Following the ice-cold release of Home on the Range in the spring of 2004, Walt Disney Feature Animation set itself to the important task of becoming a clone of the far more financially successful DreamWorks Animation; 2005's Chicken Little was a CGI feature with all the appeal of slamming your hand in a car door, but it sure did have the right blend of zany pop culture references and famous voices, so that even if it lost money, it lost money for all the right reasons - and if there's one thing we all know about Hollywood executives, it's that they'd rather lose a lot of money by following all the rules than lose a little money on something innovative. The contemptible thing is that Chicken Little didn't lose money, not once foreign box-office was taken into account; and while its domestic $135 million didn't push it in profit territory, it did make it the third-highest grossing Disney cartoon of the '00s (just missing Dinosaur by $2 million). And you know that that means: more of the same! Cue Meet the Robinsons, which was tagged to be Disney's first movie to use the swanky new Real-D technology upon its debut. Story? Who cares? We have 3-D!

It was, I am quite certain not by accident, in 2005 that Roy E. Disney finally managed to whip up enough support among his fellow shareholder to have Michael Eisner stripped of his chairmanship on the Walt Disney Company board of directors. This led in surprisingly short order to Eisner's self-enforced retirement as chief executive officer; and thus the man who had overseen the rise of Disney's fortunes from the ashes and its return to a hideous downward spiral, the man who let personal hatred drive a savvy executive like Jeffrey Katzenberg howling into the wilderness - most damningly, the man who in '04 and '05 actually thought it might be in Disney's best interest to let Pixar Animation Studios cut ties with its former distributor, despite the demonstrable fact that Pixar's films were by far the most profitable and critically-acclaimed cinematic objects to have anything to do with Disney's bottom line - thus he was exorcised from the company that he had saved from extinction, in happier days.

Eisner was replaced as CEO by Bob Iger, who had been Disney's president since 2000. Iger was a more clever man than his predecessor in one incredibly important respect: he could look at the Disney film division, and then back at Pixar, and tell which of the two was making better movies. Thus he initiated one of the most important movie studio business deals of the modern age, by which Pixar was purchased outright by the Walt Disney Company; and as part of this deal, Iger appointed John Lasseter to the role of chief creative officer for both Walt Disney Feature Animation and Pixar Animation Studios, as well as creative advisor to Disney Imagineering, the division responsible for designing and implementing new theme park attractions. The first film entirely produced by WDFA in the Lasseter years was Bolt, and no better argument that we could all sit back and breathe easier could be imagined: it's no masterpiece, but it's a lot better than Chicken Little or Meet the Robinsons, and it's clearly the mark of a company that had been gripped by a firm new guiding hand that cared about story and character more than about competing with the Shrek franchise.

In one of those ironic twists of fate that sometimes happen, while Lasseter and his tiny empire of Pixar were giving serious though to abandoning Disney - a partnership more to the benefit of the distributor than the studio - he hit upon the idea of finding a way to employ all those Disney animators who'd been cut adrift when their company killed traditional animation: since everyone at Pixar liked 2-D animation, why shouldn't Pixar open a 2-D branch? This was, as far as I know, never more than a rumor and a notion, for once Lasseter became dictator over both studios, it became a lot less important for Pixar to rescue traditional animation: he could just have the Disney Studios re-opened at his very whim (with Roy and the board's approval - like Roy was going to shoot down a return to 2-D at Disney). So it is that the single man most responsible for the dominance of computer-animated features in the years since 1995 became the greatest of all champions for the resurrection of traditional hand-drawn animation, announcing in 2006 that, contrary to what you may have heard, Disney was not out of the 2-D business, and that they were going to come roaring back in 2009 with a movie that would be a return to core values: a fairy tale, a love story, a musical.

And so, after 72 years of history, here we are at the 49th and newest entry in the Disney animated features canon, The Princess and the Frog: directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the wonder boys who saved Disney animation once before with a fairy tale princess musical 20 years ago, The Little Mermaid. Who can say in the first flush of enthusiasm for a brand new movie whether we are witnessing the start of a new Disney Renaissance - whether The Princess and the Frog is the equal to The Little Mermaid, or the directors' other films, Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet - alright, so I don't need to wait and ponder and let things simmer to know that it's a sight better than Treasure Planet. Really, at this moment, I just want to be happy that it really actually exists: that for once, the forces of good actually won out, and for good or ill, for just now or forever, hand-drawn animation is back in American theaters, one of the most time-intensive and lovingly hand-crafted forms of cinema that ever was.

There's a lot of firstiness kicking around in The Princess and the Frog, but I expect most people would agree that the most prominent and probably the most important is that it's the first of Disney's princess films - indeed, the first Disney animated feature, period - with an African-American protagonist. Two things I believe can be absolutely stated about this development: the (white) executives, (white) directors, (mostly white, I'd wager) storymen really thought that they were doing something really swell and progressive here, and this was a decision at least partially driven by marketing concerns, for there was no black princess to hawk at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques.

Given Disney's inglorious track record on self-conscious political correctness (oh, Pocahontas) a lot of people were justly concerned about the delicacy with which the studio would handle this brave new world. When it was announced that the heroine was Maddie, a rich white girl's maid, there was no end of hell raised: "Maddie" is much to close to "Mammy", and a maid is such a hugely problematic representation... So she was renamed Tiana, and made a waitress with aspirations to opening her own restaurant. Setting aside my own feeling that being a waitress isn't a particularly more advanced job than being a maid, I don't actually know whether the "aspiring restaurateur" bit was added in at that point or not; but it's such an important element in the final form of the story that I really can't imagine that it was changed essentially on the fly.

Here is what I, in my white maleness, know to a certainty: it's not fair to demand that one character fix all the flaws in the studios's history of shoddy race representations. Much more important that The Princess and the Frog should present a reasonably nuanced and sensitive depiction of the African-American community in which the story takes place, and this is something that I think it does - once again, in my white maleness. The film takes place in New Orleans in the 1920s, which brings up its own series of issues, for as you are likely aware, there's a certain crisis that hit that city in 2005, before the new Disney feature was put into production, and this crisis is particularly noteworthy for the effect it had on the local African-American population; there was if I am not mistaken a rapper who indicated that the government's response to this crisis demonstrated that the President of the United States had an insufficient level of affection for this particular community.

It is primarily a matter of taste, whether or not Disney should have built a story around New Orleans so hard on the heels of Katrina; my thought is that it works. The Princess and the Frog is clearly a fairy tale and a fantasy before it is anything else, but it is also a tribute to the culture of New Orleans: its music and its cuisine come in for particularly effusive praise throughout the movie. And I think that this is a well-intentioned goal that is mostly met with success: the film may not address the current facts about New Orleans, but it is a tribute to that city's indomitable spirit and the durability of its essential nature. It is post-Katrina in that it suggests that there is a core to New Orleans that cannot be killed or drowned in floodwaters; maybe not the most politically active story imaginable, but a meaningful and sincere depiction anyway.

I also must confess myself impressed that, without ever stomping its feet and saying, "see - this is the injustice of the system!", the movie very clearly and silently demonstrates how altogether different being a poor black person is from being a rich white person. In its opening scenes, the film presents two little girls, one from each of those socio-economic-racial groups, listening in rapture as Tiana's mother reads the story of "The Frog Prince". Then Tiana and her mom pack up (her mother, we find, is a seamstress, making dresses for the little white girl, Charlotte), and they go home: in one single dissolve, we move from the rich manors of the wealthy to the scraggly shacks of the poor African-American community. No-one could ever miss the import of this transition, and the fact that the filmmakers do not insist on it is frankly refreshing, in light of the Very Special Lessons of a movie like Pocahontas. The closest that the film ever comes to vocalising its social message is when Tiana, all grown up, is told by a realtor that a woman "of her background" ought not run a restaurant. I think - and I'm still white and a male, just we're all clear - that for The Princess and the Frog to merely present the facts of race and class in New Orleans in the 1920s, although in a very G-rated fashion, is the only way that it can still work as a drama; message pictures tend to make for bad movies. The movie could be more aggressive, but I think that it should not, and the very least I am willing to say about its treatment of race is that there aren't any tremendously outrageous African-American stereotypes save one, and her personality is dictated by the needs of comic relief rather than anything else.

All this talk of race obscures one rather fantastic truth: Tiana is an inordinately progressive depiction of female empowerment for a Disney princess. Her goal is not to find and nab a prince, and the woman who does make that her goal - Charlotte, also grown up - is ridiculed, gently, for doing so. Tiana wants to open a restaurant, having been given the cooking bug by her father, and that drives all her actions in the rest of the movie; sure, she falls in love, because that is a generic convention, but she absolutely does not sacrifice her ultimate goal for her man (as we could argue that the other major progressive Disney heroine does, Beauty and the Beast's Belle), but forces him to help her in realising her dreams. It's a bit miserable that in 2009, this should count as noteworthy, but Disney animation is ever conservative in its gender representations.

I'm going to call that my due diligence on representational issues, because that's definitely not what I'd like to talk about. Here's the thing: I was never, ever going to dislike The Princess and the Frog, just by dint of it being a new traditionally animated Disney film; but I am thrilled and relieved that it turned out as well as it did. Like I said, it's not the second coming of The Little Mermaid, but it is nevertheless an engaging story told with brio and full of enjoyable, well-crafted characters; its musical numbers are entertaining altogether; it has a surprising lack of awful comic relief; it is beautifully animated. It pays tribute to many great moments in Disney's past while breaking away from some of the most rock-ribbed traditions of that past; in short, it is a perfectly satisfying entry in the long history of Disney feature animation, one that will in due course join the ranks of the middle-tier classics if not the legends.

The story revolves around the arrival of Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), of the indefinitely-located kingdom of Maldonia, to New Orleans on the eve of Mardi Gras. His presence is particularly noted by Charlotte La Bouff (Jennifer Cody), the daughter of "Big Daddy" La Bouff (John Goodman), the richest man in New Orleans. She wants to marry the prince and become a princess; he wants to marry her and regain the fortune that he lost when his parents, disgusted by his horndog ways, cut him off without a cent. And somewhere in the alleys of the city, the voodoo man Dr. Facilier (Keith David) wants to use the prince as a puppet in his scheme to take over New Orleans for his own nasty purposes. So he suckers the young man and his valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) into his shop, turning Naveen into a frog and Lawrence into Naveen's double.

That night, at a masquerade, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is serving food, having been paid an impossible sum by her friend Charlotte to make sure that Naveen is instantly seduced by the quality of New Orleans cuisine; and when events force her to change into one of Charlotte's most sparkly party dresses, she has the odd lock to meet Naveen in his frog form. He mistakes her for a princess and convinces her to kiss him - but it turns out that when a fake princess kisses a frog prince, she turns into a frog herself. Thus it is that Naveen and Tiana flee Dr. Facilier for the swamp, where a trumpet-playing gator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a Cajun firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings) help them find the ancient blind voodoo lady Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), who might be able to change them back. The two frogs fall in love, obviously, because this is that kind of film.

There's not much here that is going to rock your world; but could we not argue that there is just as much appeal in seeing a well-worn tale told with great skill as there is in seeing a brand-new story full of invention and creativity; and The Princess and the Frog is nothing if not told skillfully. For a start, it has an unusually solid cast of characters: typically in a Disney film, at least one figure will be a clunker, but there's none of that here, really; Ray is a bit tiresome at first, but he grows on you. And Mama Odie is enough of a crazy voodoo witch pastiche that I think I'm glad she has such limited screentime. But the principals are all pretty excellent: Tiana has more drive and personality than most Disney heroines, and Naveen, shockingly, actually has a personality to speak of; Disney princes are noted above all for being blocks of wood, but he actually has a past and an attitude, and when you really take a good look at the story, he goes through much more of a transformative arc than Tiana does.

Dr. Facilier, meanwhile, is a great villain: David's vocal performance is the best in the movie, silky and wicked, and the very concept of the character is delightful: his shadow is an animate, sentient object that can interact with other shadows, thus affecting those casting them. It's something we've seen before; but Facilier has a distinct X-factor, a creepiness that pushes right up to the edge of the G-rating, and he's designed with a really fantastic color palette of purples and blacks (the natural colors of a Disney villain) and a lankiness that recalls a great villain like Jafar (indeed, so much of a debt does he owe to that character that I was suprised to see that he was animated by Bruce W. Smith, the only African-American in Disney's stable of A-list animators, and not by Andreas Deja - Deja got Mama Odie instead, who is a change for that animator, but one he clearly enjoys: she's so tiny and squishy!).

Naturally enough, the animators as a whole put in some tremendous work: for after all, this was their big coming-home party. Who wouldn't be enthusiastic. So we have Mark Henn on Tiana (of course), in both her human and frog state, and thus she is guaranteed visual continuity with most of the other Disney women of the last 20 years, along with Henn's customary skill for delicacy of expression and gesture; Randy Haycock, who kept up with the animation department during the CGI years after supervising Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire, among others, is responsible for Prince Naveen, and let me not mince words: as a human, he's not terribly interesting to look at. But as a frog, he is quite spectacular, with the most devilish shit-eating grin you've ever seen on a cartoon amphibian. Plenty of other prominent names are found here or there, but I specifically want to mention Eric Goldberg, who supervises Louis, and does a fine job of making the fat, enthusiastic gator seem appealing and warm, but that's not why I named him.

In addition to his character, Goldberg directs a fantasy sequence, set to the song "Almost There", in which Tiana fantasises about what her restaurant will be like, and it is a flat-out masterpiece of the art form - it is what I wanted from Goldberg's "Rhapsody in Blue" sequence in Fantasia 2000, but even better. Designed according to the bold colors and wavy lines of Art Deco-influenced caricature, it's the most innovative and original-looking sequence in the movie, the point where I stopped worrying about the film and just settled in comfortably to enjoy it - nothing with that sequence in it was going to be a failure. Admittedly, this kind of formally aggressive animation, with a color palette of maybe ten shades, looking like a really high-class version of the construction paper animation style of South Park, is not to everyone's taste. And that's really not my problem.

"Almost There" does point out something else about the movie: it is chockablock full of big production numbers. I'm half-tempted to say that every song gets a big choreographed song and dance, but it's not true; still, The Princess and the Frog probably has more such numbers than any other Disney film. And that's why I want to cry that the songs aren't better - that, and my love for Randy Newman knows absolutely no bounds.

Oh, it's not that the songs aren't great in the film: they very much are. But compared to your "Kiss the Girl", your "Be Our Guest", they just don't have that much vitality as songs that you'd want to listen to on your iPod. Take Facilier's big statement of intent number, "Friends on the Other Side". It works outstandingly well in the context of the movie: a roaring, dramatic number that gives us an instant idea of just how much this guy is bad news, like "Poor Unfortunate Souls" in The Little Mermaid. Great moment - sounds awesome, looks beautiful. And by the time the end credits were rolling, I couldn't have hummed one bar of the song if you put a gun to my head. That's less the case for everything else in the movie, but outside of maybe "Dig a Little Deeper", Mama Odie's gospel number, and the tremendously Newman-esque "Down in New Orleans", the jazzy number that opens and closes the movie, none of these are toe-tappers.

Let me just hop over to one last thing, because I can't come up with a good seque: the animation is dumbfoundingly beautiful. The Princess and the Frog is the first hand-drawn Disney feature to use software developed by Toon Boom - the first time in a long while that Disney is using technology not programmed in-house - to replace CAPS. I'm not honestly 100% certain that I know what Toon Boom does, in a technical sense, although I know that it allows the artists to play with color much more readily than ever before, and guess what that means: characters are lit by all sorts of different sources, from oil lamps to the moon to a firefly's bum, and they always look different, and it's awesome. Let me put it this way: if you, like me, have a certain infatuation with lighting effects in animation, then you, like me, are going to want to make out with The Princess and the Frog.

Part of Toon Boom (I think - like I said, I'm still fuzzy on the details) is the possibility to create animation entirely on the computer, without even the need to scan in hand-made drawings: animators can use Wacom tablets in their drafting. That didn't happen on The Princess and the Frog (though it did in the 2007 Goofy short How to Hook Up Your Home Theater), not for the character animation, anyway: but the backgrounds in this movie are completely paperless, a first for a traditionally animated Disney feature. And you know, at this rate, "traditionally-animated" isn't going to be the right phrase anymore. There has to be something that means the opposite of "fully-rendered", but I sure don't know what it is. Anyway, I bring the backgrounds up simply to note that you'd never be able to tell: they have the same detail as ever, but are infinitely easier to create and manipulate. What a new world we find ourselves in, we animation buffs!

And there you have it: that's what I love about The Princess and the Frog - and make no mistake, I love it. I shouldn't, but I do. It's a movie for people exactly like me: Disneyphiles from way back who love cel animation for its texture and love the CAPS films for their shading and depth, and I'll find a new reason to love the Toon Boom films, I'm sure. It's all ultimately the same: there's a warmth and richness to this style that is more vivid than live-action could possibly manage, and more appealing and soothing to behold than even the finest CGI. It is the cinema of illustrated storybooks and absurd physics, fantasies as soft and delicate as Snow White or as hectic and graphic as Daffy Duck. There is nothing quite like 2-D animation; and Disney 2-D animation has a particular richness all on its own that is neither better nor worse than, say, the films of Miyazaki or the cartoons of Adult Swim - but I've missed it so. My God, I didn't realise how much I'd missed it.

Say whatever else you will, they get it, the filmmakers. There's a lot of history to pay tribute to, and they take that duty seriously. The Princess and the Frog is filled with little visual touches that recall older Disney films (there's a dance that I think might reuse some frames from Sleeping Beauty), but at the same time it isn't hidebound: just two points from the story, there's a character who we like who dies - who actually dies, and I almost couldn't believe it that this character didn't pop up all well and healthy, but the resolution to that death is exquisite and touching. There's also the tiny matter of the film's theme, which we might define as "When you wish upon a star, your dreams come true - as long as you put in plenty of work to help the star do its job".

Ay me, this film: it comes out of one of the longest, most difficult and richest traditions in American cinema, and it suggests that despite all the proclamations over the years that this time, Disney animation is really dead, there's a whole lot of spark left in the old carcass. To hell with anyone who thinks that Disney is just playing the same old tricks because they know they can make money that way - well, why shouldn't they be able to make money by making things that are beautiful? And why should they have to reinvent the wheel? The Disney formula might not have made that many masterpieces over the years - but it's made even fewer genuine failures, and if the worst that can happen is that every two years, I'm going to enjoy a cartoon as much as I enjoyed The Princess and the Frog, well, they can't all be Pixar movies.

There is a moment near the end when the film has the briefest of in-jokes, one that hardly anybody who isn't a complete psycho for Disney films will get. It's a reference to the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a 1950s Dixieland jazz band made up of a handful of Disney animators. I kind of started crying when that joke popped up. Because it proved that somewhere, someone is still keeping the faith alive: that for all that they're hokey and musty and have weird gender issues, the old Disney classics still work; it's like having a cup of tea and watching a snowstorm outside the window, sometimes you just want to have something comfortable and soft and inviting. That's Disney animation for me. And The Princess and the Frog, with its sometime imperfections and too-familiar story and silly characters, it's going to be one of the ones I come back to. Sometimes you can just tell when you meet an old friend for the first time.

I'll catch you down in New Orleans.