Kermit was right. It’s not easy being green. Tiana can vouch for that. And it’s not like she had it easy before she turned that lovely shade of olive.
Born into poverty in New Orleans, Tiana works two jobs and saves every penny, hoping one day to open her own restaurant—a dream she shared with her late father. She even has a place all picked out: a dilapidated sugar mill with all the structural integrity of a Jenga tower.
Still, she thinks of it as her Jenga tower, and when a lucrative job hops in her lap, Tiana realizes she’s got the cash to finally buy it. So she croaks up the money to a pair of sniveling real estate agents and allows her dreams to leap a little—until the agents inform her that someone else has just offered more money.
Not that she had a chance at success anyway, one of the agents notes. “You’re better off where you’re at,” he says.
Well, Tiana gets positively ribbid—I mean, livid—but she has no recourse, no money and no real options, other than to wish upon a star for something insanely wonderful to happen. So she does just that, sending her wish into the black beyond. And, lo and behold, a beautiful, shimmering fairy, drawn in classic 1940s style, floats down from the sky and—
No, no, wait. Wrong story. There is no fairy here, no shimmering lights, no crafty cricket. Just a frog who sounds a bit like Pepe Le Pew.
He tells Tiana that he is, in reality, the fabulously handsome and charming Prince Naveen, cursed by an evil Voodoo witch doctor—an unfortunate beginning to his New Orleans vacation, but he’s sure he’ll be back to normal if Tiana would just grace him with a kiss.
“All women enjoy the kiss of Prince Naveen,” the frog reassures Tiana.
The whole kiss-me-and-I’ll-turn-into-a-prince line never worked for me in college, but sure enough, it works here. Tiana reaches down, puckers up and locks lips with the amphibian, and the magic starts to percolate. Sparks fly. Violins are heard in the background.. And … Tiana turns into a frog.
It’s a setback to Tiana’s plans. Becoming a successful restaurateur is an almost impossible career goal for the average frog. Most croakers would be happy if their legs just escaped the appetizer menu.
Back in the day, Disney’s princesses were nice but vapid things: They lounged about the cottage or castle, singing the occasional song, taking the occasional enchanted nap, waiting for a handsome prince to wander by.
Not Tiana. This princess is a self-made woman who eschews frivolity for a hardnosed Protestant work ethic. She’s not sighing, “I wonder if my heart keeps singing/Will my song go winging/To someone who’ll find me/And bring back a love song to me.” Instead she’s singing, “If you do your best every day, good things are going to come your way.” She teaches the lazy Prince Naveen how to dice vegetables and convinces him that hard work is not all bad. Indeed, the prince eventually expresses his desire to work two or three jobs to help Tiana get her restaurant—assuming the two of them somehow become human again.
Prince Naveen naturally falls in love with Tiana, but he shows a willingness to sacrifice his own happiness to help his new squeeze realize her dreams—offering to marry a fabulously wealthy socialite if the socialite promises to give Tiana the money she needs for her establishment. Agreeing to a loveless marriage for money? No, that’s not positive. But the fact that this heretofore selfish prince is willing to commit a painfully selfless act … well, that’s good stuff.
Tiana sacrifices for her toad beau, too, passing up a devil’s bargain with the nefarious Voodoo priest Dr. Facilier, aka the Shadow Man. The evildoer promises Tiana both her humanity and her restaurant if she’ll give up a magical talisman, but she rejects both to save her prince—a rejection that would seem to consign her to eternal frogdom.
The film offers positive messages about the importance of family, friends and food (how it can bring people together), preaches self-reliance and suggests, ever so gently, that what we want isn’t always what we need.
Set in New Orleans, The Princess and the Frog relies on a real religious construct—Voodoo—as a loose excuse to unleash its magic.
Louisiana Voodoo is a mash-up of Catholicism and animistic African practices brought over during the slave trade. Adherents believe that much of their everyday lives is controlled by so-called lesser spirits, and magical rites are used to appease said spirits (or encourage them to help or curse others).
Disney’s onscreen Voodoo involves the Shadow Man, who is a necromancer of sorts, achieving his evil ends through help from his “friends from the other side.” He uses these dark powers to turn Naveen into a frog and Naveen’s butler into a prince. And, when the spell begins to wear thin, he pleads with his shadowy cohorts to help him retrieve Prince Naveen from the swamp for another dose of blood—an important ingredient in the Shadow Man’s magical concoction. In return, he promises his mostly dead benefactors (shown in the form of frightening masks hanging on his wall) that when he’s in charge of New Orleans, they’ll have free range to capture wayward souls in the city—an ominous promise if ever there was one.
The Shadow Man brandishes a Voodoo doll, preparing to stab it with a huge needle. He gives the prince’s butler a talisman—infused with Naveen’s blood—that transforms the butler into the spitting image of Naveen. He tells fortunes through Tarot cards.
As frogs, Tiana and Naveen go on a quest to find Mama Odie, a Voodoo priestess whom they hope can turn them back to normal. But Odie, shown with a snake familiar (snakes play a big part in real Voodoo) doesn’t really help them much—choosing instead to sing them a song about how they must reach deep inside themselves to learn what they really need and what they must become. (She does zap some shadow creatures.)
Most of the scenes she’s in carry with them a subtle Christian subtext. Her song, for example, holds the hallmarks of a rollicking gospel spiritual. And when she dances on the roof of her house, the surrounding environs look very much like a soaring, natural cathedral. The church motif crops up again during Naveen and Tiana’s swamp wedding.
Characters continually wish on a prominent star with all the fervency of prayer. And when Ray, a lightning bug, dies, a new star appears in the heavens—perhaps an echo of how Greek and Roman heroes were given places of honor among the stars by the gods.
Elsewhere, someone says they’re “sweating like a sinner in church.”
Smooches involve humans, frogs and humans with frogs. As frogs, Tiana’s and the prince’s tongues get knotted up together.
Some of the women—including the princess—wear shapely, occasionally cleavage-revealing gowns, and one adjusts her bosom through a dress. Naveen makes several allusions to his love of women. Ray mentions that one of his lightning bug relatives got in trouble for “flashing the neighbors.”
Naveen is smashed by books several times. Frogs are attacked by all manner of swampland creatures, including a trio of hunters. Those hunters ultimately shoot at each other’s feet with guns, hammer each other with clubs and wind up knocking each other senseless.
Someone’s finger is snipped to get it to bleed. A friendly alligator falls into a sticker-filled bush. Ray gets squashed. Characters are attacked and, occasionally, dragged by frightening shadow creatures. The Shadow Man himself is eventually pulled into the gaping maw of one of the masks he’d been petitioning—dragged down, it’s suggested, to the film’s version of hell.
Two uses of “heck” and one of “dang.”
Wine and champagne are served at a large costume gala. We see a man dressed as an octopus dump eight glasses of booze to the ground after seeing what he assumes is a drunken hallucination.
Several characters lie or make misleading statements.
I grew up on animated Disney movies. The first one I remember seeing in the theater was Snow White. (And, no, I didn’t see it during its first run.) After that, every time the Mouse House trotted out one of its classic films, we’d thrill to the glorious artwork and mesmerizing storytelling. Then, when I was in college, Disney released a tiny film called The Little Mermaid, which ultimately ushered in another golden age of animation—and never mind that I was 20, I went to see the thing again and again.
Now, here we are in 2009, and Disney’s in an odd place: Animated films, in many ways, have never been better. But for the first time in its history, Disney’s own animation has taken a backseat to others’, Pixar’s and DreamWorks’ in particular. Disney finds itself more tied to trite, live-action television fare than rich, animated storytelling.
Snow White? Sleeping Beauty? Try Hannah Montana and Zack & Cody.
The Princess and the Frog seems, then, to be Mickey’s attempt to show the world that he can still make a movie like no one else. Has he succeeded? Exactly what kind of movie have his 21st century animators made?
There are actually four ways to answer that:
1) They’ve made a commercial movie. Lovingly hand animated in old-school 2-D, the film is, at times, visually beautiful, even breathtaking. But it sometimes feels more like a product than a work of art. Watching it, I couldn’t help wonder if, as they were crafting the story, the film’s makers were already thinking about Tiana dolls and Ray night-lights and all the cool ways they could incorporate their new visuals into Disneyland’s New Orleans Square.
2) They’ve made a wishful movie. When you tuck your children into bed each night, have you ever urged them to wish upon a … star? Or do you structure their bedtime prayers a little differently? The whole “wishing upon a star” idea has certainly become a Disney staple, but it’s not exactly the most healthy of diets from a spiritual perspective. Taken symbolically, Tiana’s petitions to a gaseous orb might be seen as a nod to faith—the star being a literary stand-in for God. But might more moviegoers (especially the 6-year-olds who are this film’s primary audience) reach a different conclusion? One that toys around with the notion that if praying to God doesn’t get you that shiny new bike or Bratz doll, maybe offering a prayer to … something else … might?
3) They’ve made a numinous movie. All the classic Disney movies had magic in them. Fairies. Sorcerers. Spell-casters. Ariel’s god-like father. The Princess and the Frog exercises that magical muscle—and then it goes a step or three further, injecting it with Voodoo. Captain Hook becomes the big bad Voodoo priest with his blood rituals and stick-pin dolls. What ends up on the screen may be no more than incrementally grimmer and darker than Sleeping Beauty, but it evokes real-world superstition in ways the oldies don’t.
4) They’ve made an inspirational movie. I’ll end with this one not because the point should necessarily be given more weight, but out of deference to my childhood full of fond Disney memories: The Princess and the Frog is a G-rated morality play full of self-sacrifice, heroism, devotion to hard work … and true love.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.