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Disney Introduces First Black Princess, Tiana, in 'The Princess and the Frog'

Tiana, the black heroine of "The Princess and the Frog" is "a very big deal," says one film expert. (Disney Enterprises)
Tiana, the black heroine of "The Princess and the Frog" is "a very big deal," says one film expert. (Disney Enterprises)

The stills released by the studio show Tiana in full princess regalia: a powder-blue gown, tiara and hair in an elegant upsweep.

Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose voices Tiana. Other parts are played by Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Terrence Howard and Keith David. The music is by Oscar winner (and New Orleans veteran) Randy Newman. It is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the same team behind "Aladdin" and "The Little Mermaid."

"Our first goal is to make a great motion picture," says John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, who is overseeing the project. "But we have also worked very closely with a lot of leaders in the African American community, all across the nation, to make sure we're doing something African American families will be proud of. It's very important for us to do it right. We've been very careful and cognizant about what we're doing."

He says it was Clements and Musker's idea to make Tiana black, and he stresses that Tiana will be one of the "strongest" Disney heroines yet. The criticisms the film got over the character's name in early drafts ("Maddy," short for Madeline, was perceived by some to sound like a "slave name") were only hiccups on the way to a finished product, he says, noting that one of his most popular creations, Buzz Lightyear in "Toy Story," was named "Tempest" at one point.

The message that Tiana learns in the film -- Disney characters always learn something by movie's end -- is that balance is important in life. Jazz Age woman that she is, Tiana needs both love and a career to find happiness.

"Her dream is not just to marry a prince," he says.

It will be a closely watched debut, with almost every aspect of her character subject to interpretation.

Murray says she was pleased the studio is portraying Tiana with skin of a "darker hue" and slightly full lips. Tarshia Stanley, a professor of English at Spelman College in Atlanta who often writes and teaches about portrayals of black women in film, says that the character's hair -- straight and pulled back in early images released by the studio -- seems to be the appropriate, middle-of-the-road bet, too.

"They might as well make it straight so little girls can comb it when the doll comes out," she notes, wryly. "We as African American women haven't fully dealt with how sensitive the subject of our hair can be, so I certainly wouldn't expect Disney to know what to do with [that issue]."

(Prince Naveen, for the record, is neither white nor black, but portrayed with olive skin, dark hair and, need we state the obvious, a strong chin. The actor who plays him, Bruno Campos, hails from Brazil.)

Big box-office numbers will be expected for Tiana. The eight Disney princess films, as defined by the company -- "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Cinderella," "Sleeping Beauty," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast," "Pocahontas" and "Mulan" -- have all been smashes. When adjusted for inflation, three of them -- "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty" and "Aladdin" -- rank among the top 100 domestic moneymakers of all time, according to the Box Office Mojo Web site.

The last two princess movies, "Mulan" (1998) and "Pocahontas" (1995), each have a worldwide gross of more than $300 million, according to the Web site, in numbers that are not adjusted for inflation. Disney has also reprised the princesses' roles into more than 50 sequels, specials, spinoffs or appearances by the characters on Disney television shows.

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