The subtle lessons of breed in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”
As usual, Disney has been 50 years too late to update its sociopolitical worldviews.
Still, despite being late to the party, Disney Animation Studios has produced a film that addresses past and present racial issues in a way remarkably accessible to children. “The Princess and the Frog” (2009, Ron Clements & John Musker) tries to tell an essentially American fairy tale. It would have been totally presumptuous to turn an African tale into the “first black princess movie” on Disney programming, because no doubt the subtleties of those African fables would have been lost. This is first and foremost a boys’ movie and more so a “girls” movie, and I suppose that black girls in America (certainly the target audience for this movie) will respond more effectively to a story about a young black American than a distant tale from another continent.
Disney knew they couldn’t ignore the issue of race as soon as they discovered its main story. We are transported back in time to the New Orleans of the 1920s. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), a young waitress, has worked long hours and under difficult conditions (such as not being able to go out to the city with her friends) to save enough money to be able to buy a property and turn it into the fancy restaurant his father always wanted. Of course, there is the usual hurdle of a romantic love interest getting in the way. When Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) arrives in town, presumably ready to fornicate him, he falls into a bad spot with Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a local voodoo man, and turns into a frog. Confusing her condition, Naveen kisses Tiana at a masked ball in hopes of being a prince again and moving on with her life, but instead ends up turning her into a frog. A series of escapades through the Louisiana swamp with a wacky set of characters finally leads them back to the conclusion that (you guessed it) they are madly in love and should live happily ever after, no matter what they look like. As the first Disney Animation Studios production to deal with an African-American lead character, it’s a story that could easily have fallen flat on its face and pissed off a lot of people.
John Musker and Ron Clements (the directors) handled the subject in a very interesting way. Think about it: You have to create a story that gives children the wise wisdom that everyone is beautiful on the inside, without necessarily being able to ignore the contradictions inherent in America’s racially and economically divisive society. Musker and Clements are certainly not sidestepping the race card here in any way, as can be seen from the look on main character Tiana’s face when New Orleans realtors The Ferner Bros. sarcastically use the double meaning “a woman of its origin “to describe it. What they are doing is creating a story about appearances and antecedents where racism is inferred rather than brought to the fore, a story for little girls who will one day have to face these issues head-on. And the trick in a children’s movie is not to hit children over the head with harsh realities, but to subtly create in their minds the spirit that color doesn’t matter. Like I said, Disney is about 50 years behind on this train, but this entire country has been behind in many ways when it comes to race, sex, and the economy.
I am by no means an expert on the experience of being a 4 year old black girl. However, I know that children of that age, regardless of skin color and economic division, are notably lacking in the concepts and notions that we create around racism, sexism, and the like. I can certainly see how many would interpret Tiana as a frog for most of the movie as overtly racist. Yet in a movie whose core audience will one day grapple with overcoming color and appearance issues, what better and more subtle way to exemplify a lack of commitment to appearance? To be sure, young children often look at themselves in this way, thinking that they are ugly or that they do not like them. It’s not Franz Fanon, but for kids, it’s a subtle hint that race shouldn’t matter. And the film also doesn’t ask black children to “give up their blackness,” another dangerous danger that racial issues can fall into. Rather, the characters (especially Tiana) are defined by what they do and how they do it, not by how they were born. Children’s movies, and for the same reason, all children’s myths and fairy tales, are not meant to confront children with harsh realities, they are meant to give children those foundational philosophies to help them realize what which is “really important”.
I think if anyone is going to attack this movie for hot topics, it should be the movie’s contradictions in its critique of capitalism. It is said over and over again throughout the film, “more powerful than magic is money.” And of course wise Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) lets everyone know that “money won’t make you happy.” And yet in the end, even though she finds true happiness in love, Tiana still gets everything she wants by marrying money. Too much hard work and sacrifice! If anything, this movie teaches children that if you work hard for a long time, you will fall in love with a prince, but you will still need his money to get the things you wanted.
All that said, there are some downright hysterical cartoons. There are many family stereotypes to highlight, from the alligator Louis Armstrong to the “hardworking and gumbo-loving” father. And Raymond (Jim Cummings), the Cajun firefly, is the best “cute animal companion” Disney has ever put into a movie. But this is one of those Disney princess movies that falls into the sub-genre of “crazy ensemble piece,” where the full unfolding of the main love story isn’t nearly as important (or entertaining) as the banter the guy gets. set. within. In that sense, this film strives more for the illicit entertainment of specific characters (in this case, cartoons) from a very specific place in time and space: the New Orleans of the 1920s. Like “Las Adventures of Huckleberry Finn “,” A Confederacy of Fools “or” O bro, where are you? “This film is more about exploring and enjoying the eccentricity of a very specific type of American culture than any kind of racial stereotypes. for the simple fact of being openly racist. I heard a lot of people complain about how this movie was racist in its character description, but Disney is still doing business in a country that elected Barack Obama to office. It would seem far-fetched for anyone to believe that they would go so far as to expect some overtly racist movie to make money right now, especially since outside of the United States, no one will be able to make any sense of this. story.
From a technical art point of view, the animation is beautiful. It’s a return to the form of those great Disney musicals that people like me remember from our childhoods, which seem to have been lost in this age of CGI (ironically, or perhaps appropriately, it was John Lasseter, director of Pixar Animation Studios, who reached out to Disney and convinced them to go ahead with a traditional animated musical). Although there is a time when Prince Naveen is biting mushrooms and is not moving the index finger that is holding the mushroom. When his thumb inexplicably disappears behind the knife and ends up in the same spot on top of the mushroom, I couldn’t help but wince. If someone really did this in real life while cutting any vegetable, they would cut off their finger. Some key animator should have caught that. But that’s an incredibly minor problem in a movie that’s full of great cartoons, fluid movements, and spectacular color compositions.
And the soundtrack is great. With the exception of a few songs meant to update us on where we are in history, every song here is a testament to New Orleans music, albeit obviously a “Disney-ed Up” version. But I’d rather have a Jazz, gospel, bayou, and zydeco based Disney soundtrack than anything else. It’s a Disney soundtrack. I may not be totally embarrassed to be seen blasting out of my car stereo.
“The Princess and the Frog” also has many inside jokes and tributes that the animation fan should look for. It is a celebration of a seemingly dying art form (or rather, a “studio production method”) and an update in more ways than just the skin tone of the Disney fairy tale story (we can no longer simply wishing a star to get what we want, we are also called, in a more realistic sense, to work hard for it). I’m not saying it’s not without its flaws, racial and otherwise, but the analysis of this movie demands something a little deeper than “what a bunch of racist stereotypes.” Plus it’s fun, fun, FUN to the end. When you go to see him, try to imagine yourself as a young girl of the skin tone that you like, and try not to get carried away by the good times and exciting tunes.