In Disney’s most recent bid to be modern and cosmopolitan, “The Princess and the Frog“, the princess actually appears at the end, by which I mean that the little black girl who is the heroine of the story needs to marry a prince in order to fulfill the movie’s title. However, much of the movie is indeed about the frog into which the prince is magically transformed. The frog prince is brown, named Naveen, belongs to the kingdom of Maldonia and has a mother who wears a sari. This is what modern and unconventional means in Disneyland: a black waitress and an Indian prince. No clichés there or anything.
Despite their staunchly Caucasian stories, I’ve loved Disney movies ever since I was a kid. The unrounded animation style, the song and dance routines, the bumbling sidekicks, the toothy princes and the pat endings have given me enormous joy over the years. And I’ll admit freely that I really wanted to see “The Princess and the Frog” on big screen (life, as usual, got in the way but never mind that) because I wanted to re-enter that utterly simplistic and sparkly world that is Disney’s specialty. So when I rented the dvd of the movie, I was all set to love it and hum a song or two from it for the next couple of days.
Before I go on, I should say that “The Princess and the Frog” is a sweet little movie that didn’t want to be offensive and probably wasn’t to most people. I don’t think it’s not likely to scar young minds and condition them to advocate apartheid, join the BNP or explode into punk, neo-Nazi hairstyles once they hit their late teens.
But dammitall, I’m so not a happy camper in Disneyland after watching this movie. One, I can’t remember a single song from the movie, which is ridiculous considering I sang “I Wanna Be Like You-hoo-hoo” for four days straight after watching “Jungle Book” and drove my mother insane with my attempts to copy the helium-chirpy voice with which Snow White sings “With A Smile and A Song“. More problematically, this attempt by Disney to be cosmopolitan is a bit like trying to fit Carrie Bradshaw into the plot of a Jane Austen novel. It feels laughably wrong even though there are enough reasons for that to not be the case.
In an effort to be anti-stereotype, Disney did a number of things. They changed the black heroine’s name from Maddy (sounded too much like a Big Mama character apparently) to Tiana. The Indian prince wasn’t an Indian prince but one from Maldonia. His idiotic manservant had a British accent, possibly in an effort to show that the empire has struck back. Now, maybe this is the result of me growing old and crotchetier but I can’t get myself to get beyond the fact that when Disney decides to have a story about a black heroine, she spends the better part of a movie as an animal. Tiana might be a frog with mascara-ed eyelashes but she’s still a frog. Or that the two non-white humans significant characters in “The Princess and the Frog” are the voodoo spell-casters, one of whom is the villain and has purple eyes and the other is a big, batty and blind old woman who lives cut off from civilisation in the depths of a forest. And there’s a brown Indian, sorry Maldonian, prince. I mean, for crying out loud, why couldn’t he be Caucasian or Latino or Chinese? Why did Tiana’s prince have to be the son of a sari-wearing mother who loves singing and dancing and dressing up like a Bollywood hero? I mean, this is like a cartoon of Shah Rukh Khan from “Pardes“. Add a pair of glasses and it could be Khan from “Mohabbatein“. (Maybe that’s why Naveen’s been cut off from the family fortunes by his parents in the plot.) As if that wasn’t bad enough, minus the outfits, his face and mannerisms are a dead ringer for Jeetendra. Plus, to add despair to insult and injury, wouldn’t you know that while dreaming up a “mature” version of Naveen, David Kawena would imagine him surrounded by lotuses and wearing tighty-whities? Sheesh….