Disney’s latest animated feature “The Princess and the Frog” is a milestone of sorts, offering a return to the company’s decades long tradition of hand-drawn animation while also featuring the franchise’s first African-American animated princess, a young woman of modest means named Tiana.
The studio is essentially playing catch up to other parts of the media landscape and the world. A brown heroine or hero with a powerful myth could have been presented long ago considering the abundance of Diaspora stories in plain sight. So it’s with ambivalence and a sense of muted celebration that I say the kid-friendly film can be enjoyed for what it is – an entertaining, beautifully illustrated narrative with doses of brown nobility, ho-hum sentimentality, historical inaccuracy and some ideas that subvert the genre.
Tiana, voiced and fantastically sung by Dreamgirl Anika Noni Rose, is a workaholic waitress in what seems to be early 20th century New Orleans. Our heroine is saving dough so she can open up her own restaurant, following her father’s dreams. Her path ends up crossing with womanizer Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Bruno Campos), who’s been turned into a frog by the sorcerer Doctor Facilier (Keith David). Tiana kisses the amphibian in hopes of reversing the spell and thereby getting money from his inheritance for her eatery, but instead gets zapped into toad-ville as well since she wasn’t born into royalty. And the games begin.
Some of the common Disney cartoon tropes remain – singing animals, pristine parental figures, an effete male villain, blind magical thinking – even as the film plays with some common traditions. Tiana could care less about being completed by a man, and in fact needs to be reminded to make room for relaxation and romance. And there’s an interesting melding of traditions. In one scene, bayou priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) is backed by a gospel choir while singing, “you gotta dig a little deeper.” Christianity and voodoo are bedfellows here, and I suspect most moviegoers won’t bat an eye at the juxtaposition.
WATCH NIGHTLY NEWS’ REPORT ON DISNEY’S BLACK PRINCESS
As for race, however, there’s no direct acknowledgment of the dehumanizing prejudice people of African descent would’ve faced at the time. In this universe, Naveen and his brownness is seen as perfectly suitable husband material for spoiled blonde debutante Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) and her sweepingly friendly, open-minded Big Daddy (John Goodman).
White old-school Southerners get off easy for sure, yet this isn’t necessarily something to take personally; Disney has rarely been known to meaningfully tackle ugly issues in its animated films, and one would need to wish on many a star for an exception to be made in the name of skin color.
If there’s anything that warrants attention, it’s that other elephant in the room: class. The film has a paradoxical relationship to status, upholding the glory of royalty and riches for some even as certain characters illustrate the perils of being consumed by money. A sense of uneasiness creeps into some scenes when one sees how self-absorbed Charlotte and Big Daddy have been with their wealth as Tiana and her family work painstakingly hard to creep ahead.
Yet there’s hope in the love story. A step away from Cinderella traditions, this film has the privileged would-be monarch being transformed by his association with a commoner. He finds happiness in her world. They have their expected happily ever after, yet nonetheless, something different is being said to girls and boys of all ages and all colors.