The Subtle Lessons of Race in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”

As usual, Disney is 50 years too late on updating their socio-political worldviews.

Still, despite arriving late to the party, Disney Animation Studios has produced a movie that deals with the past and present racial issues in ways that are remarkably child-accessible. “The Princess and the Frog” (2009, Ron Clements & John Musker) is attempting to tell a quintessentially American fairy tale. It would have been totally presumptuous to make an African tale into the “first black princess movie” in Disney’s line-up, because they would have no doubt missed the subtleties of those African fables. This is, first and foremost, a childrens’ movie, and more over, a “girl” movie, and my guess is that little black girls in America (no doubt this film’s intended target audience) will respond more effectively to a story about a young black American than some far-away tale from another continent.

Disney knew it couldn’t ignore the race issue as soon as they had figured out their main story. We are transported back in time to 1920s New Orleans. Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), a young waitress, has worked long hours and hard conditions (such as not being able to go out on the town with her friends) to save up enough money so she can buy property to convert into the swanky restaurant her father always wanted. Of course, there is the usual hang-up of a romantic love interest getting in the way. When Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to town, presumably ready to fornicate-it-up, he falls into a bad situation with the local Voodoo man Dr. Facilier (Keith David) and is turned into a frog. Mistaking his condition, Naveen kisses Tiana at a masquerade ball hoping to turn back into a prince and get on with his life, but instead ends up turning her into a frog. A series of escapades through the Louisiana bayou with a madcap ensemble of characters ultimately brings 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 that deals with an African-American main character, it’s a story that could have easily fallen flat on its face and made a lot of people angry.

John Musker and Ron Clements (the directors) handled the issue in a very interesting way. Think about it: you have to craft a story that gives children the sagely wisdom that everyone is beautiful on the inside, while not necessarily being able to ignore the inherent contradictions in American society of racial and economic divide. Musker and Clements are certainly not skirting the race card here by any means, as one can tell by the look on main character Tiana’s face when New Orleans realtors The Ferner Bros. snidely use the double-entendre “a woman of your background” to describe her. What they are doing is creating a story about appearances and background where racism is more inferred than brought to the forefront, a story for little girls who will one day have to face these issues head-on. And the trick in a childrens’ movie is not to bash kids over the head with harsh realities, but rather to create subtly in their minds the ethos that color doesn’t matter. As I said, Disney is about 50 years late on this bandwagon, but then this whole country has been behind the times in a lot of ways when it comes to race, sex, and economic issues.

I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert on the experience of being a 4-year-old black girl. However, I do know that children of that age, regardless of skin color and economic divide, are remarkably void of the concepts and notions that we create around racism, sexism, and the like. I can certainly see how many would construe Tiana being a frog for most of the movie as overtly racist. However, in a movie whose primary audience will one day deal with overcoming issues of color and appearance, what better and subtler way to exemplify a lack of commitment to appearance? No doubt young children often look at themselves in this way, thinking they are ugly, or unwanted. It’s not Franz Fanon, but for children, its a subtle hint that race shouldn’t matter. And the film doesn’t ask black children to “give up their blackness,” either, another dangerous peril that race themes can fall into. Rather, the characters (especially Tiana) are defined by what they do and how they do it, not what they were born as. Childrens’ movies, and by the same token all childrens’ myths and fairy tales, aren’t meant to face kids up to harsh realities, they are meant to give children those foundational philosophies to help them realize what is “truly important.

I think if anyone is going to attack this movie on hot-topic issues, it should be the film’s contradictions in its critique of capitalism. It is said over and over throughout the movie, “more powerful than magic is money.” And of course, sagely Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) lets everyone know “Money won’t make you happy.” And yet, by the end, though she finds true happiness in love, Tiana still gets everything she wants by marrying into money. So much for 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 still need his money to get the things you wanted.

All this being said, there are some downright hysterical caricatures. There are plenty of family-friendly stereotypes to write home about, from the Louis Armstrong alligator to the “hard working, gumbo-loving” father. And Raymond (Jim Cummings), the Cajun firefly, is the single best “cute animal sidekick” Disney has ever put onto a film. But this is one of those Disney princess movies that falls under the sub-sub-genre of “zany ensemble piece,” where the full development of the main love storyline is not nearly as important (or entertaining) as the hi jinks the ensemble gets into. In that sense, this movie strives more to illicit entertainment out of the specific characters (in this case, caricatures) of a very specific location in time and space: 1920s New Orleans. Like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “A Confederacy of Dunces,” or “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” this film is more about exploring and enjoying the eccentricity of a very specific type of American culture than any type of racial stereotyping for the sake of being overtly racist. I heard a lot of people complaining about how this film was racist in its depiction of the characters, but Disney is still doing business in a country that elected Barack Obama into office. It would seem far-fetched for anyone to believe that they would go so far as to expect some overtly racist film to make money right now, especially since outside the United States, no one will be able to make a lick of sense out of this story.

From the view of technical artistry, the animation is beautiful. It is a return to form to those great Disney musicals people like me remember from our childhood, that seem to have gone missing in this age of computer-generated imagery (ironically, or perhaps appropriately, it was John Lasseter, director of Pixar Animation Studios, who approached Disney and convinced them to go forward with a traditional animation musical). Though there is one moment where Prince Naveen is mincing mushrooms and he isn’t moving his index finger that holds the mushroom down. As his thumb disappears inexplicably behind the knife, and winds up back in the same place on top of the mushroom, I couldn’t help but wince. If anyone actually did this in real life while chopping any vegetable, they would slice their finger off. Some Key animator should have caught that. But that is an incredibly minor problem in a film that is full of great caricature, fluid motion, and spectacular color compositions.

And the soundtrack is great. With the exception of a few songs meant to sort of update us as to where we are in the story, every song on here is a testament to New Orleans music, albeit an obviously “Disney-ed Up” version. But I’d rather have a Disney soundtrack draw from Jazz, gospel, bayou and zydeco than whatever else. It’s a Disney soundtrack I might not be totally embarrassed to be seen blasting on my car stereo.

“The Princess and the Frog” also has plenty of inside jokes and homages for the animation buff to look for. It is a celebration of a seemingly dying art form (or rather, “studio production method”) and an update in more ways than just skin tone to the Disney fairytale story (we can no longer just wish upon a star to get what we want, we are also called upon, in a more realistic sense, to work hard for it). I’m not saying it isn’t without its faults, racial and otherwise, but analysis of this film calls for something a little deeper than “what a bunch of racist stereotypes.” Also, its just fun, fun, FUN all the way through. When you go see it try to imagine yourself as a young girl of whatever skin tone you like, and try not to be swept away by the good times and toe-tapping tunes.

Source by Jason Croswell

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