Tuesday, March 16, 2010
As much as I tried to avoid it, my nearly-five-year-old daughter is mad-crazy about princesses. "Cinderella" is on heavy rotation in my home, as is "Pocahontas" and, to my horror, "The Little Mermaid" (as a girl who gives up everything she is, just to get her man, Ariel is my nemesis). It thrills me when my child requests "Mulan," the anecdote to the Finned One, and better yet, when she eschews it all for "The Incredibles." Hooray for superpowers. But these films have the drawback of violence. It would seem there is no middle ground. Or is there?
"The Princess and the Frog" has just been released on DVD and with it, Disney’s attempt to find some balance. I can’t say they’ve succeeded but certainly, points earned for effort.
Inspired by The Grimm Brothers’ “The Frog Prince,” and adapted from the subsequent novel “The Frog Princess” by E. D. Baker, Disney drove full-speed off the radical cliff and gave us our first ever Black Princess. Lo! The innovation! Never mind that she isn’t actually a Princess.
But it’s not just skin color or her non-royal status that sets Tiana apart: Unlike many of the other swirly-eyed Disney princesses who idle away time longing for a Prince, Tiana, the daughter of a servant-woman, is driven. She’s ambitious for something more. She dreams of owning her own restaurant one day and knows that hard work is the surest way to this reality. (There is a delightful scene in the movie in which Tiana comes home from work and collapses on her bed only to have her alarm clock ring, so she can get ready to go to her second job. Cinderella worked hard, too, but only because she was enslaved. There’s irony in there somewhere, I think.)
While Tiana is scrimping and saving, we meet Prince Naveen, the not-really-Black-Black prince. Disney gave us our chocolate-y girl but back-pedaled on the prince with a disappointing cross between George Hamilton and Rudolph Valentino. I can only suppose Disney execs didn’t think an audience could handle, say, D’Angelo, as a proper suitor for Tiana. But whatever the reason behind this creative decision, it was a badly missed mark.
So the self-involved Naveen, while looking for his meal ticket, messes with the wrong dude and is turned into a frog. Of course, we all know what is needed to break that particular spell. When he sees Tiana at a costume party, he mistakes her for a princess (who wouldn’t?) and manages to convince her to lay on one him. Which she does, reluctantly and—poof!—she turns into a frog. And this is where the movie misses again.
I admit I was excited about this film. I’d had enough with the pale-faced fawning that was happening in my house. I looked forward to my daughter seeing herself reflected in the eyes of Princess Tiana, and having other definitions of beauty displayed in her idols. But note to Disney: When your heroine spends more than half of the film as an amphibian? It’s pretty tough to compete with the other six princesses, even the one who is half-princess, half-halibut. Especially her.
Visually, the movie was dazzling. New Orleans is aglow in the magic light of fireflies, the neighborhoods drip with weeping willows and nearly every scene is splashed in vibrant, succulent color. The music matches the scenery and it’s no wonder Randy Newman was nominated for awards again this year.
But after Tiana’s reduction, during what seemed like her long winter as a frog in the bayou, I found myself alternating between daydreams and scolding my fidgeting daughter in hushed tones, we paid for this movie and you are going to sit through it and like it!
I don’t want to give away the end because it’s very suspenseful and totally unpredictable. Well. Okay. It’s suspenseful. Certain parts are downright scary and will probably need to be fast-forwarded for the under 5 set. A couple of small kids were carried out of the theater crying before they could see Tiana’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed, debutante friend attempt to break the spell and restore Naveen and Tiana to their Homosapien selves. Disney deserves kudos for not building in animosity and antagonism between the two faux-princesses. This was a refreshing change.
I took my daughter to Disneyland recently and we waited in line to meet the princesses. Tiana was nowhere to be seen. But when I asked my kid later what her favorite part of the day was, she answered, “Meeting Ariel out of the ocean.” Disney is going to have to do better than "The Princess and the Frog" if they are going to divert her attention.
Readers, what did you think of "The Princess and the Frog"? Does this movie represent progress, or does Disney squander the opportunity? Let us know what you think.