by Brian Bergen-Aurand
While my wife and I were living in Singapore, we adopted two children from Ethiopia. When we brought them home, I searched for lists of children’s films with strong black characters, especially strong black female characters. One film atop many such lists is Disney’s 2009 The Princess and the Frog (written and directed by Ron Clements & John Musker, starring Anika Noni Rose, Keith David, and Oprah Winfrey).
Set in New Orleans during the jazz age, The Princess and the Frog is a musical romance focused on an extraordinarily talented chef named Tiana and the visiting prince Naveen of Maldonia. Tiana wants to open her own restaurant in honor of her father who died before he could realize his dream of becoming a restaurateur. Prince Naveen is the philandering heir to his kingdom. He is wealthy and irresponsible, self-centered and unable to care for himself. Of course, the two meet, are thrown into peril when turned into frogs, and slowly fall in love as they must work together to undo the spell and rescue their respective city and kingdom from the plans of the evil Dr. Facilier’s Voo Doo and the gullible Lawrence’s dubplicty.
The film is filled with stereotypes, clichés, and onerous portrayals. Sometimes I cannot tell when it is laughing with the characters and when it is laughing at them. I admit The Princess and the Frog is a strange movie to have chosen to introduce two children from Africa, living in South East Asia, to the American South or Black America more generally.
Yet, I will argue this film might be one of the most beautiful and interesting ways critically to introduce children to Disney. While this film has serious problems with its portrayal of New Orleans, Voo Doo, disability, age, and other issues, it also has one of the few popular narratives where all the heroes are people of color–and the most powerful characters are black women. It is Tiana who destroys the amulet that gives Dr. Facilier his powers. It is Tiana who saves the day, wins her restaurant, and teaches Naveen how to cook–or, at least, how to chop vegetables. And, it is Tiana’s restaurant that remains the center of the story as the remaining major characters join there for the jazz-infused wedding reception signalling the start of a long run for the establishment.
While the narrative is not always fresh and creative, though, the visuals are. The fantasy sequences and the animal portrayals are lush and dense. The drawings vibrant and sometimes haunting. Here, Disney returned to hand-painted animation after a six-year hiatus that saw them produce several notable computer-animated films, including Finding Nemo (2003), Ratatouille (2007), and Wall-E (2008). This hand-animated technique might be just what creates the darkest atmospheres and creepiest moments of the film. There is a palpability to these images that even the best moments of other forms of animation do not achieve.
The music is fun and effective in places. Disney films have done much over the past century to introduce children to classical music. The Princess and the Frog has some moments that serve jazz in a similar fashion.
Finally, while the film falters so often with regard to its construction of black masculinity, it seems to want to say a lot with Tiana’s father. He disappears too soon from the narrative to accomplish too much, but while he remains, he maintains a place in a marriage and in a father-daughter relationship that inspires his child’s quest to the end.
I will continue to watch the film with my children as long as they like, knowing, very often I am unable to decide if I side more with Tiana’s hopes or her mother’s fears, both of which are conveyed so concisely in one exchange of dialogue:
Tiana: [Showing Eudora the decrepit warehouse she plans to buy] Just look at it, mama! Don’t it just make you wanna cry?