Given the Disney studio's recent disdain toward traditional hand-drawn animation, it's sometimes hard to believe this was the company that over seven decades ago proved that toon flicks deserved to be on the big screen as much as their live-action counterparts. After all, the outfit with countless classics under its belt, some as recent as the 1990s (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), had all but abandoned the format in this new century, squarely throwing its support behind computer-animated fare and releasing a scattering of old-school mediocrities (like Treasure Planet) that were saddled with limp scripts and uninspired voice casting.
So is The Princess and the Frog the start of a new era, or merely a hiccup that will quickly be stifled? It's hard to predict, but for now, it's a pleasure to have an old-fashioned animated effort that actually stirs memories of past glories. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the team that made The Little Mermaid (which kicked off the modern spate of Disney classics) and Aladdin before losing their way with Hercules and Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog adds a decidedly jazzy spin to the venerable fairy tale. It centers on Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young woman living in early-20th-century New Orleans. Toiling as a waitress but longing to save enough money to open her own restaurant, Tiana finds her fate intertwined with that of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a visiting royal who's been duped by the nefarious Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and turned into a frog. Tiana reluctantly kisses the now-green Naveen in an attempt to help him turn human again (as per the fairy tale), but the plan backfires and she instead finds herself joining him in an amphibian state.
Randy Newman's song score runs hot and cold, but the animation is lovely, the story offers the requisite Disney mix of mirth and message, and the supporting characters (including a jazz-lovin' crocodile and a laid-back firefly) prove to be an engaging bunch. Yet what's most noteworthy about the film isn't what's in it but what's missing -- specifically, the faddish pop culture references and scatological humor that dates most of today's animated efforts. The Princess and the Frog refuses to be pegged as a product of a specific period, and in that regard, it's a welcome throwback to the timeless toon tales of yesteryear.