Before I went to see this film, I read this great post by Nnedi Okorafor which deals with some of the issues she had with the film (which she otherwise liked), particularly with racial & cultural themes. You should read it too, because it’s great.
My response to the film is not just as a woman, someone who generally enjoys Disney movies and a feminist, but also as the mum of a little girl who adores Disney Princesses and has bought into the brand lock stock and barrel.
The movie itself is great – beautifully drawn, with good crunchy characters and probably the best Disney romance since Hercules and Megara (or, if we’re talking romances for Disney princesses, Belle and the Beast). I have no way of knowing if 1920’s New Orleans is being presented here in an authentic way, but there was a surprising depth of cultural details that I certainly enjoyed. The music contributed to this, and blended very well with the story (more so than in most Disney movies of the last 15 years where a couple of ‘big’ songs are thrown haphazardly in between dialogue). Even the random stuffed-toys-in-the-making animal helper characters had interesting personalities and story arcs (I shed a tear over Ray the firefly).
But never mind the story, it’s the princess that parents everywhere will have to live with. Let’s look at Tiana…
I’ve heard people complain that we finally get a black Disney princess, and she not only spends most of the movie as a frog, but also has to work for a living instead of just getting the fantasy romance. While these points are valid, there really isn’t much to worry about in this regard. Tiana’s image as a young, pretty, glamorous black Disney princess is everywhere. She only appears in her iconic green dress for about thirty seconds in the film, and already in the last 24 hours I’ve seen it on a storybook cover, a movie poster, birthday cards and a doll. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what’s in the movie at all – it’s the image that will survive, and the image of Tiana treats her as an equal to the other major princesses (as opposed to the minor leagues, such as Pocahontas and Mulan, who are given lesser status in official merchandise because they’re not technically princesses and not because of any other cultural or racial reasons, honestly)
Also – who wants a Disney Princess who lies around eating peeled grapes anyway? Tiana has far more personality than most of them have in their little finger – my favourite before now has been Belle, not only because I liked her movie before I had a daughter, but because she’s brunette and reads books, has her own personality and gets a decent romance rather than just being hurled at the nearest prince. Tiana is my new favourite! I liked that there are so many positive messages in this film – but the one that stands out most is that there is no one destined path, but if there’s something you want/wish/dream then you might not get it the way that you think you will. It’s a far more interesting message than any other Disney film.
Actually, there’s a lot of Disney meta in this one, from the ‘wish upon a star’ cliche through to the little girls who are obsessed with princess dresses. None of it is hamfisted, and all of it contributes to a movie that genuinely feels like progress is being made, rather than more of the same. Just as Beauty and the Beast offered a more complex and sophisticated story for little girls than the Snow White/Cinderella/Sleeping Beauty films, or even its closer peers like The Little Mermaid (Jasmine from Aladdin is pretty awesome for a love interest, but that’s basically what she is, she barely gets her own story arc), Tiana and the Princess and the Frog have levelled up.
Prince Naveen was likeable but flawed, and like the Beast has some maturing to do before he’s worthy of our girl. I liked that his learning curve matched Tiana’s (she worked so hard she was missing out on life; he played too hard and had no purpose in life) but that ultimately he supported her dream rather than the other way around. He fell harder and sooner than she did, and made the greater change in what he thought he needed to be happy – but never actually changed his personality, just his goal-posts.
Also, Tiana has strong parental influence – her mother is still alive HOORAY and generally awesome, and they have a great relationship. Tiana’s dad dies before the main story begins but we do get to see him early in the film and how his personality and his death have shaped who she is as a person – which makes her feel more real than any other Disney Princess. We never find out a thing about Belle, Jasmine, Ariel, Cinderella or Snow White’s missing mothers in the films (I think some of the supporting material addresses this, for Ariel at least) and I’m pretty sure Sleeping Beauty’s mother is just window dressing, while her father gets whole scenes of comic relief and a duet which he shares with the Prince Phillip’s father.
Finally – and this is the big one – Tiana has a friend. Not a male plush toy (yes Sebastian, Flounder and Jasmine’s Tiger, I’m looking at you) but an actual female friend. I understand Nnedi’s skepticism about why there had to be a white girl in the movie at all, but Charlotte with her blonde bob, pink princess dresses and screechy voice, is just wonderful. Sure, she’s a parody of Disney princesses, but she’s also a good and loyal friend. Gloriously self-obsessed and man-mad (she has her cap set on the prince long before Tiana even knows he exists) she nevertheless has two strong scenes in which she sets aside her own needs to help her friend, without even a hesitation. While Charlotte is after the prince (and indeed Tiana spends most of the movie thinking he also wants to marry her, if only for her money) she is still instantly supportive when she realises Tiana has fallen in love with him, genuinely glad her friend has found the fairy tale rather than being jealous that she did not.
Do you have any idea how rare this is? In any movie, actually, but in princess girl movies especially. No Disney princess has ever had a best friend who was a girl, let alone one who was a rival for her man but does not let that in any way taint their friendship. The closest thing any of them have had to female friendship (discounting older female helper characters like the fairy godmothers or Mrs Potts) was Pocahontas, whose best friend spends most of the film angry/jealous at her, and Ariel, whose sisters don’t understand her at all. Mulan gets female friends in her sequel movie, and I haven’t seen all the sequels to the other princesses, so I can’t discount those for certain, but – yeah. Charlotte is a big deal. I suspect many will hate her, because she displays many traits that tend to be bitch magnets, but I hope there will be plenty of parents and daughters who appreciate how cool and rare it is for a Disney princess to have a supportive best friend.
Sadly godiyeva‘s eldest wasn’t feeling well enough to come along, so I don’t have any evidence on how well this film will appeal to the boychildren (and the unprincessable girlchildren), but I suspect it will go down well. Not least because the glorious princess outfits are balanced out by swamp adventuring, comedy animals, spooky magic and lots of fun music. Raeli found it quite scary in parts, which is a good sign for the less nervy children. There’s a very good balance of action and comedy in between all the romance, and given that the romance happens between two frogs anyway (there’s an awesome scene involving tongues that I’m kind of surprised they got away with!) it should be pretty accessible.