First Theatrical Release: November 25, 2009
First Home Viewing Release: March 16, 2010
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Where I Found It: My library’s DVD collection
Bechdel Test Score: Passed. Female characters include Tiana, Eudora, Charlotte, Mama Odie, and Stella. Tiana and her mother talk about Tiana’s dreams for her restaurant, and Charlotte and Tiana talk about Charlotte’s upcoming party and Tiana’s delicious beignets. However, both these conversations are borderline — Tiana’s mother slips in a comment about “wanting grandkids” someday, and Charlotte is conscripting Tiana to help with a party she is throwing for Prince Naveen.
I was crazy excited about the release of The Princess and the Frog. The same directors as The Little Mermaid and Aladdin! Traditional animation!! Songs!! A return to the Disney I had loved best of all!!
I was a little let down when I saw it. It wasn’t a bad movie, but it wasn’t magic, either. I thought maybe I had just outgrown that feeling Disney movies used to give me (I was 28, after all) and not even traditional animation could bring it back.
Once we were discussing my Year in Disney Movies project at my book club meeting, and a few people wondered whether Disney would ever bring traditional animation back. One woman said, “They don’t plan to because they did it with The Princess and the Frog, and that movie didn’t go over very well, so they blamed it on traditional animation rather than accepting that it just wasn’t that good of a movie.”
Alas, I think that pretty much sums it up. It’s got all the right ingredients, but in the end, it just isn’t that good of a movie.
All the Right Ingredients
This movie makes me feel like a bunch of Disney writers got together and were all like, “OK, so what can we do to make this a fun movie that won’t piss off feminists?”
“Oh, I know, let’s make the princess BLACK. Yeah, that’s SO progressive! And let’s make a REALLY BIG DEAL about her being Black, too, and get lots of positive PR for it rather than acting like Black is just a normal thing to be.”
“Oh, and let’s make her have a JOB. Because it’s so progressive for women to have jobs. Yeah, let’s make her career her priority, let’s make her dream be to open a restaurant rather than to find a man. That sets a good example for little girls, right?”
Of course, there will still be a love story. It just won’t DOMINATE Tiana’s consciousness. In fact, let’s juxtapose her with a girly girl so we can show audiences/parents/etc. just how much we GET IT. And let’s make Tiana disinterested in romance even when she’s a little girl so viewers will know that she’s DIFFERENT (you know, besides being Black.)
As snarky as my tone is above, objectively speaking these ARE all really good things. An African American lead — 66 years is a little late to the progressive party, but better late than never. A girl who has to work to support herself presents a more realistic picture of what girls can expect out of life than all the princesses who busied themselves frollicking in the woods or staring into fountains or cleaning the house before her. And learning to balance career and relationships is certainly a worthy goal.
Tiana is feisty enough to pursue her dream of opening a restaurant even in the face of Disney’s very passing nod to racial discrimination (when the real estate brokers tell her a restaurant would be a bit “much” for a girl of her “background.”) There is even the BAREST hint of racial tension when we see the long ride Tiana and her mother take away from the mansion lined streets where Eudora works to the cozy cluster of shacks where the Black community lives.
If Only It Wasn’t the Only …
Despite having all these checks in its favor, people sensitive to the portrayal of race still found plenty to criticize in The Princess and the Frog.
- It was “stereotypical” to portray Tiana and her mother as working for wealthy white folks. (In actuality, I think Disney was going for historical accuracy here. Perhaps the real danger is that children don’t pick up on the subtleties of era and may too easily transpose their experience of Disney’s one Black princess to all Black people. But this is why adults should watch and discuss Disney with kids.)
Even though Tiana has typically Black features, she falls in love with a lighter-skinned man (some people say Naveen is white, but I don’t think he is.), therefore implying that Black girls should “marry up” by snagging a lighter-skinned man. (I don’t take issue with this, either. I think that Naveen IS also Black, just lighter skinned. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of ethnic ambiguity. It’s the way our whole world is heading, after all.)
- Disney’s only Black princess spends the majority of her movie NOT EVEN BEING HUMAN and therefore eradicating the question of race, anyway. (This criticism holds some water, I think, especially with the pervasiveness in our history of comparing African Americans to animals.)
None of these things are very egregious on their own, nor even together. The problem, of course, is that Tiana is asked to bear such a heavy weight as Disney’s (still) one and only African American leading character. It’s too much pressure to heap on the shoulders of one character, or of one movie. Which is why Disney and other studios should stop treating diversity as a marketing stunt and just incorporate it into the way they do business. It wouldn’t matter that Tiana spends most of her movie as a frog if we had other Disney movies featuring Black characters that remained human throughout.
It’s this weight of responsibility that cripples the movie, I think. It tries so hard to get everything right that it loses some heart in the process.
So, the moral of the story? DISNEY NEEDS MORE DIVERSITY.
The Messaging Is Great, Except …
So even though this movie didn’t give me all the Disney feels I dreamed about when I learned about the return to traditional animation, on my rewatch this week there was one thing that resonated with me.
I really liked that Tiana and Naveen didn’t return to their human forms until after they had accepted the possibility of living their lives as frogs.
There’s something very zen about it, you know? Like being able to find true happiness only when you’ve let go of expectation, or falling in love only when you’ve stopped looking for it.
But then I started to think about it a little more.
And then I wasn’t so sure.
See, the whole idea is that through their relationship (developed as frogs) Tiana and Naveen both learn to be more “balanced” people. Tiana learns to relax and let loose a bit, while Naveen learns to, you know, act like a grownup and maybe do some work? (btw, I’d need MORE evidence than a few chopped vegetables before I was ready to commit to a guy who had spent his whole life as a freeloader, especially if I had a strong a work ethic as Tiana.) But the whole movie has been about how Tiana’s big dream is to open a restaurant — NOT to find a man. That’s so clearly what is supposed to appease all the feminist mommies in the audience.
But what is the ULTIMATE lesson that Tiana must learn?
That being with Naveen is more important than her dream of opening a restaurant.
That a man is more important than her dream of opening a restaurant.
That the thing about her that MOST needs to change is her single-minded ambition — and only when she gives THAT up can she attain true happiness.
She still gets her restaurant in the end, so, yay, minority girls really CAN have it all.
But not until they make peace with giving the greater part of it up.
For Further Reading:
- Are Disney princesses good role models? – A podcast that focuses on The Princess & the Frog from before its release.
- 24 Reasons Tiana is the Most Underrated Princess