The End of an Era: Disney’s The Princess and the Frog

In the late 1990s, Disney executive Andy Mooney noticed something: small girls at Disney events and theme parks often showed up dressed as princesses. But not, alas, Disney princesses, since official Disney costumes weren’t available. Inspired, in January 2000 he ordered his division to start developing Disney Princesses, a franchise that included very sparkly clothing, plastic tiaras, very sparkly plastic Princess jewelry, dolls, and other merchandise. The franchise proved wildly successful, and Disney soon expanded the market, featuring the Disney Princesses in various theme park attractions and on Disney Cruise Ships, creating Disney Princess Dining, Disney Princess Meet and Greets, Disney Princess Makeovers, and an assortment of other Disney Princess items.

The franchise had, however, one major problem: none of the original Disney Princesses were black. It was time, Disney thought, for Disney’s Animation department to create another fairy tale.

This decision just happened to coincide, more or less, with another major moment for the Disney corporation: the end of a two year fight to oust CEO Michael Eisner, led by Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy E. Disney. Among (many) other things, Roy E. Disney was concerned about decline in the animation department after Jeffrey Katzenberg’s 1994 departure, both perceived (in artistic quality) and real (in terms of box office receipts). It probably didn’t help that Katzenberg’s next venture, Dreamworks, had shocked Disney in 2000 with Shrek, which had not only wildly outperformed Disney’s 2000 features, Dinosaur and The Emperor’s New Groove, but walked off with the first Oscar for Best Animated Picture. But Roy E. Disney at least claimed to be less concerned about disgruntled yet wildly successful former employees, and more worried about internal Disney factors: story development, Michael Eisner’s issues with Pixar (and by extension, Apple CEO Steve Jobs), and the decision to abandon a decades old tradition of hand-drawn animation for computer animated features.

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Thanks largely to Roy E. Disney’s Save Disney campaign (his second, if you’ve been reading along), Michael Eisner left the firm in 2005, replaced by Bob Iger (corporate policy: BUY EVERYTHING). It’s probably fair to say that animation was not then (or now) chief on the list of Bob Iger’s concerns, but in step one of his policy of BUY ALL THE THINGS, Iger listened to Roy E. Disney and other executives, and bought Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006.

As part of the acquisition, Iger installed John Lasseter, Pixar’s Chief Creative Officer, at the time probably best known for directing Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2, as the Chief Creative Officer for Walt Disney Animation Studios. Lasseter was also later made the Chief Creative Officer of DisneyToon, and worked with the Disney Imagineers to develop new theme park attractions.

Bob Iger made one other critical decision: he reversed Disney’s earlier “no more hand-made animation” policy, set after the financial disaster that had been Treasure Planet. John Lasseter agreed. Computer animation had made his career, and he would never lose his fascination with it (as I type, he is working on Toy Story 4, tentatively scheduled for a 2018 release). But he had originally fallen in love with Chuck Jones cartoons and the classic Disney animated films, and was more than willing to have Disney animators give the art form another try.

Which brings us, finally, to The Princess and the Frog, arguably one of the most cynically, market driven Disney films in conception, while also managing to be—can I say it? Rather sweet.

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Despite the financial failure of Treasure Planet, on the strength of their work with The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, Ron Clements and John Musker were brought back to write and direct this film. Early on, they decided that they wanted to do an American fairy tale, eventually deciding to settle the story in New Orleans. This setting, when announced in 2006, drew extensive criticism, as did the initial concept of naming the heroine “Maddie”—a name that sounded uncomfortably close to the stereotypical “Mammy” to many ears. Critics were also not thrilled to hear that, in the original concept, “Maddie” worked as a chambermaid. This was not exactly outside Disney tradition—both Snow White and Cinderella had done extensive housework—but had not exactly been featured in more recent Disney Princess tales. Belle, granted, was seen feeding chickens, and I suppose it’s possible that Jasmine supervised maids, and Ariel may very well have polished some of the items in her collection, but that’s about as close as either got to housework.

Clements and Musker bowed to some of the criticism, changing “Maddie” to “Tiana,” changing Tiana from a maid to a waitress, and hiring Oprah Winfrey as a consultant and voice actress. But, despite criticisms that setting the film in New Orleans was, at best, incredibly tactless after Hurricane Katrina, they stuck to their choice of city.

This in turn created a film with a fierce focus on two New Orleans’ specialties: music and food. Tiana, refreshingly for a Disney Princess, not only has no interest in marrying (much like Jasmine and Belle at the beginning of their films) but has a specific dream: she wants a restaurant. Not just any restaurant, but a large, high class, fancy restaurant with live music and food that people will come from miles around to eat. She and her father have even picked out a building they want to renovate.

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Tiana’s even willing to wish upon a star for this, although she’s otherwise not very into fairy tales, but in a genuinely shocking moment, the film abruptly turns its back on about sixty years of Disney marketing and suddenly announces that, no matter who you are, when you wish upon a star, your dreams will only come true with a lot of hard work—and maybe not even then. In a further realistic touch, Tiana’s father dies before he gets a chance to realize his dream (the film hints that he died in World War I). And in a great touch—spoiler—when Tiana does get her dream, part of the practical side of it (buying the building for the restaurant) comes from all of that hard work and the money she has carefully saved up over the years.

Also, her skill with beignets.

That focus on food remains throughout the film—even while desperately trying to return to human form, Tiana pauses to tell characters to add a little tabasco sauce to the gumbo, or explain how to chop mushrooms, and minor character Louis the alligator spends quite a bit of time dreaming about food. I try not to advise people about how to watch films, but this is one Disney animated film that you should probably only watch with snacks on hand. Or full meals, if possible.

The Princess and the Frog also plays tribute to New Orleans’ musical heritage with a set of songs inspired by jazz, rhythm and blues, and, in one case, gospel. Someone at Disney also insisted on inserting the obligatory Romantic This Should Be a Top 40 Hit Single, “Never Knew I Needed,” which someone else had the sense to move to the closing credits: the song, by Ne Yo, was one of Disney’s few failures in the top 40 department. The songs in the actual film were considerably more successful: two of them “Almost There” and “Down in New Orleans,” received Academy Award nominations for Best Original Song, with “Down in New Orleans,” picking up an additional Grammy nomination.

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“Almost There,” in particular, is a fun, snazzy song that I rather wish Disney would play more at their theme parks—but then again, the theme parks and cruise ships want to invite you to go to them, or to locations once you’re there, not think, hmm, I’m almost there. Fortunately it gets reprised a few times in the film, as Tiana comes close to success, then loses it, then comes close again. “Friends on the Other Side” is one of the more terrifying songs in the Disney collection, given just who and what those friends are; I’m not sure I can call it fun, but it may the most successful villain song in a Disney film since Scar bellowed out “Be Prepared” in The Lion King or Frollo worried about temptation in “Hellfire.”

Fun though the songs are, however, the real strength of the film lies in the characters. Oddly enough, virtually none of them are cuddly animal characters—oddly, given that the film was largely inspired by the hope of marketing merchandise to small children, and that the plot was virtually designed to let animators create characters who could be turned into cute and cuddly plush toys. Oh, sure, it has the two frogs, who as plush toys could be cuddly enough, I guess, but given that a large part of the film centers on just how disgusting frog kissing is, the film itself isn’t going for “huggable” here. And it has a trumpet wielding alligator and the firefly—but the firefly is drawn to be deliberately ugly, even when his light is shining, and the alligator doesn’t precisely scream toy.

But that very lack of cuddly animal characters allowed The Princess and the Frog to have something relatively rare for Disney films: complex characters. Not that all of them are, particularly the villain, who has the usual bad guy goal of wanting to rule the world, or at least New Orleans. The only thing that makes Dr. Facilier a little different—and only a little different—is that his plans seem unnecessarily complicated: he wants Big Daddy Le Bouef’s fortune, which, ok, and apparently thinks the only way to get this fortune is to have a resentful valet pretend to be Prince Naveen, marry Le Bouef’s daughter, Charlotte, kill the father, and inherit the fortune which Dr. Facilier will then share or steal. This also involves turning the real Prince Naveen into a frog. I really can’t help but think that since Dr. Facilier is, well, a voodoo witch doctor with the ability to summon powerful spirits and transform people into other forms, he must have an easier way of obtaining a fortune. Just go and change some bankers into frogs and walk out with cash from the vault. See? I’ve solved your problem, Dr. Facilier, and I’m sure that given time I could come up with several other simple ways for you to use your magic to get lots of money and power.

The valet in question, Lawrence, is resentful mostly because he had hopes of serving a wealthy prince, and instead ended up working for Prince Naveen. I have no idea why Lawrence doesn’t quit—Downton Abbey assures me that valets were in demand during that period—but anyway, he spends his time nagging Naveen because, in another nice twist on the usual Disney saga, Naveen is one worthless prince.

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Ok, he’s not totally worthless—he can be charming, he plays music, he’s entertaining, he tells jokes—but other than that, he’s worthless: a charming womanizer who has not only failed to do anything useful in his life, but is after a rich wife for her money since his parents have, after several unspecified incidents, cut him off. I must say that Naveen’s first few moments on screen rather make me sympathetic to their viewpoint. Naveen is so lazy that he can’t even focus on chasing a rich wife.

Fortunately for all concerned, Naveen is transformed into a frog. Even more fortunately, he runs into Tiana. Well, fortunate for him, at least, if not for Tiana, since at this point, The Princess and the Frog inverts the traditional fairy tale by turning the “princess” into a frog after she kisses the little frog prince. This has the regrettable side effect of having the first African-American Disney princess spend a good half of her film as a small, if cute, frog, but the benefit of allowing animators to send the two little frogs off to an adventure in the Louisiana bayou and to some lovely animated sequences with fireflies in the second part of the film. Plus, even as a frog, Tiana is so adorable that Naveen falls head over large frog feet for her – and finally starts to grow up.

Once again, I find myself ever so slightly skeptical that love can really transform anyone that quickly. Then again, they’ve both experienced the profound experience of getting transformed into a frog, which probably helped speed things along. Plus, Naveen’s banter with Tiana is sweet, and he does have something to offer Tiana: a chance at what else is really important in life: love. When the once worthless Naveen shoulders a shovel later, it’s believable.

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And happy, even if—in striking contrast to the fate of every other Disney prince, including Aladdin—Naveen ends the film not as royalty, but as middle class, the mere husband of a restaurant owner, patronized by his royal parents. It fits right in with the rest of the film’s not at all subtle message that working, not magic, brings happiness—which is not quite in keeping with Disney’s general advertising, but perhaps we should not focus too closely on this.

The film’s other highlight is a minor character who managed to become something more: Charlotte. She is, granted, spoiled, silly, superficial, and dangerously obsessed with the idea of marrying a prince. But that obsession with marrying a prince dovetails nicely not just with the plot of the film, but also with the historical reality of various American heiresses of the period marrying various poverty stricken aristocrats. And Charlotte is not just a plot device, or a historical callback: she has moments of genuine, spontaneous kindness. When she sees the wreck of Tiana’s beignet table and dress, for instance, she instantly puts aside her own concerns about the prince and unhesitatingly takes care of Tiana. It’s partly done for plot—the little frog prince needs to believe that Tiana could be a princess, after all—but it’s also more than might have been expected from Charlotte at that point.

And later, we get a glimpse of something else beneath: Charlotte really wants to believe in fairy tales and true love. We never see her mother, after all, and as indulgent as her father is, the film still leaves the impression that something is missing in Charlotte’s life. Incredibly enough, she seems to have no other friends other than Tiana—this incredibly since Charlotte seems to have nothing but free time, and the hard working Tiana, holding down three jobs, does have other friends. And although Charlotte’s other major assistance—paying Tiana enough money for beignets to establish a restaurant—comes straight from Charlotte’s own self-focus and obsession—well, Charlotte didn’t have to keep visiting her old friend to tell her the latest news (especially since it’s clear from other characters that Tiana is more focused on work than friends), and she could have bought those beignets from someone other than Tiana.

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And, of course, one is white, and one is black, something (still) rare in animated Disney films. Leaving aside The Fox and the Hound and various other animal friendships, I can name only four other Disney animated films featuring interracial friendships: Pocahontas, Lilo and Stitch, Big Hero 6, and, surprisingly enough, Dumbo, in a blink and you will miss it moment with the human circus workers. The film’s dialogue tends to dance over this difference—neither Tiana nor Charlotte say anything about it—and the two girls are introduced as peers. Visually, however, the film makes the differences clear. Their first scene, for instance, is immediately followed by a sequence where the camera follows Tiana and her mother home from Charlotte’s mansion, to a very different part of New Orleans, where they to struggle just to get together a down payment to buy a building that, let’s face it, is not exactly in the best of shape, even if they have enough to share some gumbo with their neighbors now and then.

The film’s major acknowledgement of racism, though, comes elsewhere, when Tiana—having finally earned the money to start up her restaurant, thanks partly to Charlotte’s impetuous and constant spending, but mostly because, as the film makes clear, Tiana makes outstanding beignets—is told by two white bankers that they are going to sell the building to someone else, in part because the said someone else can pay cash, in part because the someone else is a “he,” and in part because of her “background.” Race isn’t mentioned, not directly, but it’s pretty clear what the bankers mean, and very satisfying to later watch those bankers quaver in terror in front of a trumpet-wielding alligator—and agree to sell the restaurant to Tiana anyway.

It’s especially satisfying because this is an ending Tiana has fully earned, though hard work, her own ethics (she easily could have abandoned Naveen at any point—he certainly gives her some initial reasons to, but instead she overcomes her own distaste for kissing frogs to try to help him out), her character and bravery.

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And in another nice touch, Tiana doesn’t just earn a happy ending for herself, but also for Louis, Naveen, and even his parents as well, who show up, presumably reconciled with their previously worthless son, giving Charlotte hope that ok, yes, maybe she’ll have a chance at her prince after all.

Despite a satisfying story and some lovely animated bits, The Princess and the Frog brought in only $207 million at the box office—respectable, well over the film’s budget of $105 million, and better than most of the other animated Disney films of that decade, but still well under the glory days of Beauty and the Beast ($425 million), Aladdin ($504 million) and The Lion King ($987.5 million), not to mention the computer animated Pixar films.

Disney analysts pointed to several factors: the film had the extreme misfortune of opening just five days before Avatar (although against that theory, Avatar and The Princess and the Frog were marketed to very different audiences); audiences may have objected to the use of voodoo in the film (mentioned by some critics); and the use of the word “Princess” in the title may have scared off small boys.

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Whatever the reason, the respectable, but not huge, box office take had one long term and two immediate results.

The long term result: the uncomfortable situation that Tiana merchandise is often harder to find than merchandise focused on other Disney Princesses at both Disney stores and the theme parks. It’s there, certainly – and as an indignant 7 year old pointed out, Tiana appears on some Disney Princess merchandise, including at least one trading pin and a T-shirt, that does not show Mulan OR Elsa or Anna. A Disney cast member noted that Elsa and Anna are technically not “Disney Princesses” (they have their own Frozen franchise), but agreed that Mulan is definitely a Disney Princess who just happens to be too busy defending China to pose for a Disney Trading Pin picture. (You go, Mulan. You go!) Tiana dolls appear next to the other Disney Princess dolls at the larger shops, the meet and greet lines for Tiana are usually long, and I’ve seen several small Disney Princesses of various races happily sporting Tiana’s green dress. Yet most of the merchandise is focused on other Disney Princesses, and the smaller shops and many of the Disney Trading Pin stations have no Tiana merchandise at all. On recent visits to Epcot and Hollywood Studios, Belle, Ariel, Aurora, Cinderella and Snow White clothing (T-shirts, sweatshirts, and so on) was abundant; Merida and Jasmine a little less so. Tiana, nowhere.

To be fair, part of this is the increased focus on Marvel, Star Wars and Frozen products at Disney stores, which has decreased the overall floor space dedicated to Disney Princesses. And part of it might be that although Tiana ends her film indisputably as a Princess, she also does not, unlike most of the other Disney Princesses, end up in a palace, as grand as her restaurant is. But regardless of the reasons, Tiana remains less visible than the other Disney Princesses.

On a short term basis, Disney executives decided that future Disney Princess movies would not have the word “Princess” in their titles. And once again, Disney decided to back away from hand drawn animation. Audiences, they decided, only wanted computer animated films.

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Which brings us to Rapunzel and Tangled, coming up next.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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