For more than a decade now, animated films have been dominated by computer-generated images; but Disney takes a big step back with its new feature: a tune-filled fairy tale created by hand-drawn animation, in the style studio founder Walt Disney used to make. It also presents the first African-American princess in Disney history.
"The evening star is shining bright, so make a wish and hold on tight. There's magic in the air tonight …and anything can happen."
That wish upon a star brings unexpected adventure for Tiana, a hard-working young woman in 1920's New Orleans. By day she serves up her delicious "beignet" sweet fried dough in her boss's hash house; but by night she dreams of opening her own gourmet restaurant.
Tiana's road to her dream takes a strange turn, however, when a talking frog hops up and convinces her that if she kisses it he will become her handsome prince:
It seems a royal playboy visiting New Orleans wound up in the clutches of one of the Crescent City's shadowy street characters.
However, instead of her kiss breaking the spell, it transforms Tiana into a frog too and off the amphibian pair hops on an adventure into the bayou searching for a way to become human again.
Broadway stage star Anika Noni Rose is the voice of Tiana.
"This is something that I've always dreamed of doing. I didn't dream of being a princess. I could have been a dandelion and I would have been really happy. So this is like when your dreams take off and become bigger than what you had imagined. It's amazing," she says.
A devoted fan of the Disney animated musicals like "Snow White" and "Cinderella" when she was growing up, Rose is especially pleased that "The Princess and the Frog" brings back the tradition of those hand-drawn films.
"When you are watching a fairy tale you are not looking for reality. You are looking for softness and for an extension of your disbelief - something that takes you into your dreamland - and that's what hand-drawn does," she says.
"We wanted to make a Disney animated film: something that, on the one hand, feels like a very classic Disney animated film, yet is brand new," says executive producer John Lasseter, best known for his Pixar computer-animated hits like "Toy Story" and "Cars." However, he began his career in Disney animation and, when the studio purchased Pixar in 2006, Lasseter became Disney chief creative officer with a goal of reviving hand-drawn.
"When I was up at Pixar and all the studios down here (in Hollywood) decided that they were n-o-t going to do hand-drawn animation anymore it broke my heart because never in the history of cinema has a film been entertaining to an audience because of the technology; it's what you do with the technology. I really felt like they were blaming poor performance of their movies on (the fact) that it was hand-drawn as opposed to computer animation. So when the merger of Disney and Pixar happened and I returned to the Disney studios the very first decision we made was that we're going to bring back hand-drawn animation," he says.
"The Princess and the Frog" is also getting attention for elevating a black character to the "princess" role, joining a line that includes "Beauty and the Beast's "Belle," "The Little Mermaid" Ariel, "Cinderella" and, of course, "Snow White:"
"I do remember to myself wondering if there would ever be a 'Chocolate Brown' after seeing 'Snow White,'" says Rose.
Anika Noni Rose has given it a lot of thought and predicts a range of reactions to her Tiana.
"For my nephew, it will be the norm. He will think nothing of it. It will be his first princess, period. For my mother, it will be something she has been waiting for. For my grandmother, it will be something she thought never would have happened. Each person that sits in that theater will have a different journey that they are bringing to the story and it will make the story different for them. I think that's something really beautiful about what it is that's being made because Disney is Americana and we have simply opened a new chapter in Americana: something that has been here for a very long time, but hasn't necessarily been shared. In that respect it's just another step in the completion of the story of what America is in this fantasy world," she says.
"The Princess and the Frog" also features Keith David as voice of the villainous Dr. Facilier, Terrence Howard is Tiana's loving father with Oprah Winfrey as her mom; Bruno Campos does the charming Prince Naveen; and the characters include a trumpet-playing crocodile named Louis (that's Michael-Leon Wooley) and a love-struck Cajun firefly voiced by Jim Cummings. Disney animation veterans John Musker and Ron Clements directed the film; and the music is by Oscar-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning composer Randy Newman.