Disney changing script for multicultural audiences, but do they get it right?
on December 30, 2009
Many girls in multicultural, multiracial Oakland have grown up in the last several decades watching Disney heroines who don’t look like them. It’s not just that these characters are mermaids, fairies and princesses. It’s also that they are, with a handful of exceptions, white.
With movies like the recently released “The Princess and the Frog,” that’s starting to change. But departing from the traditional script can bring its own complications.
Early on in “The Princess and the Frog,” Prince Naveen gets himself caught up in a voodoo spell that results in him being turned into a frog. It’s a spell that can only be reversed by kissing a princess. So far, not that far from the usual Disney storyline.
What happens next is different, however. Prince Naveen convinces Tiana, the first black lead in a Walt Disney Animation Studios movie, to be the girl that kisses him. She decides to kiss the frog after he promises to help her fulfill her dream of opening a restaurant, a restaurant her father never got to open before his death.
But things don’t go quite according to plan. Instead of restoring the frog prince back to his human self, Tiana’s ploy backfires when she turns into a frog. But this plot twist is not the most unorthodox part of the film. That distinction belongs to the Prince Naveen, whose ambiguous ethnic background prompts head-scratching.
That’s especially the case when Naveen’s attention moves from Tiana’s white counterpart in the film, Charlotte La Bouff, to Tiana herself. It’s led some moviegoers to wonder why Disney, in their first animated venture with a black female lead, decided to give her a romantic counterpart whose background is racially vague. It may be a hopeful “postracial” Disney story. Or it could be the filmmakers were unsure about the idea of Tiana’s overzealous, man-hungry friend, Charlotte, being smitten with a black prince.
The movie, which opened in theaters on December 11, earned the top slot in that first weekend. The runner-ups included “The Blind Side” and “Invictus,” two films that also boast black leads. On December 28—more than two weeks after the Disney movie’s release date—kids and parents filed into the 12:15 p.m. showing of “The Princess and the Frog” at the Grand Lake Theater.
The theater was half-full, which seemed like a large audience for a noontime matinee on a weekday with most kids on holiday break. Almost everyone carried complimentary bags of popcorn, which the theater offers Monday through Thursday to moviegoers.
In a city where 30 percent of the population is African-American and 34 percent is white, only one black family, with two girls and a baby, were present. All other attendees appeared to be Caucasian, an observation that’s hard to miss in a diverse city like Oakland and during a screening of Disney’s first movie with a black female lead. Some children squealed and squirmed as their parents settled them down in the darkened theater, while others sat crunching away on their popcorn. When the curtains were drawn and the movie started, things grew relatively quiet.
The movie is loosely based on the book The Frog Princess and is set in New Orleans in the 1920s. Tiana is an only child whose mother is a seamstress for the La Bouffs, the wealthiest family in New Orleans. Her father, whose Southern gumbo draws the whole neighborhood to the family’s front porch, dies when Tiana is young.
The blonde-haired, blue-eyed La Bouff daughter, Charlotte, resembles a more traditional Disney princess, but takes a supporting role in the film. She grows up with Tiana, as Tiana often accompanies her mother in her duties at the La Bouff home, and Tiana and Charlotte share a warm bond as they enter adulthood. Charlotte is so outrageous, however, that she seems more like a mocking caricature of a Disney heroine than the actual thing. Her flamboyant Southern personality makes Tiana’s character seem thoroughly normal.
It’s when Prince Naveen appears–hailing from the mythical land of Maldonia,charismatically playing the banjo and sending all the surrounding girls into a frenzy–that the potential for eyebrow-raising surfaces. Charlotte has her eyes set on marrying the eligible prince. And the prince, whose parents cut him off financially for his extravagant lifestyle, is keen to marry into the wealthy La Bouff family.
But when Prince Naveen turns into a frog and begins to fall in love with Tiana, it raises the question of why his ethnic background is so utterly ambiguous. The voice of the prince is done by the Brazilian actor, Bruno Campos, and sounds slightly Italian. Naveen is an Indian name, which means “new” in Hindi.
As for his appearance, he could be any number of ethnicities. He has light brown skin, light hazel eyes, wavy dark hair and a classic Disney-man face: big doughy eyes, wide smile and broad shoulders. His ethnicity couldn’t be more unclear, and maybe that’s the point.
“When identities are ambiguous, it’s less likely to be controversial,” said Dorbey Burgdorf, who was playing with her 1-year-old at Sadiedey’s cafe, in response to Naveen’s character. But the character was voiced by a Brazilian actor, and Burgdorf said, “Brazilians socially are attractive to everyone and are universally appealing.”
Perhaps Disney was attempting to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and not step on any toes by painting the prince a specific color that might raise even more questions. And for some, it’s a non-issue. Natasha Hitchcock, mother of a 3-year-old and 5-year-old, hasn’t seen the movie and doesn’t plan to, despite any cultural significance it may carry. “Disney movies are scary,” she said. “Fairy tales are scary anyway, but Disney sensationalizes them, and they’re just too scary for my kids.”
While Tiana is the first black female character to play a lead in an animated Disney film, she’s not the first animated woman of color to do so. Disney heroines that depart from the “traditional” model have been regular in recent years. Mulan is a heroine, but was not white and not a princess—she disguises herself to become a warrior in ancient China. And there was Pocahontas, a 1995 film based on the true story of the Native American princess who assisted settlers in Virginia and later married English settler John Rolfe.
Regardless of any questions of racial identity in “The Princess and the Frog, the story clearly appealed to the young audience at the Grand Lake Theater. The crowd laughed unanimously at times and broke into applause when the movie ended.
A princess, a frog, a kiss—elements may change, but the story remains the same.
All images courtesy of Disney
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