Nine years ago, Disney released their first movie with an African-American protagonist. But she differed from past and present Disney princesses in far too many ways.
Disney is known for its whimsical, magical themes: fairy godmothers, faraway kingdoms, those kinds of things. Most of their movies revolve around a princess, a prince, a villian, and some kind of adventure. The Princess and the Frog had those basic elements, but in a conventional setting, uncommon to the traditional Disney motif.
The problem with The Princess and the Frog is based around its setting. Tiana was a made up character, meaning she did not have to have a historical connection. She should have had no limitations, but directors decided to put her in New Orleans in 1920s, where she would be under the constraints of the time and place.
The most they could imagine for her was to own a restaurant. A soul food restaurant. Not find some magic item or save a kingdom, but own a soul food restaurant and serving beignets. And her mom sews the clothes for the rich, white people in town. Come on Disney. You can do better.
It’s upsetting to finally see a african-american Disney princess, but not see her offered the same “disney magic” as others. Tiana was placed in a time where she could only be normal and simple. It was expected for her not to succeed because of her race and gender. There are other ways to display courage and perseverance than through the constraints of her race.
There was nothing truly magical about her story. No talking animals or castles or anything that would normally be associated with Disney. There was the villain Dr. Facilier, who dabbled in voodoo, which, of course they had to make “evil”. It’s a syncretic religion, not about possessing magical abilities. They played on the fact that voodoo is typically viewed as evil because of its connection to spirits and rituals that are performed.
What is doubly upsetting is that the movie was loosely based on the book The Frog Princess. Disney only used the one line from the book in which the princess kissed the frog and turns into a frog as well. In the book, the protagonist was born a princess, who was also a witch with little control of her powers. She runs away from an arranged marriage only to meet another prince turned frog, whom she kisses and turns herself into a frog. They go on a magical adventure, traveling to different witches to help turn themselves back.
The Frog Princess is the first book of four. There is also a spin-off series from it as well. With so many books, Disney could have done so much with all that material, but they failed to capitalize on that opportunity. Instead, they made her simple, with simple dreams, and a simple story.