Disney embraces diversity in atypical princess-frog story

It’s an age-old story: prince is turned into a frog, princess kisses frog, frog becomes man, and they live happily ever after. The new Disney version of this fairytale, an attempt to embrace political correctness about race while maintaining the sugary sweetness we have come to expect in the stories of the Disney princesses, revitalizes the classic Disney adventure in a whirlwind fairytale spiced up considerably by a New Orleans setting.

In “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney introduced its first African-American princess, who is pictured here with Frog Naveen. (Courtesy Disney Enterprises, Inc./MCT)
In “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney introduced its first African-American princess, who is pictured here with Frog Naveen. (Courtesy Disney Enterprises, Inc./MCT)

Most of the Disney Princess stories take place against a backdrop of extravagant castles; Princess and the Frog begins in a tiny home amidst the bustle of New Orleans. A poor tailor, who works for the most influential family in the town, teaches his daughter that, no matter what kind of struggles life presents, perseverance always leads to rewards. His daughter, Tiana, dreams of opening her own restaurant. When her father dies, Tiana is forced to pursue her dreams on her own, and she eventually earns enough money working full-time as a waitress to pay for an old sugar mill to house her restaurant. At the same time, the witch doctor Dr. Facilier is planning to usurp New Orleans through a series of shape-shifting procedures that will incapacitate a visiting prince by turning him into a frog and allow his servant to take the prince’s form. Coincidentally, Tiana comes face-to-face with the frog prince and reluctantly kisses him in order to expedite his re- transformation. Unfortunately, when they kiss, she turns into a frog; the rest of the movie comprises romps through the bayou embellished by charming musical numbers and a quest to find the kindly witch doctor who can change them back into humans that is perfectly complemented by the protagonists’ metaphorical journey into self-acceptance, a compulsory side plot in any Disney movie.

Disney’s innovations in The Princess and the Frog go beyond the color of the princess’s skin. She is the first hard-working, salt-of-the-earth Disney princess, and as a result the movie explores socioeconomic diversity as well as racial diversity. These changes means that The Princess and the Frog is not simply an expansion of the Disney princess mold to include multiple races, but a re-vamping of the traditional story to focus more on distinct characters and cultures instead of on the cookie-cutter princesses that populate other stories. The Princess and the Frog could be a hint that Disney is taking a brave step from the comparatively two-dimensional stories of Cinderella and Snow White towards an “American Girl”-esque exploration of diversity.

In terms of the actual movie experience, The Princess and the Frog is fairly classic Disney. Lavish parties contrast with the strikingly surreal, chilling scenes typically associated with Disney villains. While the music is charming and often poignant, it lacks the poetry and originality that makes so many Disney songs timeless. However, the innovations to Disney that The Princess and the Frog pioneers make the film indubitably worth watching. Disney clearly hasn’t perfected the art of bringing culture to fairytales, but their admirable effort lends hope to the future of Disney as a maker of creative, culturally rich creations.  