In 2009, Disney made a bold move with their latest film The Princess and the Frog, returning to previously successful practices while introducing their first African American princess. This was their first hand-drawn feature in five years and a return to the musical format. During production the project faced multiple bumps in the road. Based on the book The Frog Princess, filmmakers were forced to change the title when it was suggested that, given that the story was set in New Orleans, Frog as an adjective could be offensive to French audiences. Having an African American protagonist also forced the project under the microscope. In original drafts, Tiana was named Maddy and was a chambermaid, not a waitress, but that drew to many comparisons to the stereotypical Mammy character. The changes were made and Oprah was brought in as a technical consultant.
Tiana is a hardworking waitress in 1920s New Orleans working ever shift he can in order to save up to start her own restaurant, a dream she shared with her late father. When a prince comes to town for Mardi Gras, her rich best friend Charlotte is set on making a love connection but a voodoo spell has turned the prince into a frog and his servant is masquerading in his place. Tiana kisses the frog, hoping to break the spell, and turns into a frog herself. The two band together to try to break the spell and, despite being total opposites at first, fall in love.
This was the first new Disney princess since Jasmine from Aladdin, and the first Disney film with the princess as the main character since Beauty and the Beast. The film did not perform at the box office as well as Disney would have liked, but this was not due to a lack of quality on the film’s part. Over time, Disney has featured increasingly complex characters. Tiana has dreams and experiences growth of the course of the film, which is a far cry from previous princesses like Snow White and Cinderella, who are primarily defined as being nice and kind to animals. The Prince also has a personality (gasp!) and shows growth as a character. The film is jammed packed with lovable characters and has some genuine big laughs. I would say the film did poorly in theaters due to bad advertising. Being a modern fairytale, it was hard to describe the film in a time a tv spot allows. It is not a straight telling of the classic tale, with the characters being familiar with the fairytale they are playing out, using it to figure out the real world rules of the spell.
If I had to name one weakness in this film, it would be the music. Written by Randy Newman and influenced by jazz, some of the songs aren’t bad but they are very much of the plot and do not translate outside of the film. Disney films are known for their music and there is no Be Our Guest or Under the Sea in Princess and the Frog.
The Princess and the Frog is filled with great characters and a lot of smart choices were made in shaping them. I love that Charlotte, while clearly a spoiled brat, is not mean-spirited . She cares deeply for Tiana and tries her best to help her friend. The way the two romantic leads learn from each other to become more well-rounded people is something many love stories miss. Tiana teaches Prince Naveen how rewarding it is to be good at something, while Naveen shows Tiana how to have fun once in a while. It’s probably pretty unrealistic that in a matter of hours they can both make such major changes and fall in love, it’s still a big step for the fairytale genre.
If you haven’t seen The Princess and the Frog, check it out. While it doesn’t pack the punch of The Little Mermaid or The Lion King, it’s a strong modernization of a familiar story.