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Before he was the best-known clergyman in America and a spiritual adviser to Presidents, Billy Graham was a young man struggling with doubt and searching for a way to be of service. This sensitive and respectful film about Billy Graham’s early years stars Armie Hammer as Graham.

I spoke to Hammer about the challenges of taking on the role of a man people know so well.

How did you come to this project?

One day my agent called and said, “I have your next movie. That’s all you need to know.” I fell madly in love with it, knew i had to do it. The next thing I knew, I was in Billy Graham world.

it was the approach i responded do. i knew who he was the way every one else on the planet knows, but this was the human, how he found his faith, how his faith was shaken, how the love of his life was given and almost taken away. We start at the beginning and end when Billy Graham the preacher eclipse Billy Graham the person.

What are the challenges and pitfalls of portraying a real person who has inspired so much respect and affection?

You want to be so careful and pay respect to the Grahams, make something they like and love, and give them the most honest and real portrayal so they can say, “I remember that, I said that.”

I studied his autobiography, Just As I Am. It was an amazing tool for me to use. I also used the internet where you can see private, personal videos that show how he was when he was not preaching. His preaching was his signature enthusiasm but I wanted to see what he was like when he was just talking, where you see his personality.

What made Graham so special?

It was definitely his blind faith — the fact that he whole-heartedly without question or doubt at all found his beliefs and did not waver. He was so human and could take the gospel and make it accessible. He would not say he was the smartest person in the world but he had the gift of faith. In this story, he and Templeton go through a crisis of faith but react differently.

His approachability and simplicity was what made him so good at communicating with people. He is the most honest and good human being that ever walked this planet. He never had a scandal because he did not have a scandalous bone in his body. He created the Modesto manifesto to make sure that he and his men could withstand temptation. He called them together and said, “Ministers are falling to the left and right. What we have to say is too important. Go to your room for an hour and think about what it is that is the cause of these ministers’ downfall.” They all had the same things on the list — sex, money, pride, lying. He said, “Here is what we will do. We will have an outside firm to do the money, none of us will ever be alone in a room with a woman, we will never lie about our numbers of followers or criticize others.” Those are the kinds of decisions that made him unique.

Disney has cooked up a yummy batch of gumbo with this blend of the past and present. “The Princess and the Frog” is a satisfying and thoroughly entertaining return to the hand-drawn animation that built the studio. Although it is set in 1920’s New Orleans, it has a modern twist with the studio’s first African-American “princess” — and this is not a heroine who warbles about waiting for the prince to come and rescue her. This is a working woman and the prize she has her eyes on is not some happily-ever-after fairy tale wedding. She wants to run her own business — a restaurant. Like Gepetto, she wishes on a star, but as her father advises her, “that old star can take you only part of the way. You have to help it out with hard work of your own.”

We first see Tiana as a little girl, playing with a good-hearted but spoiled little girl named Charlotte. They enjoy listening to Tiana’s mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey) read them the story about the princess who kissed a frog and turned him back into a prince. But Charlotte is wealthy and Eudora is employed by her father (John Goodman) as a seamstress. Tiana’s family may have modest means, but her parents love her dearly and she shares her father’s passion for cooking that signature New Orleans dish, gumbo.

When she grows up, Tiana (Aniki Noni Rose of “Dreamgirls” and “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency”) is working hard, determined to make her father’s dream of a restaurant come true. (It is implied that he was killed in World War I.) So she works two jobs while her friends tease her about not having any fun.

Meanwhile, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos of “Nip/Tuck”) arrives in town, hoping to marry a rich woman but much more interested in playing music and having fun. When he is turned into a frog by Voodoo villain Dr. Facilier (“Coraline’s Keith David), he must find a princess to break the spell. That does not include Tiana, even though she is dressed like a princess at Charlotte’s masquerade ball. He persuades her to kiss him by promising to give her the money she needs to get the building for the restaurant. Since she is not a princess, it goes wrong and she turns into a frog instead.

And that puts them on a journey through a swamp to find a way to become human again. At first the free-wheeling prince and the serious-minded would-be restaurateur have little in common. But soon, as they make new friends (a horn-blowing alligator named Lou and a brave firefly named Ray) and try to keep away from frog-hunters and other dangers, they discover that they get along. They inspire each other to be their best but they like each other for who they are. And that, it turns out, is the real magic.

There is some real Disney animation magic in the details of the settings, especially the jaunty New Orleans of the Roaring 20’s and a musical number in the swamp with fireflies that is heart-stoppingly lyrical. The lively score by Randy Newman pays tribute to the vitality of New Orleans influences, with some zydeco spiciness, but there is sweetness as well, especially when she sings about her dream for the restaurant and imagines what it will be like.

Because this is Disney’s first African-American princess, there has been some extra scrutiny and some extra sensitivity. Some have already been critical of the film because Tiana is not a “real” princess, because she spends a good bit of the story neither black nor white but green when she is a frog, and because her romantic interest is not African-American but from the fictional European country of Moldavia (Campos is from Brazil). There will also be criticism because of the voodoo (with some scary skeletal images) and SPOILER ALERT this is the first Disney film in my memory where one of the key sidekick characters is actually killed by the villain.

I like the fact that Tiana is not a “real” princess like Jasmine, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Ariel. Like Belle, she is non-royal, but romantically involved with a prince. More important, she is an independent, self-supporting, hard-working woman with ambition that goes beyond some sort of romantic rescue. The movie lightly touches on but does not ignore the racism of the era. I like the inter-racial romance (and note that the only other loving couple is Tiana’s parents, both African-American, voiced by Winfrey and Terrance Howard). Setting the story in New Orleans, an exceptionally diverse city, and in the 1920’s, an era of great creative vibrancy, was an especially clever idea. As for spending most of the movie as a frog; well Mulan spent most of her movie as a man. Transformation is at the heart of fairy tales. And in her human form, Tiana is as lovely as any Disney character in history, without being squeezed into a wasp-waist and harem pants like Jasmine. I have some smallish quibbles with the voodoo villain and some overly complicated plot twists, and a more medium-sized quibble with the death of a character. Though it is handled with some grace, it is still unnecessary and likely to upset some younger audience members.

But the movie is genuinely enchanting and the old-fashioned, hand-drawn, 2D animation has a timeless quality that makes us feel welcome. It turns out you don’t need CGI and 3D to feel that you can almost smell that spicy gumbo.

On March 12, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced recommendations in the National Broadband Plan to benefit children and their families and initiatives to foster the Commission’s Children’s Agenda for Digital Opportunity to help children and empower parents.
“Children are our most precious national resource,” said Chairman Genachowski at a policy speech at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “We must do everything we can to educate and prepare them to thrive in the 21st century, and keep them safe.” He promised programs to promote digital access, digital literacy, digital citizenship, and digital safety.
The National Broadband Plan will be sent to Congress this week.

Apparently, a new version of “Gilligan’s Island” is coming to the big screen. My regular readers already know the reason for my special attachment to the show. I’m a bit concerned as the writer is the same guy who gave us the horrible Wild Hogs, but I am intrigued by original producer Sherwood Schwartz’s suggested casting of Michael Cera as Gilligan and Beyonce as Ginger. Watch the original pilot for “Gilligan’s Island” on the Warner’s website.

The New York Times, People and Entertainment Weekly have their dream casts in the current issues.

What do you think? Will it be any good? Who will be in it?