I decided to keep going with the Disney “princess” theme and watched The Princess and the Frog last weekend, and this has to be the great unsung Disney film. I saw it at the theater when it came out, and I think I watched it on the Disney Channel back when I had cable, but I hadn’t thought about it in a while. You almost never hear anything about it, but it really is one of their best. For one thing, it’s utterly gorgeous. They combined the warmth of the hand-drawn characters with the richness and detail of computer-animated backgrounds, so every frame is like a work of art. The music is wonderful, and there’s plenty of it. Tiana is a great heroine. She has a life goal that she’s actually working toward. The movie goes against the usual Disney mantra and states that wishing on a star doesn’t do you any good if you don’t also put in the work. Tiana doesn’t fall in love with the prince at first sight. They only fall in love after going through adventures together. Both Tiana and the prince have growth arcs, things they have to learn from each other. Most of the other fairy tale princess movies don’t involve any real character growth for the princess. She’s already a good person at the beginning and is more or less the same person at the end, but Tiana actually grows and changes.
Tiana also has a female friend, something I’ve realized is lacking in almost all of these movies. The only women other than the heroines are either maternal figures or villains. If the heroines have sidekicks, they’re all male. Cinderella did have a few female mice, but they didn’t get names and weren’t the main sidekicks. It was Jaq and Gus who were Cinderella’s friends. Belle had Mrs. Potts and the wardrobe, but they were more motherly figures. There wasn’t a household object who appeared to be about Belle’s age who could hang out with her as a friend? There are some uncomfortable racial issues with Tiana and Charlotte, but they have a nicely non-toxic friendship, with Charlotte being willing to sacrifice her dream of marrying a prince in order to help her friend.
And that issue of race would be my one quibble with this movie. I’m a little uncomfortable with the way it glosses right past the fact that in 1920s New Orleans, Jim Crow laws and segregation would have been in full force and this was the heyday of the Klan. Someone in Big Daddy’s position probably would have held a high rank in the Klan. But then I remembered something a Black friend once said about how weird Southern racism can be, about how it’s on a societal level, while one-on-one people can be quite nice and friendly to individual Black people. And then I considered what this movie shows. Charlotte might be generous and kind to Tiana and willing to give up her dream to help her friend, but she doesn’t invite Tiana to her party until she needs to hire her to serve beignets. White people go into Black spaces to be served or entertained, but Black people aren’t included in white spaces unless they’re serving or performing. They managed to walk a very fine line here of not making this fairytale movie aimed at children openly address segregation and related issues while still depicting that society fairly accurately in subtle ways. They did sand off the most horrible edges and not depict the truly ugly parts of that world but they also didn’t show it as some kind of color-blind multiracial paradise.
I suppose none of the other films showed the Black Death or the abuse of peasants, or any of the other realism from their time periods, but their settings are all vague. Beauty and the Beast specifically mentions France, but everything else could take place in a secondary fantasy world where it’s possible society worked differently. They give a very specific place and time in the real world for this movie, and it’s a place and time within relatively recent memory. All my grandparents were alive at that time (and mostly living in Louisiana). There are still a few people alive now who were alive when this movie took place.
I hadn’t thought of this movie when I was listing examples of the Romantic Fantasy Road Trip, but it definitely is one. We get the Bargain when she agrees to kiss him to break the spell in exchange for him to help her buy the building for her restaurant. Then there’s Bickering when that doesn’t work and they’re both stuck as frogs. They have totally opposite worldviews, so there’s a lot of clashing. They come under Attack by the frog-hunting Cajuns, then they Bond after working together to save each other from the hunters. They Dance while Ray sings about his love for Evangeline. The Departure/Return sequence is a bit different because the Departure doesn’t involve a temporary return to their old lives before they decide to go back to each other. I guess they’re trying to get back to their old lives before they accept that they can’t and decide to stay together. The more standard approach to this kind of story would involve the spell breaking, but he then realizes he doesn’t enjoy being a prince without her and she doesn’t want to own a restaurant without him, but they did something different that’s actually rather clever.
I may need to get this one on DVD, just in case Disney does something dumb and removes it from streaming. It’s definitely a good happy-place movie that leaves me with a sigh and a bit of a tear in my eye. It’s also weirdly motivating. I feel shamed by comparison by how hard Tiana is willing to work to reach her dreams, which spurs me to get my act together.
Although I’d originally planned to watch these movies in production order, switching back and forth between Classic era and Revival era movies has made some of the differences clearer. One difference is that I think there’s stronger and deeper characterization in the newer movies. The characters have goals and motivations and are more complex. The newer movies are also longer, so they have more time for character development. The older movies were around 75 minutes, while the newer ones are about 110 minutes. Another change in the newer movies is the introduction of the villain song. The Evil Queen, Lady Tremaine, and Malificent don’t get musical numbers, but the villain songs are a staple of the new movies, starting with Ursula’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in The Little Mermaid. Gaston gets his big number, and Dr. Facilier has his song.
Up next, Alice in Wonderland.