The impending release of Disney’s animated fairytale feature The Princess and the Frog is more significant than your average Big Mouse family flick for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it marks the studio’s return to traditional hand drawn animation – the first of its kind since 2004’s Home on the Range. Secondly (and more significantly) the film’s titular protagonist, Tiana, is the first African American heroine in the company’s 71 year history of feature film animation. Her role has been linked in some circles to the Presidency of Barrack Obama, though Disney rightfully quashed this correlation by pointing out that the project’s development predates Obama’s inauguration.
Since the whiter-than-white Snow White bit the bedeviled apple in 1937 Disney maintained a lineup of solely Caucasian princesses right up until the 90’s, when the studio began to significantly broaden its representations of multicultural people. 1992’s Aladdin marked its first non-white animated heroine – Princess “a whole new world” Jasmine, who was Middle Eastern. Three years later Pocahontus (an American Indian) appeared in 1995 and in 1998 came Mulan (the first Chinese Disney heroine).
The Big Mouse reportedly consulted African American individuals and organisations in an attempt to ensure Tiana’s character would not cause offence. One killjoy – columnist William Blackburn for the Charlotte Observer – chastised the studio for setting the film in New Orleans so soon after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but that strikes me as a hyper sensitive criticism.
The Princess and the Frog is set in the 1920s and follows Tiana as she endeavors to become a successful restaurateur, along the way falling in love with a prince who – guess what? – has been turned into a frog.
Some people – not without cause – will consider Tiana’s ethnicity a Very Big Deal. Here’s what actor Anika Noni Rose, who provides Tiana’s voice, had to say:
”For my nephew it will be the norm. He will think nothing of it – it will be his first princess, period. For my mother it will be something that she’s been waiting for. For my grandmother it will be something that she never thought would have happened in her lifetime.”
The Princess and the Frog opens in Australia January 1.