By Special Correspondents Nadra Kareem and Andrea Plaid
More than a year before its debut, “The Princess and the Frog” set tongues wagging. Some were overjoyed that Disney finally dedicated a feature to a black princess. Others criticized the studio’s history of racial gaffes in films such as “Aladdin” and “The Jungle Book” and wondered if Disney could change its track record with the “Princess and the Frog.” Some specifically took issue with “Princess” because the heroine, Tiana, spends more time on screen as a frog than as a black woman; because her prince, Naveen, isn’t black; and because the film portrays Voodoo questionably.
Now that the film’s out, what’s the verdict? Were these concerns warranted? Racialicious correspondents Nadra Kareem and Andrea Plaid recently caught a viewing of the film and dialogued about its merits and shortcomings. They also discussed whether “Princess,” which grossed $25 million its opening weekend, will be the first and last Disney production to feature an African-American heroine. That’s because, despite topping the box office when it came out, “Princess” sold far fewer tickets than recent Disney fare such as “Enchanted” did upon its release.
Warning: This dialogue contains spoilers.
Nadra Kareem: I quite enjoyed this film. I loved the music and Anika Noni Rose’s voice. I loved Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation. I found its depiction of race interesting as well. The movie’s set in 1920s New Orleans, but race is never explicitly brought up. The only time race is even hinted at is when the owners of the building Princess Tiana wants to buy refer to her “background.”
Andrea Plaid: But race is alluded to because the family lived in an all-black neighborhood and, clearly, her white friend has a lot more money than Tiana’s family. And even though Tiana’s mom wasn’t a domestic, she worked for the white family as their seamstress. I suspect the creatives may have counted on the adults in the audience to understand what they were seeing is a turn of the 20th-century NOLA where segregation was de jure and de facto.
NK: In some ways the movie ignores the racial situation of the time. I mean, Prince Naveen mistakes Tiana for a princess, which I liked. Her blackness didn’t exclude her from being royalty in his eyes. Also, no one objects to Tiana marrying Prince Naveen. So, what was your take on their relationship? Before the film’s release, there was much ado about Tiana being paired with a non-black prince.
AP: I loooooove everything about Naveen and Tiana’s relationship.
NK: This movie stood out because it didn’t seem like they were perfect strangers when they got married, which seems to be the case not just in other Disney films but in romantic comedies as well. There was some foundation to their romance. They knew each other’s faults but worked with them. They knew each other’s talents also.
AP: I loved the fact that Naveen supported Tiana’s dream of the restaurant, and she supported his dream of playing music. That’s a damn good relationship, and I think that’s missing in many a Disney flick.
NK: How did you feel about Tiana being a frog for so much of the film?
AP: I think that critique is utter bullshit.
NK: Yes, I mean, I didn’t forget what Tiana looked like in human form. You never forgot Tiana was a black lady. She was quite cute as a frog, too. Overall, I pretty much enjoyed everything about this movie except for its portrayal of Voodoo.
AP: So it wasn’t just me?
NK: Definitely not. On one hand I think the scenes portraying Voodoo will really scare young children. On the other hand, I was concerned that both children and adults unfamiliar with Voodoo would come away from “The Princess and the Frog” believing it to be evil rather than a belief system akin to Buddhism or Hinduism or what have you. I didn’t appreciate the African masks in the one Voodoo scene either. It indirectly linked Africa to evil.
AP: Exactly, along with the African masks, they had the “Samurai jack”-looking curlicue spirits and the Jack Skellington-esque “Voodoo man.”
NK: Although the character who practiced Voodoo—Dr. Facilier aka Shadowman—is clearly evil, the woman Tiana and Naveen visit to undo his work (turning them into frogs) is portrayed as a wise, caring old woman. Do you think the warmth of the Mama Odie character compensates for the demonization of Dr. Facilier? Clearly, she’s well versed in Voodoo, too.
AP: Mama Odie and her bayou hideaway really couldn’t compensate for the rather indelible impression of the Shadowman. Between [actor Keith David’s] voice and the animation of the character, Voodoo is seen as more bad than good when it’s really an ambivalent faith system. What I mean by ‘ambivalent’ is good and evil don’t function as polar opposites. A priest or priestess can use both forces.
NK: Another criticism I heard in relation to Shadowman is that he—the film’s villain—is black, while the prince is racially ambiguous (he’s from a fictional South American country). Personally, I think that their skin is so similar in shade that it’s doubtful little kids would distinguish dark skin as bad and lighter skin as good. Besides that, the film had so many other brown-skinned role models that one villain with brown skin can’t pose that much of a problem.
AP: Girl, thank you!
NK: In closing, let’s discuss how well “The Princess and the Frog” is doing at the box office. The film is off to a slow start as far as ticket sales are concerned. If it’s not a hit, will Tiana be Disney’s first and last black princess?
AP: No, because Disney and other companies are realizing the pent-up need for black folks to see themselves in these roles. If Disney doesn’t do it, then another studio may pick up on the idea.
NK: I certainly hope the thinking isn’t, ‘Well, we gave it a try, never again.’ I fear people might say the same about Obama, but I digress…
AP: I also think the fact that the stores can’t keep the merchandise on the shelves says a lot, too.