THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG
Given the Disney studio's recent disdain toward traditional hand-drawn animation, it's sometimes hard to believe this was the company that over seven decades ago proved that toon flicks deserved to be on the big screen as much as their live-action counterparts. After all, the outfit with countless classics under its belt, some as recent as the 1990s (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), had all but abandoned the format in this new century, squarely throwing its support behind computer-animated fare and releasing a scattering of old-school mediocrities (like Treasure Planet) that were saddled with limp scripts and uninspired voice casting.
So is The Princess and the Frog the start of a new era, or merely a hiccup that will quickly be stifled? It's hard to predict, but for now, it's a pleasure to have an old-fashioned animated effort that actually stirs memories of past glories. Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, the team that made The Little Mermaid (which kicked off the modern spate of Disney classics) and Aladdin before losing their way with Hercules and Treasure Planet, The Princess and the Frog adds a decidedly jazzy spin to the venerable fairy tale.
It centers on Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young woman living in early-20th-century New Orleans. Toiling as a waitress but longing to save enough money to open her own restaurant, Tiana finds her fate intertwined with that of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a visiting royal who's been duped by the nefarious Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and turned into a frog. Tiana reluctantly kisses the now-green Naveen in an attempt to help him turn human again (as per the fairy tale), but the plan backfires and she instead finds herself joining him in an amphibian state.
Randy Newman's song score runs hot and cold, but the animation is lovely, the story offers the requisite Disney mix of mirth and message, and the supporting characters (including a jazz-lovin' crocodile and a laid-back firefly) prove to be an engaging bunch. Yet what's most noteworthy about the film isn't what's in it but what's missing -- specifically, the faddish pop culture references and scatological humor that dates most of today's animated efforts.
The Princess and the Frog refuses to be pegged as a product of a specific period, and in that regard, it's a welcome throwback to the timeless toon tales of yesteryear.
Clearly, there's no shortage of stories to relate about Nelson Mandela. Why, then, did Clint Eastwood choose one that forces the celebrated leader to go MIA in his own saga? Second only to the upcoming Nine as the biggest disappointment of the holiday season, Invictus represents a rare misstep for the iconic filmmaker, who's been on a tear lately with the stellar likes of Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and last year's Gran Torino. But Invictus, sad to say, finds the prolific 79-year-old merely coasting for more Oscar gold, tackling the sort of safe, sanitized fare that used to attract stodgy filmmakers like Richard Attenborough on a regular basis.
Simplifying complicated South African issues to the level of a Berenstein Bears storybook, the movie focuses on the initial years of the presidency of Mandela (portrayed by Morgan Freeman in a competent if uninvolving performance), who emerged from decades in prison bent not on revenge against the whites who oppressed him but instead seeking unity in this post-apartheid South Africa. Finding resistance from both sides of the racial divide, the saintly leader decides to use the sport of rugby as Ground Zero for solidarity, working with the captain (a functional Matt Damon) of the country's mostly white team to build national pride by taking them all the way to the 1995 World Cup Championship game.
The first half of Invictus is the superior portion, since Mandela is front and center for most of the running time: The politics may be spotty and the Obama comparisons may or may not be intentional ("One day on the job and they're already attacking him!" bellows one supporter), but at least some human dynamics are at play. Unfortunately, the second part devolves into a typical sports drama focusing on an underdog team battling its way through incredible odds, and this narrative direction forces Mandela to remain on the sidelines of the movie itself. Relegated to the role of cheerleader - and afforded only an occasional camera shot showing him beaming with pleasure - Nelson Mandela may have won an election but here suffers a defeat at the hands of formula filmmaking.