I really wanted to like The Princess and the Frog (2009, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker), Disney's return to hand-drawn 2-D animation (it was actually drawn on a computer, but details). I did. It's certainly a good-looking movie, and the comedy bits mostly work. And, sure, I'll give it props for finally providing an African princess, but there's some animating spark that's missing.
The story here reinvents "The Frog Prince" fairy tale in 1920s New Orleans, and the movie is drenched in a vision of that city that's more fantasy than reality. But this is a fairy tale, and at least it's not an obnoxious fantasy. There's jazz, and there's food, and there's a hint of the hothouse in its depiction of its characters. Tennessee Williams is in the bones of this movie. As are Marie LeVeau and Baron Samedi. Our heroine is Tianna, a young black woman who is saving to buy a restaurant, to no avail from the dismissive real-estate men who agent the place she wants. Her friend, Charlotte, is a princess wannabe in the worst Southern Belle way, and when New Orleans is visited by Prince Naveen of Maldonia, she holds a ball. Meanwhile, Naveen and his treacherous retainer, Louis, have run afoul of Doctor Facilier, a voodoo shadowman with debts to pay to his supernatural allies. The prince finds himself turned into a frog, and subsequently mistakes Tianna for a princess. The subsequent kiss doesn't work out quite the way anyone intends, and the game, as they say, is afoot.
For the most part, this is fun. Hell, there's a lot to like about this. The visuals are nice, and the character design is excellent. I LOVE the voice work by both Anika Noni Rose and Keith David (Keith David needs to voice more cartoon villains; he's amazingly suited to it). But there's definitely something "off" about the whole enterprise. It occurred to me some hours after I finished watching it that what's dragging the movie down is its music. Randy Newman provides the songs, and, well, they're not his best work. I can't honestly recall any of the music, even at a relatively short remove from watching it, and this seems wrong for a movie set in New Orleans in the 1920s. This movie should breath jazz and zydeco, and even though it makes the attempt, there's no electrical charge in it, and no authenticity. Where is Louis Armstrong when you need him?
As I say, I want to like this--and in some ways I DO like this--because I think the notion that traditional animation is passe is completely wrongheaded. (I'm glad nobody at Disney told that to Hayao Miyazaki or Sylvain Chomet). And if someone really needs to be making animated films of this sort, it's Disney. I mean, Disney without cartoons is like jumbalaya without hot sauce. It's just wrong. It just is. But, as I say, it somehow doesn't work, which just sucks.