Disney took a long vacation from princess movies, but they took an even longer from traditional 2D animated musicals. The Princess and the Frog was their first attempt in a while (barring some that we’re going to ignore), and it certainly generated a lot of buzz when it came out in 2009. Not only was Disney attempting another 2D musical princess movie, but it was going to feature their first black princess. There was a lot of pressure on the movie to do well. Disney was taking a big step with making a princess who wasn’t white and blonde, and there was a lot of concern about what kind of role model the new princess Tiana would be.
Of course, no matter what Disney did with the movie, there would be some backlash. Tiana was a controversial character. With a new princess for a whole new group of girls to look up to, would she be the type of role model she ought to be?
Tiana lives in the poor section of New Orleans with her parents. Her mother often makes elaborate, customized princess dresses for Charlotte La Bouff, daughter of a local sugar baron, and Tiana spends time with Charlotte while her mother works. Apparently custom dresses went for a lot less in the 20s, because the family can barely afford to get by. While Charlotte spends her time wishing on stars and getting everything her rich little heart desires, Tiana’s father tells her that real people have to work hard if they want wishing on stars to do anything for them.
After Tiana’s father dies in the war, Tiana decides to carry out his dream of buying an old sugar mill on the waterfront and turning it into a five-star restaurant. She works two jobs and saves every penny to buy the building. This causes everyone she knows to mock her endlessly, but that is possibly because it’s the only thing she ever talks about. Her big chance finally comes when the news hits that the broke Prince Naveen of totally-real Maldonia will be visiting New Orleans. Charlotte has always wanted to marry a prince, so she convinces her dad to throw a huge party and invite him. She hires Tiana to make her a batch of “man-catchin’ beignets,” and the money is enough to finally allow Tiana to buy the old sugar mill. She meets up with a couple of realtors, who promise to sign the papers in the morning.
Shortly before the party, Naveen and his bumbling man-friend are conned by the voodoo-practicing Dr. Facilier. Facilier turns Naveen into a frog and traps his blood in a fancy necklace that makes the wearer look like whoever’s blood is inside of it. Naveen’s servant puts on the necklace and rocks that prince swag right into the party, where he easily woos an oblivious Charlotte. While Charlotte is being swept off her feet, Tiana’s realtors drop the news that she was outbid for the sugar mill. In her despair, Tiana wishes on a star for something to help her.
It’s around this time that Naveen escapes from the highly-secure jar he was kept in and sees Tiana. Mistaking her for a princess, he convinces Tiana to kiss him, promising her riches in exchange for making him human again. Since Tiana isn’t a princess, the spell backfires and turns her into a frog as well. The two set out to find someone to turn them human again. They meet a bevy of animal companions along the way, and though Tiana’s overly serious nature and Naveen’s love of partying don’t mesh well at first, they (very shockingly) end up falling in love. It turns out that the only way to become human again is to be satisfied with life as it is, but once they’re back, Tiana finds that, with new friends on her side, she is able to get the life she always wanted.
Okay, so I write feminist articles about the effects of princess worship on the minds of young girls, and I think girls should be encouraged to be strong and independent and not believe that their only value in the world is to look pretty and please men. I stand by that. That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy the aesthetic appeal of the whole princess thing. Just look at that lily pad dress Tiana wears for about five seconds. That is gorgeous. I want six.
My other reaction is how absolutely stunning the movie is. The Princess and the Frog was Disney’s return to classic 2D animation, and between the beautiful art and the awesome music, it’s hard not to love this movie, even if the protagonist weren’t so strong.
There’s a lesson to be learned in The Princess in the Frog that is a pretty important one for real life: hard work will only get you so far if you don’t have friends to back you up. Tiana scrimps and saves for years, but it isn’t until she lets other people into her life that she is able to finally fulfill her dream. Naveen isn’t necessarily the person to do that for her, either: her alligator buddy threatens the racist realtors who initially denied her. There’s something to be said for encouraging violence to get what you want, I suppose, but I think the stronger message is that Tiana wouldn’t have had anyone to strong-arm her enemies at all if she hadn’t let her guard down long enough to make friends.
And while the movie does heavily promote that love and friendship are more important if you want to get ahead in life, it doesn’t undermine how much work Tiana has put into her dreams. Her friends may make sure that she isn’t a doormat, but she earned all the money that she puts toward the restaurant by herself. In this day and age, it’s rare to see anyone who only has to work one job to get by, and given the state of things, it’s unlikely to get better any time soon. It’s nice for girls to have a role model with a realistic depiction of what most of them will have to do in life.
There is the downside that a lot of the problems in the movie seem to be solved by relationships with other people. Sure, Naveen’s original way to get money through marrying Charlotte doesn’t pan out, but Tiana’s restaurant seems to do pretty well. Sure, at that point Naveen isn’t looking for a way to continue a lavish lifestyle, but it does seem pretty handy that the girl that makes him want to be a better person also happens to become successful pretty quickly.
Yes, Tiana and Naveen have the fall-in-love-in-three-days syndrome so common in Disney movies, but their love is not at all based on attraction. Naveen is something of a lady-killer, and he actually tries to hit on Tiana early in the movie without either of them really meeting, but he begins to actually fall for her when he gets to know her as a frog. He sees her passion about achieving her goals, and she helps him see that he’s not absolutely useless. For the first time, he begins to care about someone else more than himself.
In turn, Tiana is not flawless. Her determination is very admirable, but she works so hard that she can’t enjoy life at all. Were it not for Naveen showing her that it’s okay to have fun while working on your goals, she likely would have gotten her restaurant eventually, but what would she do then? With her dreams accomplished, who would she be able to talk to about them?
Sure, maybe their personalities are a bit too different for them to realistically get along, but they compliment each other so nicely that it’s hard not to be optimistic. Each partner inspires change in the other by simply wanting to be a better person for the sake of the other, but they never try to actively change each other. That’s a healthy kind of change. Please take note, Beauty and the Beast.
When it comes to princess movies, I usually have a lot more criticism than praise, but The Princess and the Frog is one of those movies that’s hard to find a bad message in. It’s nice to know that among the movies that tell girls to wait for a man to come along and save them, there’s one that lets them know that while it’s nice to wish on a star, it will only be able to help you as much as you help yourself.