Disney marked their return to princess territory with this 2009 film, after taking a ten-year break from all things girly (Mulan is considered their last “princess” movie in spite of the fact Mulan isn’t descended from royalty or becomes royal by story’s end). The Princess and the Frog was a controversial leap, with Disney finally crafting an African-American princess. After numerous story delays, the movie was a moderate success and it’s “meh” overall. The plotting is the problem as Disney tries to be as delicate as possible with political correctness to the film’s detriment. In 1920s New Orleans, a young woman named Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni-Rose) dreams of opening her own restaurant. Unfortunately, she’s strapped for funds and, despite all her hard work, appears to be heading for failure. On a whim, she kisses a nearby frog and becomes one herself! It turns out the frog she kissed is really Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a debt-ridden prince whose made a deal with the Shadow Man (voiced by Keith David) to restore his wealth. As Tiana and Naveen navigate their way through the harsh New Orleans swamp in the hopes of being turned back into humans, they start to bond and discover their dreams might be the same.
It’s been awhile since I’ve recounted a tale from “Stories of Disney’s Difficult Production History,” so here goes. The Princess and the Frog originally started out as The Frog Princess, a more straightforward tale of a woman turned into a frog. Right away cries of protest were heard from African-American groups who felt the girl’s original name, Maddy, drew connotations to the derogatory “mammy,” which were aided by Maddy being a chambermaid; French critics also protested the title, which they felt slighted French people (REALLY?). Several other criticisms were raised, ranging from the ethnicity of the Prince, the introduction of the Shadow Man as a voodoo witch doctor, all the way to the belief the movie was mocking victims of Hurricane Katrina. Disney did their best to please everyone and settled on changing the female character – now named Tiana – into the daughter of poor parents (no royalty) with dreams of opening a restaurant; the voodoo witch doctor stayed, and Prince Naveen became the prince of some unknown Indian country.
What was ignored was Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation with this feature, “retiring” after Home on the Range. Brief snippets of 2D animation were seen in 2006’s Enchanted, but Disney wanted to make one final go of the format to please fans, and hopefully draw away criticisms. The movie was a success, and proved the princess model was alive and well, but hand-drawn animation didn’t receive the resurgence expected and Princess and the Frog is, as of right now, the last hand-drawn animated Disney feature.
With all that out of the way, Disney was always going to have issues with this story and its issues of race. The 1920s setting prevents the audience from escaping what was going on with African-American people, especially in the south, at the time. The Harlem Renaissance was thriving, and the movie plays on that with the jazz-infused score and Art Deco appearance, but make no mistake, African-Americans were still suffering wide-scale poverty and racism, especially in the South. It’s explained in the opening sequence Tiana’s mother (voiced by Oprah Winfrey who was a technical consultant
and voice of good will) is a dressmaker to the wealthy ‘Big Daddy’ La Bouff (voiced by John Goodman) and his daughter Charlotte (voiced by Jennifer Cody). ‘Big Daddy’ is dressed like Colonel Sanders which doesn’t shun connections to wealthy plantation owners; the La Bouff mansion is animated in the style of a plantation. The next scene cuts to the smaller houses of the African-Americans whose only happiness is coming together for food. From there, you’ll find no mention of racism. Tiana is treated like everyone else, except for the fact she works hard and can’t pay for the building she wants. As with Pocahontas, Disney is at a crossroads. No one wants to acknowledge our horrific failure as a country with regards to racism and slavery, particularly to young children. But in removing all necessary context, the story slaps a happy shine on the whole event, almost retroactively saying the event never happened. It doesn’t help that Tiana has no friends in her ethnicity – the other African-Americans she meets find her boring – and her only friend is the spoiled Southern belle, Charlotte.
Let’s talk about Charlotte for a second; a character who is either a meta poke at Disney, or just a really stereotypical depiction of what the princess model has become. Charlotte is a fun Southern Marilyn Monroe, lovingly voiced by Jennifer Cody; she’s sweet, loud, and desperate to marry a prince. The issue lies in Charlotte being a vapid, selfish, shallow princess. She wishes on stars and does everything a good princess is supposed to do. By the end, she does what’s right for her friend, Tiana, but audiences still connect with her character’s one dream in the entire movie: TO BE A PRINCESS! I’m all for believing in the princess thing when you’re little, but to create a character over 18 whose only goal in life is to marry royalty, what are you saying to little girls? Tiana on the other hand, isn’t much better, despite her goal of being a businesswoman. Keep in mind, her business idea is inspired by her father, and she continually calls it “his dream.” In the end, the dream is achieved in conjunction with her marriage to Prince Naveen.
I will say, one should applaud Disney for even creating a character with an aspiration unconnected to marriage. Tiana is probably the first princess to have some type of achievable goal, and is probably the last one mired in any sort of realism. Princess Merida of Brave is a deeper character, but her issues are applicable to the princess model. I also appreciated having two female characters be friends, regardless of race. I gripe about Tiana not having any friends of her own ethnicity, but we should recognize the themes of tolerance and friendship Disney creates in Charlotte and Tiana; it’s hard enough to see two women be friends in this day and age, let alone friends of different races. Some of this universality is negated by Prince Naveen, the ruler of some unknown, but vaguely Eastern country. It’s hard to fathom his swarthy appearance would make him a hit with white women, especially considering miscegenation laws were alive and well in this part of the country.
But how’s the actual movie, you ask? It’s okay, nothing more or less. The problem is the frog himself. Once the frog is introduced, and Tiana is also turned into a frog, the movie becomes a boring adventure story of two humans turned into animals with not one, but several separate subplots on top of the main one: Not only do you follow Naveen and Tiana, but you also have Naveen being a spoiled douchebag; an alligator (voiced by Michael-Leon Wooley) who wants to be a human and play jazz like Louis Armstrong; a Cajun firefly (voiced by Jim Cummings) in love with the planet Venus; Charlotte wanting to marry the Prince Naveen imposter, who happens to be the real Naveen’s valet who is also in-debted to the Shadow Man. Yes, all these stories, in two separate locales, all competing for space. It’s easy to understand why there are 3 screenwriters, 5 story-by credits, and 5 additional story material credits on this puppy! The script doesn’t believe in Tiana’s story, nor does it believe in the titled story, so it adds in all these colorful characters for you to divide your time when it only muddies the swamp.
The animation of the actual swamp is beautiful, although Disney’s never had a problem with nighttime imagery or forest settings. The costuming on the characters and the Art Deco pieces are also rendered in an appropriate manner. I also adore Keith David as the Shadow Man aka Dr. Facilier. David is another frightening villain with a distinctive voice, but his motivations are strictly monetary which has never a good villain made. His song, “Friends on the Other Side” is the only memorable piece on the soundtrack. Sorry, but Randy Newman’s songs have always sounded hokey and repetitious; none more so than in this soundtrack where single lines are repeated ad nauseum (“Almost There” and “Ma Belle Evangeline” were the worst offenders).
The Princess and the Frog is a commendable attempt at racial tolerance, as well as a worthy jolt to the princess and hand-drawn animation process. The relationship between Tiana and Charlotte is ground-breaking for Disney, even if it’s suffocated under the dogpile of plots the movie interjects. Keith David is a great villain, but much like villains of Disney movie past, he lacks a worthy motivation and the screentime to have an impact. The Princess and the Frog is better on a second go-round, but is evidence of Disney finding its sea legs.
NEXT WEEK: Disney goes back to old-school fairy tales with Tangled
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.