjure up a Jazz Age devoid of segregation and racism. But I can’t fault Disney for an abundance of caution. Besides, anyone who drags his or her kid to “The Princess and the Frog” expecting realism is suffering from delusions that make kissing a frog seem comparatively normal. “Phil Bacharach