When you wish upon a star (in New Orleans), you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you might find (wait for it) you get what you need.
Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) works hard at two jobs to save up for her dream: starting a fancy New Orleans restaurant serving up homemade jambalaya, gumbo, and man-catching beignets. Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) is a free soul who prefers partying and playing rather than any real responsibility, but his parents have cut him off at their purse strings. Enter Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a small-time charlatan with big dreams and a golden opportunity… with a little help from his friends on the other side.
It’s the return of traditional Disney animation, this time spearheaded by the fine folks at Pixar (although you won’t find their name anywhere on the marquee.) Co-directors Ron Clements and John Musker were also instrumental in bringing Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Aladdin to the screen. This time they’ve set their sights on “The Frog Prince” by giving it a modern spin in a Jazz Age-era New Orleans setting. While a bit dark for a G-rating (but not Hunchback of Notre Dame dark), the result is a mystical and musical family film that’s been long missed from the Mouse House, and while not perfect, Pixar seems to have its finger on the correct pulse.
While the story has a refreshing approach, character complexity is a bit in short supply. “Southern bell” Charlotte may be a bit spoiled by her father and must have everything her way, but while she is certainly self-absorbed, she’s not evil and is instrumental in moving the story along at a several critical points. Sadly, she’s as complex as they come. Our heroes have only a minor change to complete, while our black-hearted villains are doomed in much the same way all Disney villains are. Also in continuing with Disney tradition are broken little homes where mothers and fathers die all too soon; is it too much to hope for a hero or heroine who’s not an orphan or being raised by a single parent?
Okay, a few nitpicks on locality. In the film, the wedding parade takes place in the French Quarter of New Orleans (as it should), and when the procession is interrupted, the “prince” runs into the St. Louis Cathedral across from Jackson Square, which is exactly where it is. However, the cemetery where Tiana hops off to and is confronted by Dr. Facilier is Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, located many miles away in the Garden District (where the bigger homes are) and no where near the French Quarter (in fact, the closest cemetery would have been St. Louis Cemetery No 1. (where reputed voodoo queen Marie Laveau is entombed.)
Also, much of the cemetery itself looks like a combination of Metarie Cemetery tombs and many other separate locations rather than any specific one. This isn’t to hold anything against the film; it’s likely the makers chose to take liberties showing off as many of the historic elements of New Orleans as they could stuff into the film, but no one should expect that it’s all conveniently located so close together.
The story works in spite of being a little too musical perhaps. The filmmakers promised it would be musical, but the highs and lows could probably be reworked; the second act feels overlong. Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, and John Goodman all lend their voices to the production to positive effect. The ending proves a bit clever and serves to reinforce the overall message that the universe tends to unfold as it should and that hard work never hurt anyone. Speaking of hard work, it’s nice to see the traditional animators back at work for Disney and hope that this is the first of many new animated features and not its final gasp.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)