If you know what it means to miss New Orleans, you know what a comfort watching The Princess and the Frog can be, in setting and style.
Like a piping bowl of gumbo, Disney's first hand-drawn animated film in too long makes a viewer feel warm and cozy inside. Not many folks — especially children raised on computer animation — understand what a creative throwback this is.
Then you see it, realize the difference and sense the labors of love involved — personal touches now considered too inefficient for fast payoffs. It's the difference between daylong home cooking and drive-through convenience. Sometimes what's on the plate means less than the care invested in making it.
Put it this way: Toy Story introduced feature-length computer animation in 1995 and was hailed as a 'toon unlike any before. The Princess and the Frog deserves praise as the kind of 'toon most viewers haven't seen since. It won't alter the future again but does lift the hand-drawn format from the obsolete heap for a hurrah that shouldn't be its last.
How appropriate that New Orleans, a city struggling to avoid becoming obsolete after Hurricane Katrina, is the setting for this film. The Big Easy is ripe for screen time in any format, with its unique Old World architecture, genteel spirit and surrounding bayous. Toss in the city's rich musical heritage — The Princess and the Frog occurs during the Jazz Era of the 1920s — and there's a creative jambalaya to stir.
Tiana (voice of Anika Noni Rose) has her hometown's food and music in her veins, the daughter of poor parents (Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard) fully supporting her wish upon a star of opening a fashionable restaurant. All she needs is financing, explained in Tiana's "I want" song (all Disney heroes get one), I'm Almost There. The arrival of handsome Prince Naveen (Bruce Campos) could be her ticket.
And, yes, as you probably know, Tiana is Disney's first (and overdue) African-American princess, yet there's no agenda in the movie. Whites, blacks and amphibian greens all get along fine. Bypassing racism that certainly existed in the 1920s isn't a whitewash but sticking to the story to be told.
In fact, Tiana's tale expands the Disney message sustaining so many white characters before: Wishing upon a star is fine but doesn't beat hard work for a happy ending.
Getting in the way is a cornerstone of Crescent City history, the voodoo practices of Dr. Facilier (Keith David), known in the French Quarter as the Shadow Man. Dr. Facilier's showcase number Friends on the Other Side lays out his scheme to steal the prince's fortune, transforming Naveen into a frog as a first step. A kiss can break the curse but apparently not from Tiana; she puckers up and joins him as a frog.
Their quest for a cure takes Tiana and Naveen into the bayou, where they meet Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley), a trumpet playing alligator, and Ray (Jim Cummings), a firefly whose Cajun patois gives the film's best comic relief.
Directors Ron Clements and John Musker — who once saved Disney from obsolescence with Aladdin and The Little Mermaid — create a colorful panorama from the Garden District to Bourbon Street and beyond. The film's ace in the hole is Randy Newman's musical score and songs, each hewing to the studio's Broadway ambitions yet with Crescent City authenticity. The Princess and the Frog almost sounds better than it looks, and it looks nostalgically wonderful.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.