It’s Just a Movie!

Critics at NPR and LA Weekly have railed against Disney’s portrayal of the first black princess in “The Princess and the Frog.” LA Weekly even titled its review, “Disney’s Princess Frog Can’t Escape the Ghetto.” Although this backlash has come from the minority of critics, it’s troubling to see this sort of reaction in mainstream reviews. The film has an empowering message, little racism, hand-drawn animation and a decent plotline. This isn’t to say that “Princess and the Frog” is the best movie that Disney has produced, but it’s a fair effort.

The film’s critics dislike the movie’s setting in the post-war Jim Crow-era South. Now, one might wonder why a company like Disney would select Louisiana at the turn of the century to showcase its first black princess; it seems like a recipe for disaster. Couldn’t Disney have avoided so many objections of political incorrectness by placing it in the North? Well, maybe the North wasn’t glamorous enough. Or maybe the company wanted to somehow rectify the embarrassing racism of 1942’s “Song of the South” with another, more appropriate Southern tribute.

Whatever the case may be, the particular kind of Southern charm rendered by Disney has endless cinematic possibilities. They somehow manage to construct a fairy tale land of the bayou, fireflies, beignets, music, crocodiles and the smell of gumbo that sweep you up in the romance.

“The Princess and the Frog” presents to all viewers a way to enjoy Disney’s romanticized Southern culture and cinematography without the pains and harsh realism of, let’s face it, race issues. Is it authentic? Certainly not. But it’s not their job to present history, or even to communicate a social message. The South is merely an engaging setting that lets Disney hone in on what it can do best: animation, talking animals and musical numbers.

The real issue for the film is the protagonist, Tiana. In the past, Disney has created its ethnic princesses with personalities far stronger than their ivory power predecessors. Pocahontas and Mulan are remarkably resilient and end up courageously saving their nations.

In comparison, Tiana might seem a step down. She never takes a stand on the treatment of her people or the unfair laws that probably made her family poor. A story like that would be far too controversial for Disney.

Rather, Tiana’s fight happens on an individual level. She takes pride in her family rather than in her people. She struggles to work and save money to fulfill her father’s dream of opening a restaurant. She is not a warrior, but rather a capitalist – an aspiring small-business owner!

Is this the tour-de-force narrative that people wanted? Maybe not. “The Princess and the Frog” is a bit too cute for that. But, that doesn’t make it a bad effort. You could even say, in today’s economy, that a girl who works hard, perseveres despite discouragement, saves up her money and opens her own business might be a more pragmatic and useful role model for young audiences today.

It’s no coincidence that the protagonist has such an empowering role. Originally, Disney had Tiana as a chambermaid, but after much back-and-forth with social interest groups, the role was changed to waitress and entrepreneur. This is Disney making an effort to create a heroine that we can connect to today. Is that so bad?

Suzanne Casazza is a fourth-year English major. She can be reached at scasazza@uci.edu.