BY KAINE ENE
You thought it was going to be Encanto, didn’t you?
The year 2009 marked the year where Disney Animation Studios would drop their last 2D animated feature film to date, which is interesting considering this came after their jump to CG animation with films like Meet the Robinsons (2007) and Bolt (2008). 2009 brought us The Princess and the Frog, and I think it still rings today as a good take on a Disney Princess story and an embrace of African American culture. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend watching it before reading this article. In honor of Black History Month, let’s dive into the Disney classic that for years I didn’t notice was set in the 1920’s.
The movie follows Tiana, a young African American woman in New Orleans, Louisiana, who’s grown up with an affinity for cooking. Her father was always a hardworking man, working double, sometimes triple shifts, but never failed to put on a smile for his daughter and encourage her abilities. Tiana’s goal to open her own restaurant was set, and her dad wanted her to work hard for it. Tiana of course does grow up to be a hardworking woman—although she works too hard—and after her dad’s passing, she wants to make sure all his hard work means something.
Little Tiana and her family. (Disney)
Though, when she’s finally accumulated enough money, and buys the property from the Fenner Brothers (Harvey and Henry Fenner) to make her restaurant dream a reality, they tell her later that she’s been outbid, and she needs to top that soon. When she makes a point out of how long it took her to save the money, it’s the excuse Harvey makes in response that stands out as heartbreaking: “Exactly, which is why a little woman of your… background would’ve had her hands full trying to run a big business like that, you know. You’re better off where ya at.”
Ouch. Tiana is a very easy character to empathize with, as we’ve seen her determination up to this point, and she’s a good example of how determined the black community has always been. How we keep going in the face of oppression. What’s to be noted, though, is how Disney shows this in a very Disney way. While this reality is touched on, it’s admittedly not the main point of the film.
The theme of The Princess and the Frog is to never be blind to what you need in the pursuit of what you want. Tiana finds this out by kissing the frog version of Prince Naveen of Maldonia, turning into a frog herself, falling in love with Naveen, and eventually realizing that she needs to not lose sight of the love she has for others, like how her father always gave his family a loving smile. And kissing Prince Naveen turns both him and Tiana into humans so she can buy and open her dream restaurant.
The point is that the journey and focus of the movie is the fairy tale, and more so the motif of love between Tiana and Naveen than it is the struggles and triumphs of the black community. So how is this a good take on black culture, the community, and its history? Why is The Princess and the Frog a good movie to watch with your friends on black history month?
Again, the movie embraces African American culture. There’s a passion for it that emanates though its music, and even most of the characters themselves. The music sounds very inspired by the jazz music of black culture, given a Disney catchiness that will charm anyone. Tiana sings her song “Almost there” when she finally gets the money to buy her restaurant in Act 1, which has a jazzy tone that oozes of her confidence and determination. Dr. Faciler, the main villain, sings “Friends on the Other Side,” which starts off with a jazzy undertone, but gets more haunting once he starts to turn Naveen into a frog.
Tiana singing “Almost There,” in which the animation style changes. (Disney)
The Princess and the Frog may be another Disney Princess fairy tale, but it’s not just another Disney Princess fairy tale. It touches on the determination of people of the black community like Tiana and her family, while offering a typical “Disney” escape from the real world with its plot and music. I understand that’s not for everyone; some would rather a more direct take on African American history and culture, but by framing the film as a good time for the family with a universal message, it makes it both a good black story, and a good story that’s black. Opening up discussion for progress made by an important community and progress we could make while putting a smile on people’s faces is an amazing skill for a filmmaker to have. A film like The Princess and the Frog is a celebration for all to enjoy.