When I was a kid, it was a family tradition to go see a Disney animated feature every Christmas vacation. Yesterday, after 25 years, my parents, Aggie and me restored that tradition, complete with ice cream after the showing. The feature this year was The Princess and the Frog, which Aggie and I were a bit skeptical about when we saw the early trailers, but we both warmed to the idea over the past few months. It just so happened that we wanted to go to the movies and had to pick one that my parents could follow without subtitles, so as with last year's Tales of Despereaux, we picked an all-ages feature. And we loved it. It is not up there with the very best of the Disney features, but it had the strengths of the ones that I remember from when I was growing up, and kept the weaker aspects, such as the sentimentality and the trite moralism, to a minimum. It had fast-paced humour, action and engaging characters. Most of all, it had a very strong villain in Facilier, the Shadow Man.
Overall, the characterisation is done in broad strokes, but those strokes are well-placed: Facilier is thoroughly evil, powerful and scary, but it was clear what he wants (to control New Orleans) and why he wants it (he is in debt to the spirits that gave him his powers and is going for broke). He is also armed with a strong understanding of human nature and the weaknesses of those he manipulates. Plus, he is well-designed for maximum scaryness. Likewise, debutante character Charlotte LaBouff is convincingly portrayed as greedy and spoiled (not to mention dumber than a bag of hammers), yet kind-hearted.
The racial politics of New Orleans in the 1920s are mostly danced around, but they are not avoided entirely. It helps to know a bit about New Orleans, but adult viewers won't have much difficulty filling in the blanks there.
Visually, the movie is a treat, with the stylized dream sequences that look like posters and postcards from the era being especially beautiful. But what lifted the movie to a higher level for me was the music. I immediately recognized Randy Newman's writing style in the first notes of the title sequence (indeed I mistakenly thought it was him singing when it was in fact Dr. John) and knew that the combination of Newman's writing and the setting meant I was in for something special. As in Ragtime nearly 30 years ago, Newman nailed it. At every moment, the music fit the rhythm and pace of the movie, the lyrics expressed the action and the humour in a natural, effective way, and the melodies and arrangements sounded simultaneously like the speaking voices of the character and the writing voice of Randy Newman. I never rated his singer/songwriter work all that highly, but Newman's score made the case for what a great songwriter he is. Indeed, at many times it seemed like the music drove the action and the plot instead of merely accompanying and supporting it. I bought the soundtrack record the next morning, something I almost never do.
As I said, The Princess and the Frog isn't up there with movies like Snow White, but it is a very good movie and a feast for the eyes and ears. Go see it and listen to it. If you're going with a small child, you may want to hold its hand during some of the Facilier scenes, and you WILL want to have ice cream afterwards to cap it off.