Starring: Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David
Directed by: Ron Clements (“Aladdin”) and John Musker (“Aladdin”)
Written by: Ron Clements (“The Little Mermaid”), John Musker (“The Little Mermaid”), Rob Edwards (“Treasure Planet”)
After five years, Walt Disney Animation – with the release of its newest picture “The Princess and the Frog” – has returned to the hand-drawn aesthetic that made the studio so popular in the late 80s and early 90s with films like “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King.”
“Home on the Range,” which was released theatrically in 2004, was the last 2-D film to come out of the Mouse House before Disney went on to make three straight computer-generated animations (“Chicken Little,” “Meet the Robinsons,” and “Bolt”). During this time, Disney also acquired Pixar Studios, who has been the clear leader in CGI animation since releasing “Toy Story” in 1995.
Now, with “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney returns to its roots to prove that 2-D animation is still a viable medium in the ever-changing animation industry. While there is much to be admired in the jazzy throwback, it seems like the animation studio has taken its idea to recreate a new “classic” too literally. Surprisingly, “The Princess and the Frog” is less of a storybook fairytale as it is a textbook exercise to recapture Disney’s most recent glory days.
Set on a vividly-drawn backdrop of New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1920s, the Broadway-style musical is adapted from the Grimm brother’s 19th century fairytale “The Frog Prince.” It tells the story of Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a hardworking waitress who hopes to one day realize the dream of her father and run her very own restaurant.
When the easygoing Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), who has been transformed into a slippery little frog by the voodoo-practicing Dr. Facilier (Keith David), mistakes Tiana for a princess and begs her for a kiss so he can turn back into his human form, things go terribly wrong. Instead of a happily-ever-after ending like in the original story, Tiana is changed into a frog, too.
With not a moment to lose, the amphibious Tiana and Prince Naveen plunge into the New Orleans bayous to search for a voodoo woman known as Madame Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who may be able to help them become human again. They team up with Louis (Michel-Leon Wooley), a jumbo trumpet-playing alligator and a Cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings), to help them get through the swamp’s dangerous twists and turns.
While much of the buzz behind “The Princess and the Frog” is based on the fact that this is Disney’s first African-American princess, we won’t play the race card here. It doesn’t really matter that Tiana is black or that she spends most of the film as a frog or that Disney decided to make Prince Naveen’s ethnicity ambiguous (he’s from the fictional country of Maldonia and has a Spanish accent). Either way, the characters suffer from an all too traditional script (how many stars can Disney wish upon?) that relies on its flashy setting and a few enjoyable songs by Randy Newman to be the driving force in a story that lacks the same type of magic of its predecessors.
“The Princess and the Frog” may be groundbreaking from a cultural aspect, but not every charming idea put on paper makes for a completely memorable adventure.
After a yearlong search for their perfect prince for “The Princess and the Frog,” Walt Disney Studio found their man.
Actor Bruno Campos had never worked on an animated film before, but he was eager to lend his voice to the character of Prince Naveen, a charming and easygoing prince from the fictional country of Maldonia who is transformed into a frog by an evil voodoo doctor.
“As a voice performer in an animated film, everything was a complete surprise,” said Campos, who was born in Rio de Janiero before moving to the U.S. at the age of five. “All you see are a few drawings and a few clips. I had very little idea about what the other actors were doing. I didn’t even get a full script.”
Making “The Princess and the Frog” was a much different experience than Campos was used to since starting his acting career in 1995’s Oscar-nominated Brazilian film “O Quatrilho.” Campos, who studied drama at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, went on to star in a number of TV shows including “ER” and “Nip/Tuck.”
During our interview, Campos, 36, talked about his inspiration for his princely character and how important he feels race is in a story that features Disney’s first African American princess.
When Disney cast you as Prince Naveen, what did they tell you they were looking for in terms of the type of character they wanted?
The idea was a Cary Grant-ish type of character from this mythical kingdom. They wanted him have a young and fun spirit and wanted someone who was charming. That’s what I tried to give them with the scenes I read during the audition. They had been researching for a year for this role, so they knew exactly what they wanted.
You play Prince Naveen both when he is in human form and as a frog. Did you have to get into a different mindset when the look of the character changed or did it feel the same either way?
That’s kind of the key question for this character, actually. The answer is no because the comedy part of his character comes out when he changes from the charming, dashing prince into this slimy little frog. He has no notion of that. Through the whole film he feels like he’s still got it. That’s what makes him so fun and likeable. He’s stripped of everything, but his attitude and confidence remain. He also enjoys jumping around and eating flies. He sees it as a great adventure.
Was there anyone you thought of for inspiration for your character?
My dad. He was just a very funny man. He was very charming, outgoing, and loved telling stories. He was a little man with a little potbelly. He had this infectious wit and tenaciousness. He spoke English in this melodic way. I just imitated all of his rhythms.
So much has been focused on the racial aspect of “The Princess and the Frog.” Do you consider race an important part of this film?
I think people are going to approach it differently. The symbolism of this film is undoubtedly extraordinary and significant. At the same time, I think it should feel colorless. A lot of children will approach it that way. I think they are just going to love the story, music, and characters.
What makes Prince Naveen different from other Prince Charming-like characters of the past?
What’s fun about Naveen and different about him relative to past princes is that he’s not a perfect man who shows up at the end of the film and gives the princess a kiss and whisks her away to this kingdom. He has his own issues. He’s running away from expectations that have been placed upon him. He would love to do nothing more than escape into the streets of New Orleans and be a part of the great jazz revolution that was occurring in the 20s. He learns from Tiana a way of life he doesn’t have too much experience in.
What kinds of cartoon did you watch growing up in Brazil?
I liked the Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny and MGM cartoons like “Tom & Jerry.” I remember my first experience watching an animated film was with Disney’s “Robin Hood.” I remember that moment where Robin Hood jumps off the tower and it goes up in flames. For a moment I forgot it was animated. As a kid I was desperately wondering if he was alive or not. Of course, he pops out of the water. All those cartoons, for me, captured this fantasy and exaggerated emotionality that could be carried around forever. It reaches you in a way real life does not.