The Princess and the Frog is Disney’s most thoughtful hand-drawn animated film—though it lacks the visual lushness of computer animation (or, for that matter, earlier hand-drawn movies like Beauty and the Beast), its story disassembles the Princess Industrial Complex with sharp commentary on race, class and gender. Oh, and it tells a pretty good tale.
Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Disney’s first black princess, grows up in New Orleans (it’s a shame—the animators had a chance to make the Crescent City as lovely as Paris was in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and just … didn’t.) Her mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey) is a seamstress, her father James (Terrence Howard) is a laborer with dreams of opening a restaurant; Eudora’s best customer is Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), who is white, wealthy and being raised by her father, Big Daddy (John Goodman).
An early shot of the movie explains so much with so little: young Tiana and Charlotte are in Charlotte’s room as Eudora reads them a fairy tale. Tiana wears a play crown. Charlotte wears a full, pink child-sized ballgown, a princess hat, and is surrounded by princess dolls. And while Charlotte buys into the story, hanging on every word, Tiana is more skeptical. After the story is over, we see just how much princesses mean to Charlotte—her room (pink, of course) is filled with Eudora’s princess creations. Charlotte wholeheartedly believes that her worth lies in who she marries.
Thanks to both economic circumstance and parental discretion, Tiana believes that her worth lies in her work—she wants to go into business with her father. However, the juxtaposition isn’t that black and white; while Tiana is disdainful of fairy tales, she also, as she grows, manages to eliminate all magic from her life—including the magic of family, of dreaming and of love.
Years later, when Charlotte is poised to marry Prince Naveen of Maldonia (Bruno Campos), Tiana is set to put a down payment on the restaurant she now will run alone—her father now is a photograph, with a Distinguished Service Cross draped over it (interesting fun fact: I am enough of a dork to wonder if an African-American serviceman would ever have won such an honor at a time when black troops were typically relegated to non-combat roles. Turns out 21 actually did. Thanks, Internet!) But the two girls’ dreams run into problems: Tiana can’t get her loan because she is both black and a woman; Charlotte’s prince, well, see the title.
Tiana and Naveen, thanks to the machinations of “shadow man” Dr. Facilier (Keith David), are both turned into frogs. The adventures they share are exciting, helped along by strong supporting characters like Louis, a gator who wishes to play trumpet (Michael Leon-Wooley, with Grammy winner and New Orleans native Terence Blanchard providing his tooting); and Ray, a toothless Cajun lighting bug from the Bayou (Jim Cummings). Randy Newman’s music is outstanding, combining all the music New Orleans made famous: jazz, gospel, zydeco and blues all make their appearance (Ray’s song to his love, “Evangeline,” is particularly lovely.)
The movie is rated G and has very little objectionable content. If you object to depictions of magic and the like, Dr. Facilier practices voodoo, including reading tarot cards (there is also a good voodoo priestess, Mama Odie (Jennifer Lewis); however, the magic—both good and evil—is no more than what appears in “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty.” The scene when Dr. Facilier is dragged to his final “reward” will probably scare some young kids. And the story does take a heartbreaking turn, but it’s probably best to get kids used to crying in movies, right?
While “The Princess and the Frog” is produced using a retro technology, it acknowledges and embraces that animated films are getting smarter; the characters and story reflects that. And, with Tiana being Disney’s first African-American princess (Snow White came out in 1937, to give you an idea of how long it took), it is groundbreaking—though not just because she’s black. She’s the culmination of a long line of princesses who are getting smarter, more self-reliant, and more self-aware. She owes a lot to previous princesses—particularly Beauty and the Beast’s Belle—but is a woman set to make it on her own.