Toon Talk: The Princess and the Frog
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by Kirby C. Holt
The Princess and the Frog
Walt Disney Pictures
Down in New Orleans
This simple lyric is the “once upon a time” that begins Disney’s The Princess and the Frog. More than just the revival of traditional animation or the debut of their first African American princess, this is Disney’s return to magical, musical storytelling as only they can do.
A Southern-flavored take on the classic fairy tale The Frog Prince, The Princess and the Frog immerses the viewer in a colorful, tune-filled fantasy world where alligators play musical instruments, fireflies speak in Cajun accents and there’s a happily ever after (if you work hard enough) around every bend in the bayou.
Our heroine is the strong-willed Tiana (voiced by Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose, best known as one of the movies’ Dreamgirls), an independent young woman and master chef who dreams of owning her own restaurant “down on the river” in New Orleans. That dream is sidetracked though when she meets a handsome prince … yet she doesn’t know it at first as he’s been turned into (you guessed it) a frog.
See, the Prince charming-yet-frivolous Naveen (Bruno Campos, of Nip/Tuck fame) has run afoul of the neighborhood voodoo “shadow man”, Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David; a character reminiscent of Sammy Davis Jr.’s Sportin’ Life from Porgy and Bess mixed with Geoffrey Holder’s Baron Samedi from Live and Let Die). In a devilish plot to get his hands on the riches of the local “Big Daddy”, La Bouff (John Goodman), Facilier facilitates the prince’s amphibian transformation and recruits his put-upon valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett, best known as the put-upon butler Nigel on the ABC soap One Life to Live) to masquerade as his master. This allows the faux prince a chance to cozy up to La Bouff’s eligible-yet-shallow daughter Charlotte (Broadway babe Jennifer Cody) at her masquerade party.
And this is where the frog-ified Naveen finds Tiana, fatefully attired in a princess costume. Borrowing a page from the fairy tale, Naveen naturally asks the “princess” to kiss him to break the spell … except (as we know) she’s not a princess and the smooch results in Tiana’s own transformation into a frog as well. Talk about “one froggy evening” …
Now the toady twosome must reluctantly join forces to find a way to become human again, and their quest leads them to track down the mystic Mama Odie (ace scene-stealer Jenifer Lewis) deep in the swamps of Louisiana. Along the way, Tiana and Naveen enlist the help of new friends Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley, last “heard” as Audrey II in Broadway’s Little Shop of Horrors), a gator who yearns to play the trumpet like his idol Louis Armstrong, and Ray (a.k.a. the current voice of both Tigger and Pooh), the Cajun firefly who pines away for his beloved Evangeline in the sky.
The adventure comes to a climax on (naturally) Mardi Gras, where our heroes must make some tough choices for a chance to regain their humanity, and one hero makes the ultimate sacrifice in a scene that totally upends a certain Disney cliché.