When CT editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey e-mailed Her.meneutics bloggers to ask if anyone would be interested in reviewing The Princess and the Frog, Disney's newest princess film and the first to feature an African American lead, I wrote back right away with a "yes!" I don't see many movies in the theater (or anywhere else, for that matter), but I really wanted to see this one, about Tiana, a girl growing up in the French Quarter of New Orleans who turns into a frog upon kissing Prince Naveen, also a frog.
I started my movie-going planning the way I always do, by asking my husband if he wanted to see the movie with me, or stay home to watch our three small children. "I think this looks more like a girl movie," my husband said, volunteering for parenting duty. So I sent out a few e-mails to see if anyone else wanted to go, and before I knew it, my mom, my aunt, my godmother and her daughter, and four friends were all trying to coordinate their after-Christmas schedules so we could go. We didn't all end up being free at the same time, but it was nevertheless a good-size group of women that poured out of their cars in the freezing rain and convened in the theater.
Laden with concessions, we tromped into the theater to find seats. As the lights fell and the movie began, I reflected on how much of my movie-going experience has nothing to do with the movie itself. I go to the movies to fellowship, swap Christmas stories, gasp at the snack prices, and drink from the short straw on a shared soda.
From the first minute of the film, I was charmed. I knew this New Orleans fairytale was going to be Disney's so-called "triumphant" return to hand-drawn animation, and the result did not disappoint. As Tiana, the heroine, works double shifts to save enough money to fulfill her late father's dream of opening a restaurant, the images were beautiful, the story engaging, and the frilly princess dresses in the opening scenes reminiscent of Cinderella. The vocal talent of Elizabeth M. Dampier, who plays the young Tiana, was so adorable that I found myself momentarily disappointed when the movie fast-forwarded and Tiana, then voiced by Anika Noni Rose, was all grown up—and ready to get tangled up with a playboy of a prince, and wind up turning into a frog.
Thrilled to finally see an African American playing the lead in a Disney princess film, I was happily sipping my shared soda and following Tiana's ambitions to open her restaurant, when the movie suddenly took a darker turn. The film's villain, Dr. Facilier, is a voodoo practitioner called the Shadowman, who has friends, as he says, "on the other side." As empty-eyed voodoo masks came to life and sang about that other side, whispers started popping up in my row at the speed of buttered popcorn. By the time the movie showed a slithering horde of demons crawling through a Mardi Gras parade, almost Frank Peretti-style, I could barely keep my comments to a whisper. As the Shadowman was eventually dragged off to the "other side," I couldn't turn my head fast enough to keep up with all the commentary in my row.
"Wow," I said when the movie was over. "That was just—wow. I don't even know where to start."
We talked about the movie through the closing credits, on the way to the women's room, and out to our cars. Those of us who had carpooled talked about the movie all the way home, and when I got home I had two movie-related e-mails in my inbox, with more to come. And the next Sunday in church we picked up right where we left off.
I'm disappointed in Disney's first African American princess movie. I wanted it to be good; I wanted it to be great. But the voodoo elements and the trafficking in spiritually dark themes crossed this film right off my list (as they did the lists of many other evangelicals, as Mark Pinsky noted in The Wall Street Journal last week). The good that I took away from this movie was nothing about the film itself, but rather, the community in which I viewed it. Surrounded by thoughtful, intelligent women who were willing and eager to discuss all the film's various aspects, I couldn't help thinking that in some ways, we were a real-life (though smaller) version of the CT women's blog—where two or more can gather to read, to discuss, and to prayerfully try and make sense of the world in which we live.