How can a good-looking animated feature with a Randy Newman song as kicky as "When We're Human" end up being just sort of ... all right?
Such is "The Princess and the Frog," Disney's first hand-drawn (non-digital) effort since "Home on the Range" five years ago. It'll look especially pleasing to older audiences who've missed this warmer visual aesthetic of 2-D animation -- and their kids won't have their souls crushed by it or anything. But the movie slam-jams its over-packed story in a frenetic, needlessly complicated manner. It lacks for nothing in setting and atmosphere (New Orleans, mostly in the 1920s, with side trips to bayou country) but comes up short where it counts: the characters. Human, insect or amphibian, their appeal is hard-sell and engineered. I realize times change, but it's too bad these screenwriters and directors couldn't revisit "The Jungle Book" (1967) for reference. That film, with its hep-cats-meet-Kipling insouciance, took its time and has become a classic. "The Princess and the Frog" never catches its breath.
It features the first African-American princess from Disney Enterprises Inc., to whom the bu$ine$$ of marketing female royalty is $ignificant. The central character is, oddly, sidelined by her own story. Brought up by loving, hard-working parents (Terrence Howard and Oprah Winfrey voice the roles), Tiana chases one goal above all: opening her own restaurant. The longtime waitress scrimps and saves, and if the bumbling, condescending white businessmen allow it, she'll own the waterfront former sugar mill of her dreams outright.
The script quickly introduces a visiting prince, a smoothie with the doe-eyed Big Easy femmes. The prince runs afoul of the spell-casting "shadow man" Dr. Facilier ( Keith David, he of the basso hoodoo voice). To escape his newly amphibian state, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) must lock lips with a princess; Tiana, he mistakenly believes, will do the trick. She doesn't; she turns into a frog herself. Then the bickering begins in earnest and keeps up for most of the film, which has a way of creating noisy diversions away from Tiana's situation, rather than setting up tributaries that feed the main river.
The first half-hour of "The Princess and the Frog" is virtually laughless. Then, in the nick of time, we're treated to songwriter Newman's best number in an eight-song score. In the spirit of "Hakuna Matata," "When We're Human" is tailored for a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and the would-be froggy lovers. (The song's story purpose is similar to "Human Again," cut from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" but interpolated into the stage version.) Alas, Tiana, whose hallmarks are doggedness and clean living, isn't a very interesting character, though Broadway ace Anika Noni Rose provides her with a wonderfully soulful voice. Campos' Naveen may look like Michigan J. Frog, but he sounds like Maurice Chevalier's cousin, amusingly. Less amusing is a Cajun firefly (voice by Jim Cummings), resembling a dentally challenged Jiminy Cricket, who aids Tiana and the gang on their journey, as does ancient Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis). She gets a gospel stomper to sing ("Dig a Little Deeper"), though the song stops the show in theory, not in practice.
I loved one bit and one bit only: a brief, riotous flashback showing Louis the alligator's first foray into inter-species jazz musicianship. This, you think, is the old stuff: funny, quick on its feet and -- tellingly -- the one big laugh in the all-ages screening I attended. Disney can be proud of adding, finally, a black princess to its roster of princessy archetypes. On the other hand: With his rolling eyes and cliched, overexploited menace, Dr. Facilier may have some parents in the audience thinking back to Geoffrey Holder in "Live and Let Die," which is a mixed blessing indeed.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun