Disney goes back to the drawing board with results more diverting than captivating in "The Princess and the Frog." Conspicuously outfitted with an African-American heroine and a vibrant 1920s New Orleans setting, this cheeky update of a classic fairy tale boasts almost as many talking points as merchandising opportunities, and should enjoy jazzy holiday biz starting with its Thanksgiving weekend bicoastal engagement and extending well past its Dec. 11 wide release. But whatever it accomplishes for Disney's reputation or bottom line, this long-anticipated throwback to a venerable house style never comes within kissing distance of the studio's former glory.
While it will be criticized and defended by op-ed writers with equal vigor, the company's first traditionally animated picture since 2004's "Home on the Range" -- and, coincidentally, its first inhouse toon of the Obama era -- behaves much like any Disney movie. It grafts easy stereotypes and funny accents onto warm, likable supporting characters; it telegraphs its setting via recognizable cultural cliches (in this case, beignets and voodoo); and it revolves around a lovely maiden who, headstrong though she may be, is in the end so blandly honorable that her ethnicity is pretty much beside the point.
But Tiana, unlike Snow White (to say the least), lives not in a castle but in a poor, predominantly black Big Easy neighborhood. In a prologue that immediately establishes the film's hip, self-aware sensibility, we learn why sassy-but-classy Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) has grown up believing not in stars or fairy godmothers, but in ambition and hard work. Devoted to the memory of her late father (because it wouldn't be a Disney movie without at least one dead parent), she's determined to fulfill his long-held dream of opening the finest restaurant in New Orleans.
But Tiana is thwarted when she crosses paths with visiting royalty: handsome, dark-skinned Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), who, through an elaborately silly chain of events, has been transformed into a frog by devious voodoo-peddler Dr. Facilier (Keith David). Mistaking Tiana for a princess, the frog prince begs her to restore him with a kiss, only to have the spell rebound on Tiana and turn her into a frog as well.
Unlike most tales of its type, in which the heroine spends the whole movie in pursuit of Prince Charming, "The Princess and the Frog" follows the modern romantic-comedy template, granting its amphibious duo plenty of shared screen time and making them polar opposites -- he's cocky and lazy, she's uptight and bossy -- who initially can't stand each other.
Of course, it's only a matter of time before Naveen realizes Tiana's his dreamgirl, but not before they leap through the Louisiana swamps to seek the help of wizened priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis). Along the way, they form friendships -- food chain be damned -- with trumpet-playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and gap-toothed Cajun firefly Ray (Jim Cummings), who do their part to make the picaresque adventure more engaging as it goes along.
All of this is delivered in the usual riotous explosion of color and song. From the mansions of the city's upscale Garden District and the cast-iron balcony railings of the French Quarter, New Orleans clearly offered the animators no shortage of visual inspiration and architectural variety. And whatever one makes of the material -- which sanitizes voodoo for mass moppet consumption and even serves up a G-rated Mardi Gras climax -- it's an unmistakable pleasure to behold an old-school, hand-drawn toon, assembled with pristine craftsmanship and attention to detail, at a time when CG, 3D and even stop-motion animation are all the rage.
Making less of an impression are Randy Newman's score and songs, which, though they encompass an impressive range of Southern musical styles, won't have kids or their parents humming on their way out of the theater. With the exception of the film's strongest tune (Mama Odie's delightfully upbeat hymn to soul-searching, "Dig a Little Deeper"), most of the numbers play like rehashes of past Disney showstoppers, in purpose if not in style: Dr. Facilier's sinister "Friends on the Other Side," for example, recalls Scar's "Be Prepared" from "The Lion King" (while the bad doctor himself resembles "Aladdin's" Jafar with a bared midriff).
That derivative quality pervades the entire production, as directors John Musker and Ron Clements -- who collaborated on such Disney new-wave masterpieces as "The Little Mermaid" and "Aladdin," but also 2002's poorly received "Treasure Planet" -- seem content to sample the company's back catalog and riff on classic conventions rather than forge an actual classic. Admittedly, Musker and Clements (who scripted with Rob Edwards) are working in a looser, more insouciant mode than the tradition of vintage Disney storytelling; for many viewers, the mere effort will be enough, even if it primes one's appetite for better things to come.
Voicework is expectedly top-notch. Rose makes an eminently appealing lead, while Campos invests his grinning frog prince with real charm; Lewis and Cummings upstage everyone with the pic's most endearing and politically incorrect vocal turns. Jennifer Cody also amuses as Tiana's spoiled-rich-girl chum, Charlotte, who says things like, "Why, aren't you just as pretty as a magnolia in May!" and seems to have been conceived along the lines of a young Blanche Devereaux.