The Princess & the FrogTHE PRINCESS & THE FROG

Like many of you, I'm sure, I've grown somewhat nostalgic for the hand-drawn animated Disney musicals of a long-ago era -- by which I mean the early '90s. But I'll be honest: Almost nothing about the previews for the studio's The Princess & the Frog convinced me that the old Disney magic was, at last, about to be recaptured.

Yes, the film looked peppy and agreeably silly, filled with wacky supporting animals, and boasting boffo-socko musical numbers in the vein of genre pinnacle "Under the Sea." (The Princess & the Frog directors Ron Clements and John Musker also helmed The Little Mermaid, as well as Disney's Aladdin and Hercules.) And yes, while Pocahontas and Mulan were welcome steps forward, it was about damned time that Disney gave its young audiences a plucky female protagonist who also happened to be an African American. Yet I can't have been alone in thinking that the enchanted world of this new animated endeavor didn't appear all that enchanting. The song snippets were retrograde and dull, the jokes pandering (cue the raucous kiddie laughs when the firefly accidentally farts), and the impossibly attractive prince and princess -- when in human form, that is -- indistinguishable from any of their Disney predecessors, albeit animated with a different color palette.

Consequently, I entered The Princess & the Frog with hopes less than high, forgetting one of the golden rules of movie-going: Never, ever trust previews. For Disney's return-to-hand-drawn-form is every bit as charming and vibrant and captivating as you could've hoped for, and quite a bit funnier than anyone could've expected. Given the film's hard-working black protagonist and its New Orleans setting -- a locale that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, will no doubt have greater cultural and emotional resonance for adults than the film's target demographic -- the movie might easily have emerged as an excessively sentimental and sanctimonious one. (With fart gags.) Instead, the experience is bliss -- gorgeously designed, cleverly plotted, hysterical, touching, and surprisingly tough-minded. (Incredibly, not all of the film's wacky supporting animals live to see the closing credits.) If I didn't have a natural aversion to such things, I would've gladly joined my fellow audience members in applauding its finale.

Beyond its overdue presentation of an African-American heroine in the sweetly sensible Tiana (beautifully voiced, and sung, by Anika Noni Rose), The Princess & the Frog is notable for how casually it upends decades of Disney-cartoon conventions. Not only does the film's vain, flaky Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) exude actual personality -- which has to be some kind of first in the studio's canon -- but it turns out that merely wishing upon a star won't make your dreams come true, not unless those wishes are accompanied by careful planning and lots of hard work. (The independent-minded Tiana isn't wishing for a prince to sweep her off her feet, but for her own restaurant in the French Quarter.) The Princess & the Frog is a fairy tale through and through -- the story, as you likely know, concerns Tiana's and Naveen's quest to become human again after being transformed into frogs -- but at the heart of the tale are very honest, plainly addressed themes of dedication, struggle, and personal growth, all presented with a far lighter, less overtly moralistic touch than you'll find in most family entertainments.

Having said that, The Princess & the Frog isn't quite a new masterpiece to sit beside Beauty & the Beast or The Lion King. Composer Randy Newman's songs, while serviceable enough, have left your brain before you've left the auditorium, and the villainous machinations of the sinister Dr. Facilier (an insinuatingly nasty Keith David) don't really make much sense. (This bad guy's comeuppance is also, rather distractingly, an almost shot-for-shot reprise of the action climax to Ghost.) Plus, while no one should enter this animated outing expecting realism, I was a bit troubled by a decision regarding the friendly alligator Louis (Michael Leon-Wooley). It made perfect sense when Tiana and Naveen, as frogs, could hear this creature talk and wail on his trumpet, but shouldn't Lewis' anthropomorphism be a little more disconcerting to the human characters? (Living in New Orleans, I guess you've seen it all.)

Yet there's so much that's right about Disney's joyous animated feature that you can easily disregard what's wrong. I loved the brainless chirping of Tiana's spoiled best friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) and the unhurried Cajun drawl of the firefly Ray (Jim Cummings). I loved the nod to Lady & the Tramp, when our amphibian heroes share an unintentional first kiss, and the high-comic imperiousness of the bayou-dwelling Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis). And I loved loved loved the moment when the corpulent Big Daddy voiced by John Goodman -- who previously played Mitch in a televised version of A Streetcar Named Desire -- bellowed for his beloved bloodhound, "Stella-a-a-a-a!!!" Hilarious, moving, and richly textured, The Princess & the Frog is old-school Disney magic the way it used to be ... and, with any luck, will continue to be.


Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in InvictusINVICTUS

There's a lovely, affecting sequence in Invictus -- director Clint Eastwood's inspirational sports saga about South Africa's 1995 hosting of the Rugby World Cup -- in which all of a country's hard-won pride and hope for the future is felt during the singing of South Africa's national anthem; the scene lasts less than a minute, but its simplicity and power are unforgettable. The rest of Invictus, sadly, is nothing but forgettable. God knows that this post-Apartheid tale is well-intentioned, not that any film starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela could be anything less. (When the subject of Invictus has popped up, two of my friends, on separate occasions, asked of Freeman's participation, "Hasn't he already played Mandela?" It sure feels that way, doesn't it?) But good intentions don't necessarily make for good drama, and for all of its noble aspirations, Eastwood's latest is stodgy, unconvincing, and deathly dull.

A large part of the film's problem is Anthony Peckham's script, so hopelessly prosaic and lacking in nuance that Mandela can't be asked, "How is your family?" without him replying, "I have a very large family -- 42 million." (Christmas shopping must be hell on Earth.) But Eastwood is just as much at fault, his waxworks staging -- and his actors' blandly competent, uninspired readings -- draining the energy even out of scenes that would appear sure-fire. How on Earth does a director manage to make a rugby match boring? (Answer: A surfeit of slow-motion montages.) To be fair, Eastwood's latest isn't a complete clunker like his Changeling or Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil; Freeman has a few witty moments, and it's certainly refreshing to leave one of the director's films not wanting to blow your brains out. (The last genuine Happy Ending for an Eastwood-helmed endeavor was found in, what, maybe 1980's Bronco Billy?) But with its relentless speechifying, stagnant compositions, and what sounds like the exact same maudlin piano score -- with accompanying, faraway trumpet -- that Eastwood employs for all of his movies, Invictus is a noble drag, a great subject searching, and failing, to find an equally great movie.

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