The story is set in New Orleans in the early part of the 20th century. In the opening sequence, we see young Tiana accompanying her mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), on a business visit to the home of “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman), who employs Eudora’s dressmaking skills to create fancy gowns for his princess-struck daughter, Charlotte. The two girls play together as friends while Eudora tells them stories, among them the tale of the “Frog Princess”. (This part has the first of a number of Disney in-jokes, among them Charlotte’s shelf of Disney Princess dolls and play dress which is a replica of Flora’s gown from “Sleeping Beauty.”) (Props, however, to whomever sneaked in the name “Big Daddy” for Goodman’s character, which is a reference to “Big Daddy” Politt from Tennessee Williams “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” also a famous New Orleans based story.)
Eudora and Tiana take the streetcar home, past the Garden District mansions to the poor but clean and cheerful shotgun house which is the home they share with husband and father James (Terrence Howard). James is handsome and hard-working and shares his love of cooking with his daughter.
Race and color are handled in the movie with a curious, but fanciful delicacy. All of the African-American people are the same pleasant caramel shade, except the evil Dr. Facilier (Keith David), who is markedly lighter skinned, of what, in those days, might have been called a “high yellow” complexion. So, the villain is really neither white nor black. Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) has a brown skin, a bit lighter than Tiana’s but darker than Dr. Facilier’s, which, given the fact that he’s almost certainly of some Arabic descent, makes the idea that Charlotte would want to marry him and Big Daddy acquiesce, prince though he be, solidly in the realm of fantasy for the 1920’s South. Big Daddy and Charlotte are ‘good’ white people. Big Daddy is respectful and courteous to Eudora and Tiana, and Charlotte treats Tiana in a sincerely friendly fashion even though she’s still the hired help.
Flash forward to the 1920’s. James has died, apparently in World War I, as we see a photograph of him in a Doughboy’s uniform. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a young woman working two waitressing jobs in order to save up money to start her own restaurant. Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) has also grown up, but is still royalty crazy enough to be gaga over the arrival in town of Prince Naveen and the fact that Big Daddy is “King of the Mardi Gras.”
Meanwhile, the wastrel Prince Naveen, upon landing, has immediately shed his princely garb and, in his “Joe College” guise, is playing jazz ukulele (!) with a street corner band, which gets him into the clutches of Dr. Facilier, who has a Prisoner-of-Zenda-like plot to replace Naveen with a dupe and take control of New Orleans. He will then be able to channel souls to his “friends on the other side” who are the source of his dark powers. It is in aid of this plan that Naveen is turned into a frog to keep him handy but out of the way.
The ensuing adventure involves Tiana, Louis, a jazz-loving alligator (Michael-Leon Wooley); Ray, a Cajun firefly (Jim Cummings); and Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who is the good, but still scary, counterbalance to Dr. Facilier; and lots of gorgeous background drawing of the bayous and New Orleans.
There is some good adventure, good drama, and lots of humor. The music track, with original songs by Randy Newman is infectious, and, I was pleased to note, borrowed not only from the classic New Orleans jazz idiom, but also Zydeco (“Gonna Take You There”) and southern-style Revival music (“Dig a Little Deeper”—rather ironic that this number is given to the Voodoo priestess--).
There are a couple of things, which, in my opinion, prevent the movie from being great and keep it in the realm of merely “very good.” Character design of the frogs is number one, important since both Naveen and Tiana are frogs for a great part of the picture. The frogs are just vaguely triangular body shapes with legs, and the minimal facial features aren’t very expressive. Admittedly, a real frog doesn’t have a whole lot to work with in that regard, but cartoon characters such as Disney’s own “Mr. Toad” character have done a lot more.
The voice acting is the second weak point. All the actors give it a good try, and comic timing in particular is sharp and snappy. I felt the vocal characterizations were very weak on accents and dialects, most characters having only a mild generic Southern flavor, with the notable exception of Cajun firefly Ray (who has the opposite problem of occasionally being hard to understand) and Mama Odie. The poorest voice is that of Bruno Campos as Prince Naveen, who wanders from no particular accent to vague shadings of “Pepe Le Pew” when he’s trying to be ingratiating.
However, these are not glaring deficiencies, and are somewhat offset by the fun bits, such as that Dr. Facilier’s “friends” manifest as dark-side versions of the already creepy animated masks that are a feature of the Disney World “Tiki Room.”
Recommended for the young of heart. Of course, no sex or profanity included, but there are scary moments which may be too intense for young children.