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Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog came with a lot of high expectations and close scrutiny, mostly down to the fact it featured Disney's first African-American princess and that it was a return to the 2D animation that the studio was renowned for (their last had been the awful Home on the Range back in 2004).
The film was also meant to herald the triumphant return of the Disney fairy tale, something spelt out pretty blatantly in its early trailers, which began with clips from AladdinBeauty and the BeastThe Little Mermaid and The Lion King.
In many ways, it fulfilled its promises. It was released to positive reviews (sitting at 84% on Rotten Tomatoes) and certainly made a healthy profit – but apparently not as much a profit as Disney would have liked, sealing the fate not only of 2D animation but also the treatment of all fairy tale films to come.

As I mentioned in my comments on Rebecca Hains's The Princess Problem, the recent correlation between girlhood and princesses meant that Disney executives blamed "girliness" on the film's lack of explosive success, and subsequently renamed the upcoming Rapunzel as Tangled, with all promotional material focusing on Flynn Rider.
The story itself is obviously based on The Frog Prince by the Brothers Grimm, but the film credits E.D. Baker's The Frog Princess as a source of inspiration (though they changed the title after fears were raised it would be deemed insulting to their first black princess).
I read the book years ago, and if memory serves it would appear that Disney swiped Baker's conceit that a princess would be turned into a frog after kissing an enchanted prince (rather than the frog transforming back into a prince) and scrapped every other single detail of her story.
So having settled on a story that bears virtually no resemblance either to the original fairy tale or the inspirational novel based on said fairy tale (beyond the presence of frogs and transformative kisses) Disney concocts something brand new out of a very simple premise.
Tiana works as a waitress in 1920s New Orleans, harbouring dreams of one day opening a glitzy five-star restaurant. But being a. poor, b. a woman, and c. black (though the film tip-toes very delicately around this last issue) her dream seems to fly further and further out of reach, despite her workaholic attitude. But when her upperclass friend Charlotte La Bouff decides to host a lavish ball in the hopes of snaring visiting Prince Naveen, Tiana sees an opportunity to make some serious cash.
Meanwhile, Prince Naveen of Maldonia has arrived in New Orleans in search of fun, ignoring the fact that his parents have cut him off from his inheritance thanks to his irresponsible ways. He ends up in the lair of a conman called Doctor Facilier who possesses genuine magical powers, using them to turn Naveen into a frog (and his disgruntled manservant Lawrence into a Naveen lookalike).
While at Charlotte's party, Tiana is informed by the realtors that she still doesn't have the money she needs to open her restaurant, and soon after meets Naveen in his frog form. Given that she's wearing one of Charlotte's dresses at the time, he mistakes her for a princess, and since both are aware of the magical rules that govern these types of stories (Eudora reads The Frog Prince to Tiana and Charlotte at the beginning of the film, so I suppose the original fairy tale does get a shout out) Tiana agrees to kiss him in return for the money she needs.
Of course it all goes wrong, and Tiana ends up transformed into frog too. Now she and Naveen have to team up in order to turn back into humans and avoid Facilier's evil machinations.
***
There are more things to love than to hate in The Princess and the Frog, so we'll get the negative stuff out of the way first. Here are the two biggest problems with the film as I see them:
First, the plot is complex to the point of convolution. Tiana's goal is clear and admirable: to open a restaurant. It's set up beautifully in establishing scenes with her father, and her love of cooking is explored throughout. But between realizing her dream and dealing with the frog transformation and the nefarious scheming of Doctor Faciller, things get rather cluttered.
Faciller's plan is to ... okay, let me see if I can figure this out. His ultimate goal is to hand over New Orleans to the evil voodoo spirits that he works for. He's going to do this by killing Charlotte's father Eli ("Big Daddy") La Bouff and taking control of his power and influence. To do this, he has to trick Charlotte into marrying an eligible bachelor under his control, since once he kills Big Daddy, Charlotte (and her new husband) will inherit her father's massive fortune. And to do that, he has to turn Naveen into a frog and Lawrence into a Naveen lookalike so that Charlotte will marry the wrong prince – the one that secretly answers to Facillier.
The one spanner in the works is that Lawrence's transformation relies on Naveen's blood being poured into a voodoo necklace on a regular basis – and because Naveen escaped, Lawrence has only a limited amount of time to win over Charlotte before his disguise is destroyed. This leaves Facillier desperate to catch Naveen so that he can replenish the voodoo necklace and get Lawrence/Charlotte hitched.
Whew! Facillier does all that instead of just kidnapping Big Daddy and transforming himself into his doppelganger, with Big Daddy kept alive in secure surroundings so his blood can be siphoned when required.  
On top of carrying out this insanely complicated scheme, the film also has to give both Tiana and Naveen a character arc (she learns to lighten up; he learns to be less selfish), find a way to transform them back into humans (it has to do with kissing a princess, and comes with a reasonably clever twist) and make room for all the requisite animal sidekicks, musical numbers, and romantic subplots that are staple parts of any Disney fairy tale.
Closely connected to this problem of too much going on is that the film often feels like it's trying way too hard to capture the magic of past Disney films. There's a checklist to complete and a template to be followed, and as a result the finished product occasionally feels self-consciously manufactured; one that includes ingredients of a formula that really have no reason to be included.
So although several of the songs (Almost There, Friends on the Other Side) help set up character motivation and carry the story, most are completely superfluous. There are extraneous animal sidekicks that add nothing of significance: Louis is a crocodile that wants to be taken seriously as a jazz player, a conundrum that's forgotten almost as soon as it's introduced. There's at least one tedious slapstick sequence involving swamp rednecks that has absolutely no reason to exist. A quick scene involving Charlotte's dog Stella (that Tiana briefly talks to in frog-form) suggests a subplot that was cut very late in the game. And I don't think they ever really explain why Tiana turned into a frog after kissing Naveen. Seriously, why did that happen? Because she wasn't a princess?
Finally, as sweet as the romance between Tiana and Naveen can sometimes be, it's crowded out by all the other stuff that's going on. I could believe these two might fall in love, but there's just not enough time devoted to them getting to know each other. Granted, the love stories in past Disney fairy tales leaned heavily on Love At First Sight, but they were also given a sense of urgency due to the story being driven by the need for romance, either through plot necessity (The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast set up dire consequences if the lovers don't unite) or character motivation (nearly everything that occurs in Aladdin is because the protagonist loves Princess Jasmine).
In this case, the romance between Tiana and Naveen is just a nice bonus amidst all the more pressing elements of the plot (the transformation, the restaurant, the threat posed by Facillier) which robs the film of a crucial emotional relationship at its centre.
***
Basically, the film is at its worse when it's ticking boxes off the Disney Formula Checklist, but at its best when it's trying to do something new and creative. Along with the first black princess and the return of the traditional Disney fairy tale, The Princess and the Frog was significant in the being the first of the "third wave" of Disney Princesses – ones that weren't just about romance and dreams, but responsibility and personal goals.
If Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora were content to passively waiting for a princely rescue, and Ariel, Belle and Jasmine were all about following your dreams (which inevitably ended in landing a boyfriend, no matter how much a longing for adventure defined their initial characterization) then Tiana introduced something brand new: a clear and achievable goal for the future. She wants to open a restaurant, and she's willing to put in the hard work to accomplish it.
This sense of drive is also present to varying degrees in all the princesses that have followed: Rapunzel, Merida, Elsa, Anna and Moana, who are also afforded a greater sense of complexity in regards to their personalities.
The Princess and the Frog also pokes a bit of fun at the very clichés the Disney Princess franchise has been built on. Early in the film, Tiana's father tells her it's all well and good to wish on a star, but that at some point she has to put in the heavy labour if she wants to see her dream realized. I don't think Cinderella would have been particularly impressed by this advice.
Then there's Charlotte, a send-up of the usual Disney Princess stereotype who wishes (or begs) on stars, is obsessed with marrying a prince, and wears copious amounts of pink. She's a great character, though Peggy Orenstein (author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter) shares an anecdote about her young daughter commenting that: "the princess looked funny." Orenstein blanched, thinking her daughter was referring to Tiana, but in fact she meant Charlotte, who embodied most of the traits found in the princess line-up.
How ironic (though certainly not unsurprising) that a parody of the Disney Princess the company has been all but force-feeding girls since 2000 would fly completely over the heads of young viewers, leading to confusion that the character they've been conditioned to identify with wasn't the movie's princess.
As it happens, Charlotte almost works too well as a character. Despite her self-centredness and boy-crazy attitude, Charlotte is also the epitome of Spoiled Sweet, with genuine love and fondness for Tiana and not an unkind bone in her body. She's voiced hilariously by Jennifer Cody, and though her mission to marry a prince certainly isn't as noble as Tiana's desire to open a restaurant, it's given almost as much attention in the story (in fact, Facillier hinges his entire scheme upon it).
It was therefore frustrating to watch as fandom embraced her to the point where Tiana felt like an ancillary part of her own story. Charlotte got all the meta, the reaction GIFs, the clamorous attention (and I'll admit, I've contributed to this). I recall at least one Tumblr post that expressed a wish for any sequel to focus on Charlotte's quest to find true love, completely ignoring any potential stories that might have derived from the fulfilment of Tiana's dream in opening her restaurant.
This image pretty much sums up fandom's treatment of the two characters.
I can't imagine how frustrating this must have been for viewers who were excited about a black princess finally getting a chance to stand in the spotlight.
Finally, the film goes for one more surprise twist when it kills off one of its goofy animal sidekicks; a firefly named Ray. He's brutally crushed under Facillier's heel with no takebacks or fakeouts. He dies.
It's a subversion that doesn't work nearly as well as the Charlotte satire or Tiana's disinclination to wish on stars, mostly because we're not given a particularly strong reason to care about Ray, and because you can tell it's done almost entirely for shock value rather than plot purposes ("hey guys, let's kill off one of the animal sidekicks; they'll never see it coming!" – probable sentence that was uttered in the writing studio).
Yet these three deliberate attempts to play around with the usual Disney formula are indisputably the best and most memorable parts of the film. In other words, when The Princess and the Frog is deliberately trying to evoke its animated predecessors, it fails. When it breaks new ground and plays with its preconceptions, it succeeds.
***
The film also bore the burden of showcasing the first African-American Disney Princess, and since scarcity begets scrutiny, there were certainly a lot of eyes on the unfolding production. Early reports revealed that the name "Maddy" had been changed to "Tiana" to avoid phonetic similarities to the term "Mammy", and that the original plan to have the character work as a chambermaid to a white employer were hastily scrapped.
The finished product definitely skirts around the subject of Tiana's blackness – though there is a deliberate contrast made between the lavish La Bouff mansion and the simple shack where Tiana and her family live, Tiana never faces any overt racism at any point in the film. The closest it gets is one of the realtors telling her: "a little woman of your background woulda had a hands full, trying to run a big business like that", which feels more sexist than racist.
It's also noteworthy that Tiana's story is set in New Orleans and not some unspecified fairy tale kingdom like all the other Disney movies.* For a while I assumed this was simply to capitalize on the sights, sounds and culture of the famous city, though later someone pointed out to me that Disney may have felt the need to "justify" a black princess by putting her in a real-world setting instead of "generic Euro-centric fairy tale kingdom."
Even later than that, I was informed the writers had gone for New Orleans because the higher-ups wanted a Disney Princess to represent every aspect of the Disneyland Parks (in this case, New Orleans Square), which feels like the correct answer.
* Okay, so Naveen's kingdom of Maldonia is fictional, and Beauty and the Beast is set in France, but you get the point I'm making.
I'm not remotely qualified to talk about the impact Tiana had on being the first black princess to those who are black, though she did help me grasp the importance, and indeed, the very concept of representation. In the lead-up to the film's release I was aware of the excitement and anticipation surrounding the first black princess, and was rather bemused by it all. After all, was it really that big a deal?
But then I asked myself what my favourite Disney Princess was, and why. Belle of course. But why? The answer hit me like a ton of bricks: because after years of seeing Disney Princesses as blondes or redheads or with pitch-black tresses, Belle was a princess with brown hair and brown eyes. She was just like me!
It also helped that I was also a rather solitary bookworm, but the realization of how important it was for my younger self to see someone that not only looked like her but was touted as the most beautiful girl in town was astounding.
We can talk for hours about how Disney projects improbable – even dangerous – standards of beauty on young girls, and maybe one day in the far-flung distant future physical looks will no longer be something our daughters have to give a second thought to, but let's be honest: for now at least it's nice to be validated as someone who is attractive, and that's what the inclusion of a black girl among the Disney Princess line-up provided.
My understanding of the issue deepened when I came across images like this:
Or videos like this one (which still makes me well up):
And I've been a true believer in the importance of representation since then.
Naturally, being the first black Disney Princess meant that Tiana's film was a little weighed down with the responsibility of that role. There have been several rather justified complaints that she spent too much time as a frog, as well as ones that don't hold as much water (I recall some criticisms about how Naveen was too fair-skinned and too spoiled to "deserve" Tiana).
But as Peggy Orenstein points out, despite all the publicity and hype that Disney built around their "first black princess movie!" it won't be as big a deal as the second or third or fourth black princess movie. In the time since the release of The Princess and the Frog, we've had four more white princesses to add to the line-up, and one Samoan one. Tiana remains the one and only black princess.
Eight years later, and we're still waiting on her successor...

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