Disney released “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009 and it was notable for featuring the first African-American Disney Princess. There would later be some concerns from Disney because they didn’t attract enough boys to a film with the word “Princess” in the title and it didn’t receive the warm welcome that “Tangled” received a year later. It seems to me that “The Princess and the Frog” is actually an underrated film and deserves a place among the great Disney films.
The film follows Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a young woman in New Orleans who wants to open a restaurant, fulfilling the dream of both her and her dad (Terrence Howard). Tiana is a hard worker and finally earns the money, but fails to secure the restaurant after being outbid. At the same time Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) has arrived in New Orleans, completely broke. He is going to stay with the fabulously wealthy “Big Daddy” La Bouff (John Goodman) and his daughter Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), who would love to marry a prince. Naveen ends up tangled up with Dr. Facilier (Keith David, who should really do more animated Disney movies), a voodoo witch doctor who transforms the prince into a frog. Facilier also transforms Naveen’s valet Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) into Naveen, which is part of Facilier’s plan to take over New Orleans.
At the costume ball the La Bouff’s hold, Tiana meets Naveen in frog form and after much cajoling from the prince, she kisses him. This results in Tiana being transformed into a frog and the two are chased off into the Bayou. While there they meet a trumpet-playing alligator named Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and a firefly named Ray (Jim Cummings) who can help them find Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis). The two hope that Mama Odie can transform them back into humans, but they get deeper help from Mama Odie.
“The Princess and the Frog” paints a portrait of New Orleans that isn’t completely whitewashed. The viewers are shown the stark contrast between where the La Bouff’s live and where Tiana and her family live. The La Bouff’s live in a grand New Orleans mansion surrounded by other grand New Orleans mansions. Tiana’s family lives in a tiny run-down bungalow surrounded by similar buildings, all of which are occupied by blacks. The film could have portrayed New Orleans as a place where whites and blacks lived in harmony everywhere, but it shows us a socioeconomic and racial difference in where the characters live.
The film also shows us that Tiana faces difficulties because she’s a black woman. After all of her hard work, Tiana finally makes the down-payment for the restaurant but is outbid. She is then told by the realtors that it’s for the best because a woman of her “background” couldn’t possibly handle the pressures of running a restaurant. Although they don’t explicitly tell it to Tiana, the realtors do dismiss her dreams because she’s a black working-class woman. With the other characters who were servants, they didn’t get dismissed for their dreams because of their race or economic background. And while Tiana does get the prince in the end she doesn’t pick the prince because he will help her realize her dreams–although she realizes her dream will be complete if she shares it with him.
What’s also interesting is how the film portrays voodoo, which isn’t treated like a religion. There’s a very clear difference between good voodoo and bad voodoo in the film and they’re represented by Mama Odie and Dr. Facilier, respectively. Mama Odie uses her voodoo to help all living creatures while Dr. Facilier uses his voodoo to manipulate and control people while also serving his masters. This is a situation where the filmmakers could have shown voodoo as only being a tool for evil, but they chose not to do so and the film is better for that.
The film features terrific lively animation for all of the characters and settings. Even in the murky Bayou or the a dark cemetery it is always a delight to look at the film. Two of the best moments come during musical numbers. In “Almost There” we have a fantasy sequence where Tiana imagines her restaurant in an illustration coming to life, which fits in perfectly for the setting of the film. Later in the film there’s the sequence of “Dig a Little Deeper” there are numerous animals dancing and singing like they’re a gospel choir in a church. The sequence ends with multiple colored bottles hanging from Mama Odie’s tree that creates a look that reminds one of stained glass.
Randy Newman also wrote a terrific score for this film that is the finest Disney had in more than a decade. It does a great job of adding to the film’s setting and is incredibly memorable. “Dig a Little Deeper” is also one of the best songs of any of the Disney Princess songs simply because of how exuberant it manages to be.
But the film is not without fault and the weaknesses come in the form of Louis and Ray. Louis is at some moments a little too over-the-top which distracts from the relationship forming between Naveen and Tiana. Ray on the other hand has a weird plot where he’s in love with the evening star, which although amusing seems to do very little for the film.
But is Tiana a Good Role Model for Children? Yes.
Tiana is a hard-worker and an incredibly kind person. She never seems to dread her work, which might be tied to the fact that she views it as a means to achieve her goal. Additionally, Tiana actually has a dream that is a more substantial than “marry a prince” or “attend a ball.”
I also disagree with the idea that Tiana only ends up with Naveen because she wants him to help her make her restaurant a reality. Tiana makes it very clear at the end of the film she wants to be with Naveen because being around him makes her happy, not because he will make her restaurant magically occur.
Even though it has problems, “The Princess and the Frog” is a great movie to watch because it does present a good role model and is an excellent story with great characters and a terrific setting. So grab a bowl of gumbo and enjoy.