In a culture where advertising hype is more ubiquitous—seemingly more “real”—than the movies themselves, The Princess and the Frog’s feels like the ultimate betrayal: It’s classic bait-and-switch.Hyped as offering the Walt Disney Corporation’s first African-American animated heroine, The Princess and the Frog actually refrains from expanding our social imagination. Based on the venerable The Frog Prince, it uses that fairy tale’s moral about seeking inner value and personal worth to exploit “post-racial” complaisance.
- “Are you payin’ me?” said the Princess to the Frog.
Set in 1920s New Orleans (slick evocation of Hurricane Katrina guilt), The Princess and the Frog pairs a working-class black girl, Tiana, and upper-class white girl, Lottie—both kids indoctrinated into romantic fantasy (read to by Oprah Winfrey’s voice), yet living on separate social paths. Tiana works toward her late father’s dream of owning a restaurant while Lottie’s rich dad coddles her. Excited by the myth that kissing a frog will win them happiness, Tiana is also taught, “You got to help it along with hard work of your own.”
There’s no mention of Jim Crow (America’s separate but unequal social practice—in effect even when Disneyland first opened); instead, this “family film” sanitizes history, treating Louisiana’s ethnic complexity like a Mardi Gras theme park. As young women, Tiana and Lottie compete for the visiting Prince Naveen of Maldonia who, cursed by local hoodoo man Dr. Facilier, is turned into a frog. When Naveen kisses Tiana, she is also transformed into a Disney animal character—and stays that way for 80 percent of the movie.
This narrative allows Disney to maintain the primacy of its classic white fantasy heroines: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid and the recently restored (remastered) Snow White. Tiana isn’t truly allowed into Disney’s canon. Because this animated heroine is a frog, the movie does not confer a modicum of idealized beauty or grace on a black girl’s countenance. She’s primarily shown as different, alien, from another-species. Ethnicity becomes a source for novelty musical sequences—ersatz Jazz and Zydeco and glittery pastel Josephine Baker abstractions for the “I’m Almost There” number that seem prefabricated for eventual transferal as
Tiana’s green frog status shows less acceptance, less “post-racial” sophistication, than the animated heroines of Mulan and Pocahontas. This is how Disney betrays its own promise; the studio has recently demonstrated admirable corporate responsibility in the way lessons about race, gender and class parity were seamlessly staged in Disney Channel products like the very good but underrated High School Musical, Jump In and Freestyle. These innocent utopias used charming comedy and touching drama to impart effectively progressive social lessons.
The Princess and the Frog doesn’t take those risks. Its hypocrisy is hidden inside a disingenuous promotional campaign that suggests change has come to Disney’s animated white house. Fact is, a treacherous reproof of classic civil rights values is apparent in the film’s messages: 1) The customary bootstrap bromides favoring struggle over Dr. Martin Luther King-like dreaming; the evil Dr. Facilier (as in facile) isn’t a hardworker, he flaunts a business card motto “Dreams Made Real.” 2) Facilier is characterized as threateningly effete like Scar in The Lion King. 3) Prince Naveen is not an African dignitary but—to paraphrase Berlusconi on Obama—a vaguely tanned foreigner. He’s drawn exactly like the bland WASP heroes of earlier Disney cartoons—and still fetishizing royalty.
Cartoons for children also subtly instruct adults—or at least reveal buried fears. The subplot where Naveen’s resentful assistant conspires with Dr. Facilier and assumes the Prince’s identity pokes fun at his physiognomy—big nose, ears and posterior that promote a basically racist distaste. This metamorphosis/punishment points to the film’s essential failure: Its envy-green heroine
prevents imagining or desiring blackness—except as victims or villains.
Tiana represents slight progress from the practice of imputing black-ethnic characteristics for secondary animated characters as with Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, the crab in The Little Mermaid or the lizard in Mulan. Yet, Tiana’s insipid frog exploits reveal no special subcultural intelligence or ingenuity such as the Joel Chandler Harris creatures in Disney’s fascinating, misunderstood and ready-for-revival Song of the South. Those creatures were historically, authentically,
enlighteningly black, but this disingenuous Princess is a toad.
The Princess and the Frog
Directed by Ron Clements & John Musker
Runtime: 97 min.
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