American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
The opening scenes of Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" are like a cool shower after a long and sweaty day. This is what classic animation once was like! No 3-D! No glasses! No extra ticket charge! No frantic frenzies of meaningless action! And . . . good gravy! A story! Characters! A plot! It's set in a particular time and place! And it uses (calm me down here) lovingly hand-drawn animation that proceeds at a human pace, instead of racing with odd smoothness. I'm just gonna stand here and let it pour over me.
The movie, which is sweet and entertaining, doesn't quite live up to those opening scenes. But it's a demonstration that the Walt Disney Studio still shelters animators who know how to make a movie like that, in an age when too many animated films are like fast food after memories of mom's pot roast. My guess is that afterward the poor kids won't feel quite so battered by input overload. The film dances on the screen and doesn't come into the audience and shake you to make you like it.
The story is set mostly in an African-American community in New Orleans, America's most piquant city, before and after World War I. We meet a young girl named Tiana, who is cherished by her mother Eudora (voice of Oprah Winfrey) and father James (Terrence Howard). Her mom is a seamstress, her dad a hard-working restaurant owner who stirs up a mighty gumbo. He goes off to the Army and doesn't return. For Tiana as an adult (Anika Noni Rose) life is a struggle, but she holds fast to her dream of opening a restaurant and serving up her dad's gumbo (with just a soupcon more red sauce).
This is all shown in flowing, atmospheric animation and acted with fetching voices, but the songs by Randy Newman are -- I dunno, do you think he's getting sort of Randy Newmaned out? And the absence of a couple of terrific musical numbers is noticeable, I think, although younger viewers will probably be drawn into the story.