Not only does The Princess and the Frog bring back that old Disney magic in full force, but it’s also well worth the wait. The film marks a return to the traditional hand-drawn animation the studio is known for and also introduces the company’s first black princess.
Based on the classic Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale, The Frog Prince, (with a little help from E.D. Baker’s novel, The Frog Princess), Disney’s version is set in early-20th century New Orleans. When a visiting, jazz-loving, care-free prince is turned into a frog by an evil witch doctor, Tiana kisses him to turn him human again. The spell backfires, and Tiana is turned into a frog, as well.
New Orleans, with its rich musical and cultural history, is one of the hearts of the American south. All of the great parts of this city are featured in the movie: Mardi Gras, jazz, voodoo, Creole and Cajun food and, of course, beignets. Tiana is the most ambitious and independent Disney princess yet. She has grand dreams of owning and operating her own restaurant, and tirelessly works two jobs to save enough for the down payment. She has an admirable mantra that hard work can make your dreams come true (although, by the end of the film, she comes to accept that, in life, there is a little luck involved, too).
We’ve already detailed the impact John Lasseter has had on Disney in his short time with the company, and his positive contributions continue here. It was Lasseter that championed the return to hand-drawn animation, but there was certainly the feeling that if Princess and the Frog didn’t succeed, it really would be the end of traditional animation at Disney. “You have never met a group of artists more dedicated to proving something than the artists who did The Princess and the Frog,” Lasseter told the Wall Street Journal at the time.
This film was wrought with criticism since plans for it were announced in 2006. Disney has long since struggled with allegations of racism and its inability to portray other cultures with care and accuracy, and the criticism is largely appropriate. So it’s no surprise that news the studio would be animating its first black princess was met with a lot of skepticism. At first, it was reported that her character would be named Maddy and she would be a chambermaid to a privileged white family. Maddy was said to sound too close to “mammy” — a racial slur — and the character’s occupation and even the location of New Orleans drew criticism for its connection to the history of slavery in the United States. Disney was listening, though, and you won’t see many of these issues in the film today.
The race of the film’s prince, Naveen, was also criticized, but I don’t think this one is fair. Some were upset that Disney’s first black heroine didn’t fall in love with a black prince, calling him white. While it’s true, Naveen is not black, his name is Indian for “new” and he is voiced by a Brazilian actor. This relationship also promotes the idea of interracial marriage, which is saying something from the company that produced such songs as “What Makes the Red Man Red?” In a video on YouTube, Levi Roberts spoke about the criticism facing Prince Naveen. “This is one of those situations where I am ashamed of the black community,” he said. “Are we being racist ourselves by saying this movie shouldn’t have a white prince?” And, for the first time, Disney has actually developed more than just their main character. This prince has more personality than the rest combined.
There is something to be said, however, of Disney’s track record with villains of race. A blog that writes of race and pop culture said: “The plot also follows Disney’s pattern of making their evil characters more ‘ethnic’ and darker than their good characters. For example, the Chinese have wheat-coloured skin in Mulan, while the Huns are dark gray. Aladdin is tan with European features, while Jafar is brown with Arabic features.” And in The Princess and the Frog, Dr. Facilier follows this pattern, with his exaggerated features and gap-toothed smile. Even the voodoo he practices is a stereotyped version of the West African religion.
But, for all the flack the film received during production, it was largely met with a positive response from critics and audiences alike. TIME magazine raved Princess “is a start-to-finish delight” proving “2-D can be more than 3-D, when gifted film makers put old-fashioned snap back into animation.” During its wide release, it opened at No. 1 (knocking out Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-winning turn in The Blind Side) and brought in over $24-million its first weekend. In the words of Roger Ebert, “This is what classic animation once was like!” And I couldn’t agree more. This film more than enchanted me the first time I saw it and is just as entertaining during each subsequent viewing. It’s genuinely funny (with instantly quotable lines), and it’s heartwarming to boot, with the best female role model Disney has created to date. The Princess and the Frog definitely earned its place among the Disney classics.