The Waitress and Her Future
Something old, something new, something borrowed …
by Molly Templeton
THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG: Directed by John Musker and Ron Clements. Screenplay by Musker, Clements and Rob Edwards; story by Clements, Musker, Greg Erb and Jason Oremland. Editor, Jeff Draheim. Music, Randy Newman. Starring the voices of Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, Michael-Leon Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings and Jenifer Lewis. Walt Disney Pictures, 2009. G. 97 minutes.
The Princess and the Frog — as you already know if you have gotten near anything that can deliver advertisements in the last few months — is the first Disney movie to feature a black princess. (It’s also a blessed return to hand-drawn animation.) That princess is also the first American to attain the royal title, so clearly it was necessary to import a prince. Meet Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), a music-loving, lazy charmer of indeterminate ethnicity who hails from the land of Made-up-ia — er, excuse me: Maldonia.
Naveen’s arrival in 1920s New Orleans inpires a couple of connivers to make his acquaintance: One, bubbly Charlotte (Jennifer Cody), is our heroine’s best friend, a rich girl obsessed with the idea of her prince coming along. The other, Dr. Facilier (Keith David, who also voiced the cat in Coraline), is a conjurer oft referred to as “shadow man” who’s lifted his look from the voodoo figure Baron Samedi and who sees in the prince a chance to get rich relatively quickly.
Our heroine, refreshingly, doesn’t care about Naveen at all. Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), a talented cook, is busy working double shifts as a waitress, saving up for the restaurant she and her late father (Terrence Howard) dreamed of opening. Tiana’s world is full of gumbo and beignets and her father’s promise that food can bring people of all walks of life together in New Orleans, where an opening sequence follows Tiana and her seamstress mother, Eudora (Oprah Winfrey), through the city’s streets, from Charlotte’s giant mansion to their own more humble abode. Despite the era, the setting and the obvious difference in Tiana and Charlotte’s worlds, the movie never mentions race, suggesting though its silence that their differences have only to do with money. Some viewers have asked why we’d expect a Disney princess flick to work the issue of the segregated South into its story — but this same Disney princess flick manages to gorgeously depict the architecture of New Orleans while working in the city’s food and culture; borrow from voodoo lore; weave jazz, Dixieland, gospel and zydeco into its score and songs; and recognize that its audience wants a heroine with dreams that go beyond marrying a prince. It’s a matter of priorities, and of which parts of the story’s setting the filmmakers have chosen to highlight or leave out.
But of course this isn’t really New Orleans. It’s a fictional version that borrows heavily from the truth, and which Disney’s animators create in lush, lovely detail. It’s as much a Disney kingdom as any other, with a rich not-really-a-king, Charlotte’s father (John Goodman); a hardworking heroine who’ll rise above her current station; an older woman who fills the fairy godmother role, Mama Odie, who provides a foil to Facilier and uses bursts of light to stop his spooky, fantastically created shadow creatures; and, of course, goofy animal sidekicks, including a good-hearted Cajun firefly whose dim-bulb nature and missing teeth are downright cringeworthy.
Underneath the Crescent City window dressing, The Princess and the Frog doesn’t veer far from the Disney formula, which usually either works for you or doesn’t. Here, it might do a little of both: There’s a lot to like about Tiana and her city, but there’s also a bit to struggle through — from that firefly to a trio of hillbilly frog-catchers to the predictable and underdeveloped romance — to get her to the future she deserves.