The more things change, the more they stay the same. Plenty of change arises in Disney's musical "The Princess and the Frog": people turning into frogs, love transforming two into one, and the studio returning from CGI to 2D animation after a five-year hiatus. But all the change feels awfully familiar, by (backwards) design, making "The Princess and the Frog" cinematic comfort food, if not great art.
Loosely based on E.D. Baker's "The Frog Princess," Disney's latest literally trumpets another important change: the studio's first African-American princess. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose of "Dreamgirls") doesn't start out a princess; like Cinderella, Tiana is a drudge. With dreams of one day honoring her late father's dream of opening a restaurant in their beloved New Orleans, Tiana works two jobs and keeps her eyes on the prize, while her white friend -- debutante Charlotte La Bouff (Jennifer Cody) -- moons over her presumptive future husband, one Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) of Moldonia. As Dr. John sings in the film-launching number "Down in New Orleans," "Rich people, poor people all got dreams./Dreams do come true in New Orleans."
But don't trust the fellow advertising "Dreams Made Real." Voodoo sorcerer Dr. Facilier (the ever-distinctive Keith David), aka "The Shadow Man," expertly manipulates the emotional needs of Prince Naveen and his mutton-chopped, roly-poly valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett). Chaos ensues, with Naveen turned into a frog and his valet determined to steal his princely life. When Naveen begs a kiss from Tiana, it's not he who becomes human, but she who becomes a frog, forcing the pair to seek refuge in the bayou. After meeting aspiring jazz trumpeter Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) -- inconveniently an alligator -- and heartsick Cajun firefly Ray (Jim Cummings), the new friends go off to see the wizard -- err, that is, 179-year-old blind voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis).
From its "wish upon a star" opening to its Mardi Gras climax, the beautifully hand-drawn "The Princess and the Frog" keeps up a brisk pace and energy, but only partly achieves the effervescence of a Disney "classic." Directors John Musker and Ron Clements ("The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin") cleverly allude to the entire history of Disney 2D animation, in thoughtfully skewed angles on plot and character formulas and in stylish retro nuances both visual and aural (the bass chorus behind Facilier in the punchy "Friends on the Other Side").
Randy Newman's songs also serve the story well, particularly Tiana's announcement of spirit ("Almost There") and Mama Odie's show-stopping "Dig a Little Deeper." If only the story had sidelined the prince and princess and been the epic battle of the evil Shadow Man ("The real power in this world ain't magic; it's money!") and Mama Odie ("Money ain't got no soul;/Money ain't got no heart"), we'd really have something.
Where "The Princess and the Frog" stumbles a bit is in its wan wit -- despite strenuous efforts, this isn't a particularly funny movie. Another problem is its sometimes confused insistence on having it all in every regard of plot and theme (e.g., hard work is a core value, but don't be a workaholic, but still achieve your dreams, but don't neglect your family...). For its apparent feminist, anti-"lookism" leanings, the story still ends with -- well, I'll let you find out for yourself ... or take a guess.