I have a little girl, and with that, the responsibility of protecting her from/helping her deal with the big, messy, broken world her mother and I brought her into. It’s changed the way I look at things significantly; one of the things I’ve found myself pondering the last few months is the Disney Princess Industry. Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora (aka Sleeping Beauty,) Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan (who, as far as I can figure out, aren’t actually princesses) seem to dominate the imaginations of little girls the world over. And they make a lot of money for the mouse with the big ears. There are princess dresses, figurines, cakes, furniture, bicycles, and even Pez dispensers. I know I’m a big fuddy duddy to even say this, but I have strong reservations about my daughter growing up thinking she’s a princess and/or idolizing princesses. I am not a king, nor do I want to be. Aristocracy and feudalism were extremely oppressive systems, through which a few, because of their genealogy, lived in luxury and privilege at the expense of the many, who lived in poverty. In the era of democracy, why do we idolize aristocracy? Why can’t we be, or strive to be, noble, honest peasants?
I’m saying all of this because I think that Disney’s newest Princess movie actually holds a mirror up, briefly, to the Princess obsession they have created. “The Princess and the Frog” opens with a pan across the bedroom of a very rich, very princess-obsessed little girl, whose names is Charlotte. If this girl’s father doesn’t keep the Disney store in business singlehandedly, at least he’s on a first-name basis with its employees. The little girl who lives in this room isn’t the protagonist of the movie; no, that would be the daughter of her maid, who custom-makes Princess dresses for her. She’s not the villain either, though it appears she might be for a while. In the end, she is just a dopey, good-hearted girl, willing to marry anyone who has an HRH in front of his name. She’s certainly not someone whose praises you would sing, or whom you’d want your daughters to emulate. Is this how Disney sees the target audience of their Princess franchise?
The hero is Tiana, who has no interest in being a Princess – so inevitably, she becomes one in the end. She is a hard worker, working double and triple shifts as a waitress in New Orleans, trying to save enough money to buy her own restaurant. This is her father’s dream, but he died before he could realize it. A real live Prince – Naveen of Maldonia—is coming to Nawlins for Mardi Gras, and in her giddiness, Charlotte throws away enough money for Tiana to start her restaurant. But Naveen gets tangled up with a Shadow Man, and ends up a frog. And then, wouldn’t you know it, Tiana ends up a frog, too. They escape the big party hanging on to a floating balloon, but then find that they have to journey through the bayou back to the city before midnight so the spell can be broken. Tiana and Naveen are aided by a jazz-loving alligator and a toothless firefly named Raymond (who reminded me of no one so much as Bubbles from “The Wire.” Baseheads in Disney cartoons? A sure sign of the apocalypse.)
Disney goes back to the drawing board, literally, for “Princess and the Frog,” and the results can only be described as charming. Especially in the muddle and mess of all the recent 3-D films, with pop your eyes but ultimately just don’t look all that great, it’s kind of fun to see “Princess” done old school. The colors are bright, the lines are simple, and it all feels a bit nostalgic.
There’s a surprising twist near the end, but don’t worry, Tiana gets to marry her prince and start her restaurant and live happily ever after. But along the way, a major character dies. This is shocking territory for Disney; while plenty of parental figures die in Disney stories (think “Bambi” and “The Lion King”) as a way of moving the plot forward, I can’t remember a tear-jerking scene like this one in a Disney film…well, ever. It’s heartwarming in the end, but if you’re a parent, you might want to consider whether your 4 year old will make it to the end.