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Once upon a time, a short time ago, a reliable constant linked one summer movie season to the next: The presence of a cel animated Disney picture, complete with songs, anthropomorphic animals and (usually) some kind of princess.

Then, the run of success that began with The Little Mermaid ended. In its stead rose Pixar, computer generated graphics and animated photorealism. While the new trend has offered its share of incredible feats and visual wonders, nothing can beat a dose of that good old-fashioned hand drawn magic. This year, it’s been mercifully resurrected by the Mouse House in The Princess and the Frog, after a hiatus of more than half a decade.

The film is worth a look for sheer nostalgic value, even if its songs and characters lack the staying power of Ariel, Belle, or Simba. Co-directors John Musker and Ron Clements, the men behind Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, resurrect all the reliable tropes in a story that moves at a snappy pace, boasts its share of funny moments and features a distinct New Orleans spirit that sets it apart.

At its center is Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), who dreams of overcoming her impoverished background to open a restaurant in the heart of the city. However, young African-American women living in the South during the 1920s had to dream harder than most. She works hard and saves money, but just when her plan seems impossibly doomed a stroke of luck happens, though it will be awhile before she sees it as such. She encounters a frog, who claims to be the very wealthy Prince Naveen (Brunos Campos), kisses him and turns into a frog as well. So begins their adventure through the swamps and bayous of hardcore, backwoods Cajun country.

The movie works best in the pre-transformation scenes. The animators present a credible picture of Jazz Age New Orleans as a bustling mix of mainstream American and mystical Caribbean cultures, with streetcars gliding down the roads, steamboats perched in the harbor and the French Quarter’s low level homes serving as a piquant backdrop for the Voodoo sensibility of the villainous Dr. Facilier (Keith David). There are grand Victorian mansions and the smaller, tight knit African-American neighborhoods. An early musical fantasy sequence presents Tiana’s vision of a restaurant comprised of caricatured, high society types enmeshed in a place of grand, palatial beauty.

These are clichés, sure, but there’s a certain storybook richness to their presentation, which demonstrates an awareness of the truism that the best fables are rooted in distinct moments of history. However, momentum drags when the backcountry journey begins, even with the introduction of the requisite talking animals, each of which has been saddled with an amusing conceit. There’s an alligator (Peter Bartlett) desperate to be a trumpeter and a firefly (Jim Cummings) convinced the North Star is the love of his life.

Dr. Facilier — drawn with the long face, crooked teeth and angular body that traditionally demarcate villainy in the Disney world — does not have the maniacal obsessive qualities that distinguish his most illustrious predecessors. He’s without the theatrical dimensions applied to Scar or Jafar, not to mention the Wicked Stepmother, so his diabolical plan to be rid of the Prince never seems like much of a threat. The directors (who co-wrote the screenplay with Rob Edwards) try to evoke the sinister qualities traditionally applied to the villain’s misuse of sorcery and magic but they never locate an appropriate third dimension for the character.

Much has been made of the fact that the company has in The Princess and the Frog found its first black princess. The movie depicts the close-knitted nature of her New Orleans community with affection, reveling in Gumbo as a symbol of the stew of discordant elements that make up the city, but beyond occasionally hinting at Tiana’s harder road it never probes racial issues, and it shouldn’t. The film wants to be no more than a family friendly cartoon and a reminder that Disney hasn’t completely left its rich past behind. It’s welcome on both counts.

The Upside: The film serves as a merciful reminder that Disney still values 2D animation. There’s a richness to the depiction of New Orleans.

The Downside: Everything’s pretty conventional. If you don’t really love the standard princess-talking animals-maniacal villain template you’ll probably be bored here.

On the Side: The film opens wide today after spending two weeks in exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles.

Grade: B


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