Spoiling. It’s what I do.
The film might well be titled The Princess and the Frog and the Elephant in the Room, because this film has been analyzed, criticized and deconstructed from the moment the idea was first announced. Disney’s first film with a black princess had a lot live up to, and a lot to live down. How would the film deal with race relations in New Orleans in the Jazz Age while still being a fairytale?
For the most part, it didn’t deal with race at all. Sure, the poorer side of town is home to mostly black people, and the mansions are owned by mostly white people, but everyone gets along just fine and there seems to be no tension and no social barriers. This might have strained credulity when it came to the love triangle. Prince Naveen (the frog) is the love interest of Charlotte, a rich white debutante, and Tiana (the frogette), a black waitress saving up to buy her own restaurant. At least one of those women would make for an interracial couple. Fortunately, Naveen’s from the country of Mrffhslhhhllgle, and has no defined ethnicity. Besides, as the film shows us again and again, royalty changes everything.
This might be enough to set some viewers’ teeth on edge, but the bigger problem is, the film hammers home the importance of hard work. The number of times that Tiana sings, talks about, or alludes to how important working is annoyed even me. Sometimes it’s not that easy. Work doesn’t guarantee reward. Given the time and place, the idea that working hard is all it would take for a black woman to get ahead is ridiculous.
Fortunately, after a worrying build up, the film snaps off that line of thinking. After bargaining for a restaurant, Tiana happily gets ready to sign the deed when the Realtors tell her that someone else made a higher bid (on a building that has been sitting empty for upwards of a decade), and that ‘a person of her background would be better off where she is.’
And that’s enough reality for the film. After that, the fairytale kicks in.
So let me switch from racial issues to that old standby of fairytales, gender issues. The good? Charlotte is spoiled, vain, silly, self-indulgent, shallow, and dumb. She is also a good person. After so many movies and TV shows that basically show the cheerleader/rich stepsister/popular girl/female boss/stepmother/model/whoever going out of her way to make other people’s lives miserable, it’s nice to see two women in a movie who don’t respond to romantic complication by clawing and biting.
One minor problem (although this may be nit-picking): Tiana is shown as having career aspirations throughout the film. Great. The emotional point is she has to find a way to balance work with life. Okay. Then she decides that, if she can’t have Naveen as a human, she’ll stay with him as a frog. A FROG. That’s not just giving up a job.
It’s not sexist. Naveen is willing to do the same for her, in the film, but – my god, people. Do you know how long frogs live? I looked it up. Four to fifteen years. And that’s in captivity, not in a place where they’ll be hunted for food. It’s one thing to give up your regular life for love, and another to say that love is worth being dead inside the span of a high school education. Looked at cynically, this could be an argument to ditch career aspirations and go for trophy-wifehood. Snow White drove a harder bargain than Tiana.
Last, but definitely not least; let me take a moment to praise the animation. This film was friggin’ gorgeous. The hand drawn animation got a lot of attention in reviews, and it deserved every bit of it. The colors, the design of the characters, the way the shots are framed, the visual language; all of them are stunning. Some sequences are so brilliant and beautiful, the perfect example of “show, don’t tell,” that they are up there with the original Fantasia. I hope that this heralds in a new wave of hand drawn animated movies. Of course, computer graphics can be gorgeous, too. Finding Nemo showed us that. But I’d hate for them to supplant traditional animation. Watching this movie was like a drink of water for my eyes. I didn’t know what I’d been missing until I saw it.