Some Fairy Tale! Disney's First Black Princess Can't Escape the Ghetto

Some fairy tale!
Disney’s first black princess can’t escape the ghetto

Six decades after unleashing persistent NAACP bugaboo Song of the South (1946) and two after firmly suppressing it, that peculiar cultural institution known as the Walt Disney Co. has made a symbolic reparation by creating its first African-American princess—and plunking her down in the middle of Jim Crow-era Louisiana! A patronizing fantasia of plantation life in post-Civil War Georgia, Song could at least be understood—if hardly excused—as a product of its time. But is Disney’s The Princess and the Frog the Obama-era fairy tale that anyone other than the “birther” crowd has been waiting for?

Just when exactly Princess is supposed to be taking place is never made explicit, save for a brief prologue set in the fall of 1912. It’s there that we first meet Tiana, the daughter of a New Orleans seamstress (voiced by Oprah Winfrey) and laborer father (Terrence Howard), as she plays at the very big house of her very white, very blonde, very rich BFF, Charlotte. The movie then flashes forward to the Jazz Age ’20s. Now an enterprising young woman, Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) works double shifts as a waitress, trying to scrape together enough cash to make good on her late father’s dream of opening a swank restaurant.

Like many a storybook maiden before her, Tiana wishes upon a star for a handsome prince to ferry her off to some magic kingdom—or at least help her to make a down payment. He then seems to appear in the form of the visiting Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Bruno Campos), a mocha-skinned dreamboat of indeterminate ethnicity, who, alas, has his sights set on Charlotte. Before he can say, “I do,” however, Naveen finds himself transformed into the titular amphibian by a back-alley voodoo priest. And when he subsequently convinces Tiana to kiss him as a way of reversing the spell, she turns all ribbity, too.

They say it ain’t easy bein’ green, but it’s certainly a hell of a lot easier than being black. So writer/directors Ron Clements and John Musker send newly anthropomorphic Tiana and Naveen hopping off into the bayou rather than continuing to dodge ol’ Jim Crow on the streets of the Big Easy. There, Princess’s rampant a-historicism gives way to a veritable Mardi Gras of risible stereotypes: an Acadian firefly with the most exaggerated Cajun dialect this side of celebrity chef Justin Wilson, I gua-ran-tee; a 197-year-old voodoo priestess named Mama Odie; and, lest no Deep South caricature remain unturned, a trio of toothless hillbillies.

Much ballyhooed as Disney’s return to its tradition of 2-D “cel” animation after a five-year hiatus, The Princess and the Frog is pleasantly, if unmemorably drawn, with an amiable original score by Randy Newman that runs the gamut from infectious ragtime to gut-bucket zydeco. But the movie as a whole never approaches the wit, cleverness and storytelling brio of the studio’s early-1990s animation renaissance or pretty much anything by Pixar, which makes it all too easy to follow Mama Odie’s own advice and “dig a little deeper.”

Not that Disney is entirely at fault: The PC watchdogs who scrutinized this movie since it was first announced seem to have entirely missed the forest for the trees—namely, that Disney’s first black “princess” lives in a world where the ceiling on black ambition is firmly set at the service industries, and Tiana and her neighbors seem downright zip-a-dee-doo-dah happy about that. “Rich people, poor people, they all got dreams/And dreams do come true in New Orleans” goes one lyric from the film’s boisterous opening number, a far cry from Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” with its prescient lament, “They’re tryin’ to wash us away.”

The Princess and the Frog was directed by Ron Clements and John Musker; written by Clements, Musker, Rob Edwards, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland; and features the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Oprah Winfrey and Terrence Howard. Rated G. Countywide.

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