The Princess and the Frog
Tiana is the newest Disney princess-heroine. Her name may be an abbreviation of Christiana, a Greek name meaning “follower of Christ”, or the Russian Tatiana. Much ado has been made about the fact that Tiana is African American. While Dr. Sweet from Atlantis is the first black man in a Disney feature, and while these are proud accomplishments, Tiana’s creed is merely her most obvious trait; it should not be her defining one.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Tiana’s family is poor in funds but rich in love. Her best friend since childhood, Charlotte “Lottey" LeBouf is the daughter of a sugar-mill owner. Big Daddy (most Southern families refer to their patriarch as “Big Daddy” and his wife as “Big Mama”, a term of respect and endearment) LeBouf is the richest man in the Crescent City, and his antebellum mansion puts Tiana’s family’s shotgun shack to shame. However, the LeBoufs are friendly, gregarious, and jovial. “Big Daddy” reflects not only Mr. LeBouf’s station, but his appetite and girth as well. He cannot resist Tiana’s “man-grabbing” beignets, proof that the quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Big Daddy spoils his oldest daughter rotten, yet Lotte is generous, loyal, and unbiased. She is an utter romantic who loves fairy tales and princesses. Tiana’s mother, an expert seamstress, even made her a series of royal gowns based on storybook illustrations and Lotte’s princess doll collection.
Tiana, however, is much more pragmatic. She too has a dream, but in contrast to Lotte, who resembles more traditional Disney princesses such as Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora, and is fixated on the idea of marrying a prince to become an actual princess, Tiana is dedicated, quick-thinking, and a very hard worker. She waitresses at two different cafes, saving her meager tips in a series of coffe cans, with which she will someday open her own restaurant, Tiana’s Place, complete with a crystal chandelier and a menu full of Louisiana cuisine.
Tiana’s father was a cotton picker with a penchant for cooking, which he passed on to his daughter. He died in a battle in World War One, leaving his well-used gumbo pot to Tiana. He dreamed of owning a restaurant, where he and Tiana would cook together, but his untimely death halted their goal. Tiana’s bid on an old sugar mill she plans to covert into five-star dining is outdone, much to her dismay. Desperate, she resorts to the trick she and Charlotte read about in their story books: she wishes on a star.
A frog sitting on the balcony railing overhears her. Wryly, she asks it, “I suppose you want me to kiss you?”
In his Pepe Le Pew-like Maldonian accent, he replies, “A kiss would be nice, yes?”
Freaked out, Tiana smashes the frog with a heavy book. “The Froggie Prince!” He says excitedly. It was his favorite---Tiana’s too---as a child. He explains that he is the prince, shape-shifted into a frog by a voodoo scam, and says that according to the story, if she kisses him, he will become human again (sound familiar?)
Swayed by his offer of the money which she so desperately needs, Tiana swallows her disgust and does so, but the spell does not work---instead, she becomes a frog as well. The two jump from Charlotte’s room to the Mardi Gras masquerade ball below, upsetting the party. They are chased by the Le Bouf’s dog Stella (named after Stanley’s wife in the Tennesee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire, also set in New Orleans, albeit twenty years later), upset the food, and disgust the crowd, who alternately attempt to squash them and run squealing in horror.
They escape to the bayou beyond, where they are befriended by a hick firefly named Ray, (natch), who has few teeth and a Cajun accent. Ray is in love with a firefly named Evangeline (named after the Longfellow poem) who, it turns out, is not a firefly but the North Star. He and his Cajun kinfolk, who are like an insect version of the Beverly Hillbillies cast, offer to light their way to Mama Odie, the Voodoo priestess who will know how to reverse the spell cast on Tiana and Naveen. Along the way, they are pursued by bayou alligators and Cajun frog hunters who resemble the Hatfield clan with their long beards, shotguns and bare feet.
Their savior is Louis, an alligator reminiscent of the Phil Harris-voiced Thomas O’Malley and Baloo in his big-boned, laid-back demeanor. Louis, named after jazz great Armstrong (though his name is pronounced LouIS, not Louie) aspires to trumpet in one of New Orleans’ famed jazz bands. When he hears their plans, he asks to join them, hoping that Mama Odie will turn him human, as when an alligator attempts to join human bands, people tend to flee or shoot at him.
“Dr.” Facilier’s opposite is Mama Odie, Tiana’s “fairy godmother”, a white-voodoo priestess who is nearly two hundred and blind. Her assistant is Juju (named after the African word for magic or power), an amiable snake reminiscent of The Jungle Book’s Kaa---wide-eyed and accident-prone, but unlike Kaa, benevolent. Snakes are the prime deity in Voodoo. Mama Odie lives in a wrecked ship make into a treehouse atop an old, majestic mangrove tree, just like Tarzan. Magical characters, good and bad, seem to gravitate towards trees, such as Hexxus from Fern Gully, Rafiki, the shaman baboon of The Lion King, and Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Mama Odie is feisty, and rambles around her treehouse, which is hung with hundreds of colorful glass bottles, narrowly avoiding mishaps like Mr. Magoo. She cooks up gumbo in a bathtub like speakeasy gin, which Tiana doctors, much to Mama’s delight. Seems like everyone in New Orleans keeps a bottle of Tabasco handy..
Mama Odie uses her gumbo tub like a scrying mirror. “Watch the gumbo,” she instructs Tiana and Naveen. She instructs them to “dig a little deeper” (in a gospel number including singing pelicans) in order to be released from their amphibian state. Workaholic Tiana interprets the gumbo to mean she must work even harder, but Mama tells them that she cannot simply conjure some spirits and change them back, and that what the gumbo really means is that maybe what they thought they wanted isn’t that at all.
The Maldonian Prince Naveen had arrived in New Orleans to hear live jazz where it was born, but the naïve man is finagled by Dr. Facilier, the big bad voodoo daddy of the French Quarter. He is transformed into a frog---the very frog who overheard Tiana’s plea. Facilier is a black-magician (there is “good” white magic and “bad” black magic in voodoo, just like the cowboy hats in a Western.) Dr. Facilier wears a shaman’s necklace of animal claws, which represents his ruthlessness. He courts the evil spirits via an amulet shaped like an African tribal mask which acts like a battery, running on human blood.
While Tiana, Naveen, Louis and Ray make their way back to New Orleans like Dorothy and the gang going to Emerald City, Dr. Facilier has struck a bargain with Naveen’s major domo, Lawrence, whose ‘loyalty’ masks his animosity for the prince, whom he thinks a spoiled and shiftless man. Lawerence, who resembles Timothy Spall, craves the riches of the Maldonian court, while the Dr. craves power. In typically villainous megalomania, he plans to use his “friends”, the evil spirits, to take over New Orleans, feeding the souls of the population to them in return.
In the bayou Tiana manages to make a delicious meal with wild mushrooms and peppers foraged from the shrubbery. She teaches Naveen to mince vegetables, who admits that he has never learnt to do anything for himself---his servants even brush his teeth.The foursome hitch a ride on a paddlewheel boat, where Louis is mistaken as a costumed man at the masquerade on board. When the other musicians hear his talent, they usher him into their combo, to his delight. Meanwhile, Naveen realizes that he has fallen in love with Tiana, for her determination, enthusiasm, and resourcefulness. Using a bead from a salvaged Mardi Gras necklace, he fashions an engagement ring, hides it in a nutshell, and creates an intimate dinner for two, complete with candlelight and vegetables he has minced himself. He intends to tell her how he feels, but when they pass the mill Tiana plans to renevate, she describes her dream and he resolves to marry Charlotte Le Bouf so that he, penniless since his parents cut off his inheritance because of his lack of motivation, will have money to give to Tiana for her restaurant.
Back in New Orleans, Lawrence, posing as Naveen via Facilier’s magic, has wooed Charlotte, who, starry-eyed, sets a wedding date. Naveen confesses his feelings for Tiana to Ray, a true romantic, who is delighted. Naveen is aprehended by Facilier, who needs more of his blood to reactivate his amulet to keep Lawrence’s masquerade going. He locks the frog prince in a box and Lawrence\Naveen and the LeBoufs climb aboard their Mardi Gras wedding float. Ray manages to pick the lock and they escape. Ray confesses Naveen’s secret to Tiana, who has come to realize that Naveen is more important to her than her restaurant. He has stolen Dr. Facilier’s amulet.
Facilier tracks them down and, in what may simply be the most malicious act of any Disney villain, steps on Ray. Louis rushes him to Naveen and Tiana, but in a terribly sad scene, Ray actually dies before our eyes (possibly the very first on-screen death of one of the good guys in Disney history). A funeral takes place on the bayou. We are comforted with the fact that Ray’s dream has come true---cloud cover lifts to reveal a second star, namely Ray, next to his true love, Evangeline.
Dr. Facilier catches Tiana and attempts to convince her to side with him, telling her that he can make her dreams come true. Using black Voodoo, he conjures up images of Tiana’s Place, a five-star hit, Tiana in grand flapper attire, exactly as in her daydream. She is almosts swayed, but remembers that her father once told her that all the success in the world is not as important as love. James may not have achieved his dream, but he had love, family, and back-porch gumbo with his friends. Tiana crushes Facilier’s amulet, just like Rasputin’s reliquary, and his “friends” steal his soul, since he did not fulfill his part of the black-magic bargain. Facilier is sucked into the underworld, like Rasputin and Hades before him, and a new gravestone appears in the cemetary, bearing his name and a howling effigy.
Tiana overhears Lawrence with Charlotte and, believing he is Naveen, in human form, is heartbroken. Lawrence, whose camoflage is fading again, flees inside a church, but is discovered by Charlotte. Big Daddy has the fraudulent ‘prince’ arrested. Tiana explains everything to Charlotte, who agrees to kiss Naveen for Tiana, restoring him to human form, for the love of her best friend. She puckers up, but like all fairy godmothers’ spells, it deactivates at midnight, and the clock has struck. Naveen confesses his feelings to Tiana, and tells her he would rather be a frog with her than a human without her. Charlotte is moved by the romance, and they go to Mama Odie, who performs an amphibian wedding, with Louis and all the denizens of the bayou in attendance. Having said their marriage vows, the Frog Prince and Princess kiss. The spell is broken. Human again, they have a human wedding, with Tiana’s mother, Eudora, and the King and Queen of Maldonia in joyfully tearful attendance.
Naveen’s inheritance is restored, and he and Tiana buy the mill, with Tiana’s coffee cans and Louis there for the Mafia intimidation factor. Together they renovate the sugar mill into Tiana’s Place, complete with Art Deco décor, crystal chandelier, and Tiana’s cuisine. The restaurant is a smash. The LeBoufs and everyone else in town attend the grand opening, with live music by Firefly Five Plus Lou, Louis on trumpet.
(The band’s name is a nod to the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a septet consisting entirely of Disney animators, including Ward Kimball and Frank Thomas of the Walt’s Nine Old Men. The group played Dixieland jazz and recorded more than a dozen albums.)
This Clements\Musker-directed film pays homage to many animated films, both Disney and others. Lady and the Tramp inspired the scenery, as no doubt did another Disney flick set in the bayou, The Rescuers. Funnily, King Louie in The Jungle Book is named after another jazz trumpeter from New Orleans, Louis Prima. King Louis too, wished to be human.
Even in frog form, Tiana is left-handed. Pretty as it is, I must say that her blue dress is too much like Brandy’s in the 1997 Disney version of Cinderella. Her yellow dress and green coat suit her much better. And frankly, I’m tired of princesses in pastels. Aurora and Ariel’s princess gowns were pink, Belle’s yellow, Jasmine’s lavender. Tiana ought to wear something bold to suit her strong coloring; red or orange or purple, both of which, incidentally, are traditional colors for the robes of African royalty.
I truly don’t mean to seem biased, but in all honesty, what are the odds of the richest white girl and the poorest black girl in town being lifelong best friends in the 1920’s South? Of course it is admirable, but historically speaking, how likely is that?
I was pleasantly surprised that Dr. Facilier was voiced by the Goliath of voice actors, Keith David (pun intended), because I cannot recall another of his characters ever singing. This marks the occasion of the first time a villain has had a song in several years.
The concept of a magical villain has so long a precedent in Disney that frankly, I’m surprised no one had ever hit on the idea of a Voodoo theme before. The Wicked Queen, Maleficent, Madame Mim, the Horned King, Jafar, Ursula, her sister Morgana, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II’s Scarousch, and Yzma; plus Tzek El Khan from Dreamworks’ The Road to El Dorado, Anastasia’s Rasputin, and The Swan Princess’ Rothbart, were all witches and sorcerers.
I firmly believe that Tiana is a greater achievement for the African-American race than Obama’s presidency. This may sound strange, but think about it: Obama will be president for four years, maybe eight, but Tiana is part of the Disney canon. No other business is as wide-reaching, long-lasting, and diversified as Disney.
Disney as a company has been around since the early 1920’s, meaning that four or five generations have witnessed the company’s span. And Disney characters are more appealing to children than politicians. Plenty of kids may grow up wanting to be president, but how many of them watch campaigns on TV? They do, however, watch the Disney Channel. And seriously, no president, even Honest Abe, has a planet named after him. Pluto, however…