There are a wealth of reasons to be excited about The Princess and the Frog. The hand-drawn animation and jazzy, Broadway-inspired musical numbers hearken back to Disney's golden ages in both the 1950s and the 1990s. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose) is Disney's first African-American heroine. The film celebrates the Jazz Age in one of America's most romantic cities. And the film deliciously skewers Disney's princess machine—though of course without killing that cash cow altogether.
As a little girl growing up in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Tiana shared her father's dream of opening a restaurant in an old mill. Tiana has mastered her father's gumbo recipe and internalized his ethic of hard work. Her father's death only makes her dream stronger, and now she holds down two waitressing jobs, saving up to buy that mill.
Though music and food hold tremendous sway over New Orleans, it's voodoo that reigns supreme. Dr. Facilier, aka Shadowman (voiced by Keith David), has "friends on the other side" who have promised him wealth and power if he'll only deliver them souls. He seizes upon visiting Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruce Campos), turning a tarot card reading into a black magic kidnapping. Shadowman turns Prince Naveen into a frog to get him out of the way so that Shadowman can kick his plan into high gear.
Prince Naveen escapes Shadowman and stumbles across Tiana, dressed as a princess for her wealthy white friend Lottie's (voiced by Jennifer Cody) masquerade ball. He manages to persuade Tiana to kiss him by promising to help her get her restaurant—but instead of breaking the spell, Tiana herself is transformed into a frog. Joined by a lightning bug and an alligator, they make their way deep into the bayou to solicit help from wizened Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis), as Shadowman draws his web ever tighter.
The animation is simply breathtaking in its beauty and technical excellence. The movie opens with a series of tableaux of dusk in New Orleans, with soft electric light spilling out into the darkening streets. The artwork puts to shame the shoddy work that passes for animation on most DVDs for children, and reminds that the hand can do things that computers can't.
In true Disney fashion, the animators allow themselves to take some risks with style, not limiting themselves to the strictly representational. Early in the film, Tiana has a number called "Almost There" where she gives voice to her restaurant dream. As she and her mother dance through the dusty, dirty, cluttered old mill, the room transforms into an Art Deco vision of African-American Jazz Age opulence. The expressionistic style is completely different from that used in the rest of the film, yet it works so well as an expression of Tiana's hopes and longings, and the execution is so marvelous that it seemed to be over far too quickly.
The music is inspiring and uplifting, if not as daring as it might have been. One wishes that Disney hadn't turned to Randy Newman here. He's a topnotch songwriter, but apart from a few embellishments thanks to legendary trumpeter Terence Blanchard, the songs themselves could have been pulled from any other Disney or Pixar film. None of the songs are catchy enough to stick on first listen, nor are they edgy enough to demand repeat listens. This was a missed opportunity to showcase the musical riches of America's past.
It's as if New Orleans itself is the film's biggest stumbling block. Not only is the music just a lite version of true jazz, but the city's cultural dark side gets prettied up for the cameras. It's hard not to think "pimp" upon meeting Shadowman, with his thinly manicured beard edging along his jaw, gaudy purple suit, and bare stomach. The representation will do nothing to dispel stereotypes about African-American men, particularly because the rest of the men in the film are white or of indeterminate race in the case of Prince Naveen.
These sexual undertones don't end with Shadowman. Prince Naveen sings about leaving behind a string of broken hearts, and it's evident that he's come to New Orleans because of the potential for meeting loose party girls at Mardi Gras. During the big parade, we see beads being flung—though mercifully no actual girls gone wild.
Even more disturbing is the way that both Tiana and spoiled rich girl Lottie end up trading their bodies for gain. Lottie wants to marry a prince so badly that she absolutely ignores everything else about her imposter Prince all the way up to the altar at her Mardi Gras wedding. And virtuous Tiana? Gives a kiss in exchange for money. Sure, it's for a good cause—her restaurant—but that doesn't change what she's done. So while Disney seems to be trying to counter some of its pervasive princess ideology, The Princess and the Frog is still showing women who can't get by without men.
Perhaps this is hairsplitting, but the fact is that the identity of New Orleans is highly sexualized, and the movie attempts to get some mileage out of the connotations while whitewashing the reality.
But it's the use of voodoo that ultimately reveals the movie's hollow, thoughtless core. Shadowman is engaging in black magic, and the scenes where he speaks to his "friends on the other side" contain many horror elements. It's very clear that he's trafficking in evil. Younger children might be quite frightened by the imagery, and older children might find themselves fascinated and wanting to learn more.
As if this weren't bad enough, on the flip side we get mystical Mama Odie, stereotype piled on stereotype straight out of every cliché of the wise old black woman. Mama Odie knows voodoo, too, but her magic is more of the prosaic, homegrown kind. In a production number that evokes gospel music but with Jesus neatly stripped away, Mama Odie offers up a defiantly American church of the self. Just "dig a little deeper" inside yourself and you'll find what you need to achieve all of your dreams. Sure, there's magic, but it only shows up once you've done everything in your power to get what you desire. Her message is the epitome of works-righteousness, where the only counter to the forces of evil is the good inside the human heart.
Sure, this is the message of just about every family film that has come down the pike since the dawn of cinema. But to see it presented in a context that evokes the style of Christianity, Mama Odie's song serves as a stark reminder as to how the American values of self-reliance diverge from the Christian message of humble submission to external grace. Just because something looks and sounds beautiful doesn't make it gospel.Discussion starters
- How does the movie play with the whole notion that girls want to be princesses?
- What do you think about Mama Odie's advice to "dig a little deeper"? What does Scripture say about how to make our dreams come true?
- How does greed affect various characters in the movie? Is Tiana affected by greed?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Princess and the Frog is rated G, yet there is some very mild sexual innuendo. While in frog form, Prince Naveen and Tiana get their tongues stuck together, though not while kissing. Prince Naveen has a wild streak and says that he has been with a lot of women. There is some blood spilled, and one character is killed by being stepped on (off screen). There is one scene with "three stooges" type violence. Voodoo/black magic elements are pervasive throughout, making up a large part of the storyline. While most of the magic is presented as evil, Mama Odie does conjure up some "good" demons of her own.
Photos © Walt Disney Pictures
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