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Disney sticks to fairy tale formula in 'Princess and the Frog'

Special Photo. Anika Noni Rose voices Princess Tiana in "The Princess and the Frog."

Special Photo. Anika Noni Rose voices Princess Tiana in "The Princess and the Frog."

The Princess and the Frog (PG)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

If not for owning the distribution rights for Pixar Studios, Disney would now be just another player on the crowded animation field. With DreamWorks nestled behind the wheel, Columbia riding shotgun and a handful of others making a lot of noise in the back seat, the once mighty mouse is starting to sweat, and just the slightest whiff of desperation leaks through the frames of "The Princess and the Frog."

With a level of quality just a notch or two above Disney's strong-performing direct-to-video titles, "P&F" (based loosely on "The Frog Prince") is like so many other 2009 animated movies: It's too intense for most children and not quite gripping for discerning adults. It has also recently met with opposition from the very demographic it's trying so hard to please. Everything about it is a double-edged sword.

The movie is the first animated Disney theatrical release to feature a black princess as the lead character. Considering the studios' over-homogenized back catalog, that's a big step forward, although past Disney movies have featured lead female characters of color ("Pocahontas," "Mulan"). Although the character Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) starts and ends black, she's a green amphibian for about 80 percent of the movie.

A self-starter with a strong work ethic, Tiana wants nothing more than to open her own restaurant and realize the dream she shared with her late father who was killed in World War I. This message of empowerment is the best facet of the film, although it must operate with the context of a quasi-plantation mentality. Tiana's "best friend" is the spoiled white daughter of a Huey Long-inspired fat cat that both view her as low-paid hired help.

Even though it is set in early 20th century New Orleans, it's unlikely anyone won't at some point watch what's going on and think of Hurricane Katrina. The inclusion of a jazz/gospel soundtrack was a given, but calling on regular Disney composer Randy Newman was not the way to go. The music is perfunctory at best with only Dr. John's relatively gritty opening song leaving any kind of lasting impression.

Another slice of New Orleans' history (voodoo) is included, and while it adds depth to the narrative, it might not have been the best idea for a family entertainment vehicle such as this. The far safer of these two featured characters is a blind and toothless elderly black woman who lives in a swamp and practices "good magic."

Providing the evil counterpart to the swamp lady is Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a cross between the singer Prince and Scar from "The Lion King" who dresses like a pimp. David's booming baritone and the character's snake-like movements are more than convincing and make for an ideal antagonist, but every time Facilier appeared on screen at the preview screening, frightened tykes and their parents exited the theater.

Disney's tentativeness is most glaring with their choice of the male love interest. The Brazilian actor Bruno Campos provides the voice for Prince Naveen who hails from a fictional country that could either be Asian or Middle Eastern but is never made exactly clear. Based on the appearance of Naveen's late-in-arriving parents, he's not African.

This movie isn't terrible but certainly isn't something that would qualify as an immediate "must-see." It's mildly entertaining and has its fair share of comedic moments, yet paints itself into a tight corner from the start. It wants to be edgy and all-inclusive but takes few chances. In other words, it's a standard-issue animated Disney princess movie. (Disney)