When you wish upon a star

When you wish upon a star

Shreya Shankar

Chock full of charismatic characters and magnetic music, "The Princess and the Frog" heralds Disney’s return to the golden age of animation

January of 2009 brought the United States its first black president. Now, December of 2009 brings us our first black princess. Maybe Martin Luther King was onto something after all.  It seems that dreams really do come true.

Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Disney’s newest addition to the steadily diversifying Princess franchise, leads a talented and memorable cast to box office success with explosive musical numbers and heartwarming characters. In the movie, Tiana kisses an enchanted frog out of pity, resulting in some webbed feet and mucus of her own, along with a rollicking trip through the bayou.

As per tradition, the journey is also a musical one, yielding a number of soon-to-be classics. The tale is set in New Orleans during the 1920s, resulting in numerous jazz-inspired numbers. Dr. Facilier (Keith David), the resident voodoo villain, is particularly smooth, subtly alluding to the late great Micheal Jackson with his dance moves in "Friends on the Other Side". "Almost There", performed by Tiana, serves as the movie’s requisite Work Song as well as one of the standout songs in the musical. The most suprising song, however, was the disarmingly romantic "Ma Belle Evangeline", the adorably idealistic firefly Ray (Jim Cummings)’s ode to his love.

Like her fellow princesses, Tiana’s tale centers around love. But what sets her’s apart is a trait relatively foreign to the traditionally dreamy princesses: hard work. Cinderella may have done her share of scrubbing and Aurora her share of berry-picking, but our heroine is ready to earn her happily ever after, seeing work as the answer to her problems. Her ambition is one of the corner stones of Tiana’s character, a reflection of both her social class and ethnicity.

But the movie has been heavily criticized for its insensitivity toward blacks and helplessness of the heroine on those very same grounds. It has been under fire for some of its stereotypical minor characters like Ray, a toothless Cajun firefly with a heavy accent. Tiana’s subservience, particularly her occupation as a maid and waitress, has also been the point of much caustic commentary. 

Wallowing in sensitivity and watching the movie for racial slurs, however, makes it very easy to miss the moral of the story. In a serendipitous turn of pragmatism, Disney conveys the idea that wishes are realized through hard work. In the end Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) who starts off on a very spoiled, arrogant note, works side-by-side with Tiana to help accomplish her dream.

"The Princess and the Frog" also deserves recognition for its numerous subtle nods to other Disney classics such as "Jungle Book", "Lion King" and "Sleeping Beauty". The cheeky allusions, like a group of party-goers wearing "Lion King" costumes, are brilliantly incorporated into the movie, flashing mischievously past those less versed in Disney’s classics.

The first Disney Princess created in over a decade, Tiana serves as Disney’s arrival to modernity as well as the studio’s return to classic animation styles, hearkening back to the first fairytale princess back in 1937. Snow White was then. And now over 70 years later, our princesses are still living their dreams. Obama’s not the only one.