Disneyphiles, take note: Tradition is both gloriously upheld and graciously swept aside in the company’s latest fairy-tale adaptation. For many, the film’s use of old-school cel animation is a welcome return to an age of artisan texture; you feel like human hands actually sketched these images, as opposed to simply clicking a mouse over them. While the Jazz Age fable’s characters are rendered in the usual house style—all wide eyes and Don Bluth--era rubbery faces—the movie’s replication of Harlem Renaissance aesthetics makes it look like an Archibald J. Motley Jr. painting come to life. More importantly, it’s the first Disney film to add an African-American heroine to the largely pigment-impaired princess canon (Snow White, indeed) and the only one to put an Afrocentric vision of life front and center. Yes, a Cajun-accented lightning bug courts caricature, but compared with Dumbo’s minstrel crows and the cringeworthy antebellum anecdotes of Song of the South, this feels like a giant leap forward.
So despite the cultural vibrancy and showstopping visuals, why does this skewed take on the Brothers Grimm warhorse feel so inert overall? Blame the storytelling, which introduces a clever conceit—both parties go amphibian after locking lips—but then simply relies on the usual anthropomorphic gags, Broadway-ready tunes and follow-your-dream platitudes. In today’s post-Pixar world, such stock elements are less forgivable, even if the colorful palette of The Princess and the Frog provides maximum dazzle. Eye-candy--wise, the film plants a big wet smooch; everything else about this happily-ever-after tale, however, feels like a mere air-kiss.—David Fear
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