The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"Princess and the Frog" (2009)

I would say "Princess and the Frog" is Disney's best (non-Pixar) animated film in ten years, a worthy entry into the "Princess" category. Is it utter magic, a'la "Beauty and the Beast" or "Lion King"? No. But it lingers far longer than "Emperor's New Groove", "Treasure Planet" or "Brother Bear." We all know how culturally loaded this film was. Disney is an iconic organization, with emotional association FAR beyond that of any other studio, including Henson and Pixar (although Pixar is making up for lost time at mach speed). What the Mouse House does matters, all over the world.

And this tale of a Tiana, a simple New Orleans lass with huge dreams, fits right into the Disney mold, almost as if some OTHER film had been Disney's first to feature animated black folks as fully functioning human beings. How do they deal with race in this movie? As if it is class, instead of skin color. And New Orleans, famous for its mixed culture, is probably perfect for this. Add Voodoo, and the swamps, and Jazz, and the locale is just about perfect.

If the Randy Newman songs are hummable but not memorable, well, they're certainly as good as anything in "Tarzan." So I cannot in any way say that Disney didn't bring their "A" game. I was restless at times, unsatisfied at times, but dig it:

Keith David as the evil Dr. Facilier is brilliant. The art is wonderful, and the "living shadows" are just divine. The play of animals in the enchanted swamp is utterly typical, and I loved it.

Look: I would have been happier if Prince Naveen, her putative love interest, hadn't been vaguely Latin, but rather black. But they do the exact same thing with Will Smith--for some reason, Hispanics are kind of the Universal Sex Object, suitable for all races and genders. Is Naveen maybe vaguely Middle Eastern? I don't think do...the royalty trappings are all pretty standard European. So we'll assume Hispanic, and after the initial irritation, I approved. You couldn't have had Tiana's BFF Charlotte lusting over some African prince, now could we? And if Charlotte had been, say, black, then both little white girls wouldn't have had an image to cling to, but the insular nature of black upper-class society would still have limited Tiana: she can win, but only within the smaller world.

No. Disney actually plays this right, if not brilliantly, at least with massive skill, a real heart, and utterly charming style. "Princess and the Frog" is utterly worthy, an "A-" if not an "A+"--by Disney standards. If any other studio had done it, it would be thought an instant game changer.


Well...not so much. I am thrilled that Disney took this chance, and want to offer them mad props. This really IS the 21st Century, after all. I thought I'd be bothered by the extended sequences where Tiana and her swain are both frogs. Disney was accused of racism about this. I think it was both canny salesmanship, and a touch of genius. You see, Disney studios is quite, quite conservative in many ways. They know they play to middle America, and challenge nothing. There are a few sly winks at the racial divide, but they are subtle and well done, really--as if they actually sat down, thought about it, and (mostly) decided to fly above it. But they know their audience--the same audience their animators and writers came from, the same audience who made it financially wise to avoid animating black people altogether for seventy years of animated films. So, while actually giving Tiana a mother AND father (when have we seen THAT?), and building up a vibrant mixed-race community, they knew that they didn't want to push the tolerance for watching dark skinned people. And make no mistake: I sympathize, having sat in entirely too many almost all-white audiences and heard the groans if black people were presented romantically.

But Frogs? Ah, and this is where the touch of genius comes in. Think about it. An audience sits and for a half hour or more, enjoy the romance between two frogs. Then magic renders them human again. They kiss. Members of the audience who felt fine watching amphibians smooch suddenly feel...slightly queasy. Uncomfortable. And if they have any capacity for self-examination at all, they have to ask: "why can I identify with something OUTSIDE my species more than someone within my species, but of different skin color?" (The answer is the same for why aliens and robots are allowed more presence and humanity in science fiction than blacks--those animated animals are just externalizations of the creator's dreams and personalities. They cannot, and have never, competed for mates or resources, nor have they been violently oppressed. They therefore trigger no fear).

My suspicion is that Disney did a very good thing here. I have NO idea if they did it deliberately or accidentally, but I think it is sly as hell.

Look. "Princess and the Frog" is Disney magic, as made by the only studio that really has that quality. I wish Nicki was eight years old, and could have seen this in her development stage, before she had countless opportunities to learn that the dream of America didn't apply completely to her. But this is more than a good start. Feet in a very deep hole, "Princess and the Frog" manages the miracle of standing tall. I applaud everyone involved.


Foxessa said...

You might find this discussion by a diversity of young women plus one older woman re The Princess and the Frog movie of some interest.

suzanne said...

my two Chicago grand-daughters
3 and 5 loved it
loved Tiana
thqat she was strong
that she wanted to open a restaurant
(they cook with their father all the time)
they both got Tiana dresses at Disney World
last week

surrey said...

lovely review...great work.

Anonymous said...

I'm still not sure if I forgive Disney for ripping off the African-American Woman who created the Cheetah Girls. I read about it in Black Enterprise some time ago. The author claimed Disney screwed her in some contract terminology (gross- profit/ net-profit) mess. Granted her agent or lawyer should have had her back, but she pocketed thousands while Disney racked in millions. Just not fair! I'm happy for Raven for sure, I just have a complex for Disney. "Oh ya'll see we spend money too, so now you want to come at us with a psuedo-princess, kissing on frogs...." haven't we as a people been kissing frogs long enough? Why can't Tionna be Nubian Princess from the time Nubia had control of Egypt, and some Persian Prince falls in love yada-yada. I mean really. I just don't know ya'll. I don't trust them.

Unknown said...

I'll say this - Princess and the Frog is the first non-Pixar Disney movie since Emperor's New Groove (which I enjoyed immensely) that I've been interested in seeing in theaters. And I have a 7 year old daughter, so I think it's likely that I will see it.

Tom Perkins said...

"So, while actually giving Tiana a mother AND father (when have we seen THAT?)"

Dr. Huxtable, Fred Sanford (Elizabeth may not have been seen, but she was always there), the Jeffersons,...

Just three that come right to mind.

Tom Perkins said...

"Members of the audience who felt fine watching amphibians smooch suddenly feel...slightly queasy."

Yeah, maybe all 1 of 10 of them, if that.

I've read you to say your 58, if I recall, and it's clear you are at best a man of your times.

I recall 0 opposition in any form, for example, to Will Smith having any black love interests in his films, or in any skepticism whatsoever about, for example, his character in Enemy of the State.

If you saw that movie, did you hear any dissension then?