I’m a child of the 90’s. I was a Disney kid. Sure, I remember the day that my mother gave us the ultimatium: you can keep The Disney Channel or the Sega Channel and we chose the snazzier, more interactive option, but regardless, I was at just the right age during the era fondly known by some as “The Disney Renaissance.” I remember singing “Hakuna Matata” on the way home from the movie theater after “The Lion King” and I couldn’t tell you how many times I rewound my VHS tape of “The Little Mermaid” so that I could memorize the words to “Under The Sea.”
But as much as I loved those films, and as colorblind as I was to them when I was a child, I can still remember my mother express her disappointment upon seeing trailers for “Aladdin.” The film featured some of the first Disney characters with darker skin, and they weren’t what she considered ‘black’. Of course, “Aladdin” was (and still is) an amazing movie, and I still respect the film for what it is, but as a child, Disney had yet to get around to creating a Disney Princess who looked like me.
And then Disney stopped making traditionally animated movies altogether. When Dreamworks started churning out Shrek movies and Pixar enjoyed year after year of both critical and box office successes, Disney’s contribution to the market were films like “Chicken Little” and “Meet the Robinsons”. While they were still decent kid movies, for me, the name Disney no longer brought to mind yearly mini-musicals, chock full of as much thinly veiled adult humor as kid-friendly sight gags.
That is, until about a year and a half ago, when I caught wind of “The Princess and the Frog.” With Disney now under the creative control of Pixar’s John Lasseter, and the news that the movie would be helmed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the team responsible for “Aladdin”, I was looking forward to the movie before I even knew the cast, the plot, or that Randy Newman would be creating the music. Even as the inevitable racial controversies emerged over the title of the film (then, “The Frog Princess”), the heroine’s name (then, ‘Maddy’) and station (then, chambermaid), and the fact that a ‘black princess’ had coincidentally emerged just as America embraced their first black President (though some people forget that animated movies take far more than year to make it from conception, to script to actual theatrical release…) I had faith that Disney had the right pieces in place to become the creator of quality and classic animated film that I remembered so fondly from my childhood.
“The Princess and the Frog” is, at heart, a story about need versus want. The heroine, Tiana, is a strong-willed girl with a dream of owning her own restaurant, taught early on about the value of hard work. In sharp contrast, Prince Naveen of Maldonia, who is new to New Orleans, is free-spirited and used to having everything handed to him in life. Recently cut off by his parents (who are foreign royalty of course), he is tricked by the slick and mysterious Shadow Man with the promise of easy wealth and a future life of leisure. Tiana needs to learn the value of family and friends, Naveen needs to learn the value of true love. When Naveen’s futile attempt at reversing his curse ends with Tiana turning into a frog herself, the two are forced to work together to find a way to become human again. Along the way, they’re joined by Louis, an alligator with a talent for jazz trumpet and Ray, a love-sick firefly.
Louis and Ray are no Timon and Pumbaa, and Tiana and Naveen definitely aren’t Aladdin and Jasmine, but “The Princess and the Frog” has ensemble of characters with a unique chemistry of their own, both funny and touching in the Disney tradition. For people like me, who grew up on these kinds of films, their compelling characters and catchy tunes, they’re all a welcome return to the style of the “Disney Renaissance.”
I’ll admit, the first half of the film had a bit of a hard time hooking me, apart from Keith David’s number as The Shadow Man, “Friends on the Other Side”. It brought to mind the likes of Ursula and Jafar, and if I hadn’t already spent the week prior listening to it on repeat on my ipod, I’d be hunting down the soundtrack just for it right now. But by the time the The Shadow Man’s true motivations were revealed and Tiana and Naveen began to set aside their differences (as always happens in these sorts of films) I was completely sucked in. This was the film I imagined when I first heard about Disney’s return to traditional animation, and I was both relieved and delighted to find that I two years of anticipation over the film weren’t in vain, but completely and totally justified.
Yes, the film is still going to undergo scrutiny (even today, I heard complaints from my aunt about the fact that Tiana is from New Orleans and has a southern accent), and I’m already awaiting the backlash when it comes to the film’s ‘voodoo’ elements, but there’s nothing worse than what I remember from the likes of “The Little Mermaid.” If I recall, Ursula was her own brand of witch, and her garden of poor, unfortunate souls was just as creepy as The Shadow Man’s “friends on the other side.” Perhaps it’s hard for people to make comparisons to Disney films over ten years ago, when I don’t think American society was searching through children’s films with such a fine-toothed comb, but I, for one, am willing to take the movie for what it is. Regardless of how Disney presented the first black princess, there were always going to be those who found issue with Tiana. Because she’d rather follow her dreams than find true love, she’s “sassy”, but if she were chasing after princes like her best friend Charlotte (coincidentally one of my favorite parts of the film), she’d be “shallow” and then there’d be some kind of uproar over her needing a “white man” to help elevate her. (Though, it should be noted that Naveen is not technically “black” or “white”; his name is traditionally Indian and his accent sounded more French to my ears than anything else.) The film, while side-stepping most racial issues, does manage to at least allude to the difficulties that would arise from a poor girl from the south opening her own business, but there’s nothing at all heavy-handed about it.
I realize I’ve gotten a bit long-winded here, so I’ll just be brief. “The Princess and the Frog” is never going to replace classics like “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King”, and while I did feel like the first bit of the movie (aside from the opening sequence) dragged a bit, I absolutely loved it. Maybe it was the fact that the theater I saw it in was populated mostly by young black girls who I know will all be asking for Tiana dolls for Christmas, or maybe it’s because I never got to see this movie when I was in the target age group, but I’m not ashamed to say that I teared up a few times. Go see this movie. Then see it again. This is the Disney magic I remember.