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December 17, 2009

Enchanted by Disney's "The Princess and the Frog"

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Premiere of Disney's "The Proncess and the Frog" - ArrivalsDisney's "The Princess and the Frog" was number one at the box office last weekend, taking in $24.2 million.  It's Disney's first animated fairy tale starring a black princess and after you ask yourself, what the heck took them so long, the big question, black princess aside is, how's the movie?

Well, the movie's quite good. 

Time Magazine in fact calls it the Best Film of 2009.

While I'm not quite ready to say that, I will say all the Disney magic and beautiful, hand drawn animation are enchanting in this story set in New Orleans during the Jazz Age.  Tiana (Anika Noni Rose, pictured left), the aforementioned princess, is a lovely character full of hopes and dreams.  As a child, she shares her Dad's (Terrence Howard) love of cooking and as an adult, she dreams of opening the restaurant he never could. 

Her prince, Naveen (Bruno Campos) loves jazz music and wants to live the high life even though he's been cut off without a cent by his parents.  That lust for money is what gets him in trouble with Dr. Facilier (Keith David), an evil voodoo priest who tempts people with their heart's desire but demands a terrible price.

Also in the cast is Tiana's friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody).  Charlotte's kind of a parody of other Disney princesses.  She's blond, her daddy's rich and she's quite spoiled, but--and here's where those racial images are important--because she's white, I was thrilled to see that she never became Tiana's savior or her enemy.

Anika Noni Rose of "Dreamgirls" and "The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency"shows her marvelous versatility as Tiana.  Bruno Campos, aka The Carver from "Nip/Tuck"--from one extreme to the other!--does Prince Naveen proud.  The rest of the cast including Jenifer Lewis, John Goodman, Michael-Leon Wooley, Oprah Winfrey and Jim Cummings give solid and entertaining support.

As far as the plot, every fairy tale needs its life lessons.  By the end of the movie, Tiana learns she has to dig deep to live a happy life, and Prince Naveen learns that money and living the high life aren't everything.

I agree with Kimberly at LadyGypsy.net who felt the messages were important yet subtlely delivered:

I never felt beaten over the head with any of these themes. For example, when Tiana and her mother left Big Daddy’s house via streetcar, you see a change from the mansions to the smaller working-class housing. You immediately know Tiana’s family doesn’t have as much as Big Daddy and Lottie. But Tiana’s family doesn’t whine about being poorer or having to work harder. They just are and do.

"The Princess and the Frog" is more closely related to "Beauty and the Beast" than say "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" or "Sleeping Beauty."  Belle and Tiana both have interests they love that make the characters more relatable.  For Belle it was books and reading, and for Tiana, cooking.

"The Princess and the Frog" is full of rich atmosphere: scenes of jazz, food and the racial melting pot that makes up New Orleans.  The animated extras are drawn in a welcome range of skin tones, shapes and sizes.

As a salute to the animation, it was also great to see the lead animators for the main characters recognized individually in the credits.  I don't remember seeing that before.

Surprisingly, I liked the film more than my young companions.  Cara, who's six and Milos, who's nine, weren't nearly as impressed as I was.  Cara got spooked by the Dr. Facilier demons and Milos thought the best part was when a main character died. 

What can I say, he's only nine. 

They both enjoyed the movie but I have a feeling the old fashioned animation and story telling weren't their cup of tea.  They appear to be more of the Pixar, "Toy Story" generation.

However, I was very excited to see this movie and I wasn't the only one.  Kat Calvin at BAP World loved it:

I am so excited, I have been waiting for this movie since I was 5 and it was everything that I have always wanted it to be. I loooove that it was set in NOLA (and it looked and sounded just like the Louisiana I used to live in, right down to the occasional Voodoo influences), love that she was absolutely beautiful and played by the inestimable Anika Noni Rose, who did a phenomenal job, love that they finally went back to gorgeous hand drawn animation, and love love love the Randy Newman jazz-Zydeco-Disney interpretations!!

It's worth reading Gina McCauley's full review on her blog What About Our Daughters, though I'll quote one of her criticisms here.  It was about the music:

I know a song from every Disney movie I’ve ever seen. I can’t even remember what any of the songs in The Princess and the Frog were about. None of them had catchy tunes or melodies. The funniest character, IRONICALLY, in the movie that was supposed to have a Black princess was the sugar baron’s daughter, she was a mess, but memorable.

Gina's got a point.  The first time I saw "Beauty and the Beast" I watched it twice, simply for the songs.  "The Princess and the Frog" doesn't have memorable songs like that but during all the musical numbers I was always tapping my toe.

Karyn at Nia Onlinesaw the movie also and addresses some of the complaints about the film with quotes from the star Anika Noni Rose:

Already, the film has attracted its share of criticism with some complaining that Disney tried to hard to make “The Princess and the Frog” politically correct, and others complaining about details such as the ambiguous ethnicity of Prince Naveen.

Rose, noting that the film contains many positive characters who are definitely black, said she didn’t feel any slight was intended by not drawing Prince Naveen with what are considered to be “black” details.
Said Rose, “I’m hoping that we’ll be able to walk into a theater with a kind of openness and wonder that our kids have and just take it in.”

Call me sentimental but the movie was even more enjoyable for me because of what it represented.

Some may poo poo it , call it politically correct or whatever--but every time I talk about how the diverse range of black women who exist in this world are not seen nearly enough on the big screen, this is what I'm talking about wanting to see. 

Yes, it's a fairy tale, yes it's fiction, but Tiana and "The Princess and the Frog" are a huge step in the right direction.

Related Links:

Professor Susurro at Like a Whisper has a review with specific myths and facts about the film.

Movie Mom also has a review

Black and Married with Kids, "The Princess and the Frog" Open Thread

A review by Critical Women on Film

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