By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Long ago and far away, she was an unnamed little princess in a little story called the "The Frog Prince." She and her amphibious friend lived in a very small, mostly forgotten corner of the fairy tale universe.
Many years passed.
And then one day, through the magical powers of Disney animation and commercial marketing, the forgotten little princess was transformed into Tiana, a beautiful black princess from New Orleans. She became the star of "The Princess and the Frog," a movie set to premiere in November. Her doll and toy set were unveiled last month, and the Disney promotional machine is already humming, for Tiana is the first Disney princess in more than a decade, and the first ever to be black.
In the 72 years since Walt Disney's animated version of Snow White captivated audiences as "the fairest of them all," there have only been eight such Disney princesses. Through these movies and a line of toys, dresses and figurines, the Disney princesses have become global, doe-eyed icons of childhood. Sleeping Beauty awakened by a kiss, Cinderella's clock striking midnight, Belle waltzing in the Beast's castle, Ariel with Prince Eric in the moonlit lagoon -- these have become heroines whom parents the world over feel safe to let their young girls idolize and mimic. And while Disney has brought us nonwhite princesses before (see "Mulan," "Pocahontas"), Tiana is a first.
The implied message of Tiana, that black American girls can be as elegant as Snow White herself, is a milestone in the national imagery, according to a range of scholars and cultural historians.
Her appearance this holiday season, coming on the heels of Michelle Obama's emergence as the nation's first lady, the Obama girls in the White House and the first line of Barbie dolls modeled on black women ("So in Style" debuts this summer), will crown an extraordinary year of visibility for African American women.
But fairy tales and folklore are the stories that cultures tell their children about the world around them, and considering Disney's pervasive influence with (and marketing to) young girls, Princess Tiana might well become the symbol of a culture-changing standard of feminine beauty.
"If this figure takes off, you're looking at 30 or 40 years of repetition and resonance," says Tricia Rose, a Brown University professor who teaches both popular culture and African American studies, citing the enduring popularity of Disney princesses at the company's theme parks, on Web sites and in videos.
"It's a very big deal," says Leonard Maltin, the film historian, critic and author of "Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons."
"She's the first modern American [Disney] princess, and that she's black sends a huge message," says Cori Murray, entertainment director for Essence magazine.
On its most basic level, "The Princess and the Frog" is a vintage Disney princess fairy tale, in hand-drawn (2-D) animation, a Broadway-style musical. It draws inspiration from an 18th-century fairy tale from the British Isles, and "The Frog Princess," a 2002 teen novel from Maryland writer E.D. Baker. Disney transferred the story to 1920s New Orleans and changed her name, race and almost everything else.
In the Disney version, Tiana is a young waitress and talented chef who dreams, like her father, of owning her own restaurant. She eventually kisses a frog and is transformed into one. She must journey into the dark bayou to get a magical cure from a good voodoo queen. She is aided by a goofy firefly and a trumpet-playing alligator. The frog turns out to be handsome Prince Naveen, from the far-off and fictional land of Maldonia.
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.
Further, Disney began grouping all eight princesses into a single line of toys, games and costumes in 2000. Sales were more than $4 billion last year, according to the company.
"It's hard to sort out which princess is the most or least popular because they're all included in so many sets of toys," says Jim Silver, a toy industry analyst and editor in chief of the Time to Play magazine Web site. "It's all about fashion for little girls, and they may love Belle the best, but most like Jasmine's [from "Aladdin"] costume."
The films featuring the darker-hued heroines -- "Pocahontas," "Aladdin" and "Mulan" -- were much different from the Cinderella-at-the-ball idea of a princess. Pocahontas drew on the real-life travails of her Native American namesake, and Mulan was a warrior who spent most of the film disguised as a man. The two films have had mixed receptions among their real-life ethnic groups.
Gabrielle Tayac, a Piscataway Indian and historian at the National Museum of the American Indian, has taken her daughter to Disney World and says the "princess breakfast" the resort offers children (with real-life actresses portraying the fictional characters) was "heaven" to her child. She doesn't want to come across as a scold. But, as an adult, she says, "Pocahontas" often makes her wince.
"Pocahontas was presented in an almost Frederick's of Hollywood costume," she says. "The movie turned out to be more damage control for Native American parents than a moment of pride. It was nothing you wanted your daughter to grow up to be. . . . I have never seen little Native American girls try to dress up as Pocahontas."
Jeff Yang, editor in chief of "Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology," also writes about Asian pop culture for the San Francisco Chronicle. He says that the Disney adaptation of the Chinese story of the warrior Mulan brought a "sigh of relief" from Asian American parents.
"It was a real cultural opening; Disney's characters had been lily-white for so long," he said. "Asian American parents were much more open to the princess brand for their daughters once there was Asian representation."
Disney's Lasseter thinks all the films work well, but acknowledges some differences.
" 'The Little Mermaid,' 'Aladdin,' 'Beauty' -- they kind of have more staying power, generation to generation," he says. "Maybe the quality of filmmaking is stronger. Maybe those are considered a little bit more of a fairy tale than the others."
The story line of "The Princess and the Frog," he says, lends itself more to the traditional, romantic fairy tale.
Scholars say the fairy tales that last are the ones that continue to enchant, entertain and touch children over the ages -- but, most of all, the stories continue to live by finding ways to transform themselves into new worlds.
"Fairy tales absolutely should be brought up to date, to be more user-friendly for the children in our culture," says Maria Tatar, the editor of "The Classic Fairy Tales" who chairs the program in folklore and mythology at Harvard University. "You don't want to tell a story that was just right for German children in the early 19th century."