Valerie Ross experienced a sea of emotions during a recent screening of “The Princess and The Frog,” Disney’s new animated film that features, for the first time, an African-American girl as the lead character.
The film, which opens Dec. 11, stars Tiana, whose voice is Anika Noni Rose, and a frog, Prince Naveen, who wants to be human again. It is set in 1920s New Orleans.
Ross says she and her 2-year-old daughter, Nina, enjoyed the film which, in classic Disney fashion, mixes themes of good, evil and abiding love. So taken was Nina with the movie that she scrambled from her seat to join the characters onscreen, Ross recalls.
Ross’ own feelings, while more subdued, were still strong.
“I cried because of the story itself and the characters that represent my culture, my ancestors,” she said. “It gives them respect.”
Yet Ross, who lives in Manhattan, harbors sadness that it took the film’s creators so long to make a film that shows the beauty and creativity that springs from black culture, particularly in New Orleans where much of her family lives.
“I think, historically, that the only thing people think about (when black characters appear in animated films) is slavery and the ills of that,” Ross said. She cited films like “Song of The South,” that relate folk tales to the adventures of Brer Rabbit, an animal trickster said to have originated during slavery and in Africa.
Ross isn’t alone in voicing mixed feelings about the film. Some observers have criticized the lack of a clear racial identity for the frog prince, while others point to Tiana’s original name, Maddy, and her initial role as a maid which was later changed to chef.
Others believe that Disney, which announced plans to make the film in 2006, had long wanted to do so, but feared a possible backlash.
“I feel like it’s taken so long because someone in leadership didn’t want to make the call,” says A’Kia Warrior, a member of the Metro Atlanta and South Fulton chapters of Mocha Moms Inc. The organization, a national support organization for mothers of color who do not work full time outside the home, has teamed up with Disney to promote the film through a series of “Pink Carpet Premieres” at local theaters in various cities.
“I feel as though someone probably had this idea for a while now, but no one wanted to press the “Go” button making it happen,” Warrior continues. “It seems as though Disney might have felt as though they would have gotten a negative response,” from non-African-Americans.
Kuae Kelch Maddox, Mocha Moms’ director of media and publicity, acknowledges an awareness of the film’s negative criticism. Some of her friends in New Orleans “have issues with the movie’s villain who practices voodoo,” she says.
Yet Maddox, like many excited moms of all colors throughout the country, prefers to focus on the positive.
“To a large extent, we’re kind of over-analyzing all sorts of things,” she says. “Disney has the whole princess genre down and this story falls along those lines – dreams, hopes, desires, villains and happily ever after wrapped up in culture and a lot of flavor.”
For Maddox and other Mocha Moms, the film shows that, with hard work and determination, “you can be anything you want.”
“My 6-year-old daughter could probably care less,” about the color of the prince and other issues being raised, Maddox says.
Ross agrees, noting that although some harsh realities preceded a black princess’s ascension to the animated big screen, the movie is still fantasy, something that all children need to help instill creativity as they develop.
“My daughter is 2-years-old and she gets it. Maybe little girls with blonde hair and blue eyes and all the other little princes of different colors will feel the same.”