The Princess and the Frog, for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

On Monday I saw The Princess and the Frog. I saw it because I, like many others, followed the debates and controversies about Disney’s first black princess, Tiana, and I wanted to see the outcome of those debates for myself.

I was fascinated. I’m not sure how it stacks up lyrically against such classics as The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, but there was some serious, intense animation going on there. Before I get into that, I should explain a bit about the story. The movie, as you may have heard, was set in New Orleans, in the mid-World Wars period. The movie is closely involved with Creole/mish-mash culture and style. In fact, the vibrancy of the melting pot is a strong message underlying the entire movie. The entire movie, from start to finish, is moving. Here, there, everywhere. The little mermaid went from her hideout in the sea to the palace, the surface, the beach, et cetera, but that movie was really divided between under the sea and land. In contrast, we see a variety of different cultures/ways of life in The Princess and the Frog, from our heroine’s home in a semi-poor black section of town to her rich friend’s mansion lifestyle to bayou life. Each culture is presented as a valid way of life, with none demonized.

The lack of demonization showed up most clearly for me in the character of Charlotte, one of Tiana’s friends. Rich and spoiled, Charlotte was perfectly situated to be a new kind of evil stepsister – this time with shades of racism, as Charlotte was white. Instead, Charlotte was depicted as kind but thoughtless, a girl who was willing to give up her chance to become a princess – once someone pointed out that doing so would bring her friend true love.

However, she is an example of what I’m talking about, not what I want to focus on. That is the role the animation plays in tying this movie into the rest of the Disney pantheon, and the resulting political implications. Oh yes, political implications in Disney. I was struck.

Anyway, onto the animation. In keeping with the theme of energy and production in diversity, the animation for The Princess and the Frog riffs on several previous Disney movie styles. The memorable lagoon love song scene in The Little Mermaid is mirrored in a shot of the two frogs sitting on a little boat in the bayou as singing fireflies light up lotus lamps floating in a circle around them.

Yup, you read that right. Ariel’s big scene got co-opted to argue that frogs (read: people that don’t look like you) can/should have the same love experiences and opportunities as all the previous movies’ heroines. But it doesn’t end there: several other movie’s art styles were used at different points in the movie. I won’t name them all (because I probably didn’t notice them all), but the opening shots of New Orleans and Charlotte’s mansion are reminiscent of the artwork in Cinderella, and the ending credits are images of the bayou done in the style of Sleeping Beauty. In other words, the force and power of the previous Disney movies is used to legitimize The Princess and the Frog. At the same time that this variety of animation styles is strengthening the new movie, the fact that what could have been a cacophony of dissonant art styles does strengthen the movie underscores the overall message of strength, energy and unity in diversity.

Disney is not known for putting strong political messages in their films – quite the opposite, in fact. And the value of diversity isn’t exactly a new message. But what struck me was how thoroughly Disney went after that particular point. We see it in the storyline, where a poor, hardworking girl and a profligate prince both teach each other a bit about life. We see it in the animation, where several art styles are woven seamlessly (and skillfully) together. We see it in the characters from all walks of life who help the romantic leads along. And on, and on, and on. Disney could easily have just done a black princess movie. But they chose a couple messages (the other big one being the value of hard work) and hit those suckers with a sledgehammer. I’m impressed, Disney. I hope to see more works of this quality from you in the future.

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