The Walt Disney Company has not left stereotypes behind; they have sunk as deep into their muck as ever.
Disney should get some sort of credit for having an African-American princess — it only took them 72 years. But The Princess and the Frog’s retrograde animation style, sexual politics, and ugly caricature of rural Southerners undo any possible positive effects of affirmative action, and derail the film’s effort to culturally resuscitate a once-great American city.
The Princess and the Frog is largely a paean to New Orleans. In the wake of the misery and hatred that Hurricane Katrina unleashed, that mission is perhaps even more important than giving black girls their very own icon of impossible hyper-femininity. But once outside the city, the film portrays rural denizens of the Mississippi Delta region as stupid, toothless, overbreeding insects. As anyone who’s ever eaten jambalaya or danced to Beausoleil knows, Cajuns provide some of the most rich and interesting culture in America. By making this group of people, symbolized by their distinctive accent, seem like so many redneck hillbillies, Disney puts the time machine in reverse and then hits the gas.
The Princess and the Frog is one of the most appallingly ugly movies since the days of Dumbo (with its minstrel crows) and The Song of the South (Walt’s woefully misguided attempt at “multiculturalism”). It’s really hard to know what the company was thinking — and how such seemingly smarter than that Louisianans as Randy Newman and Dr. John, who provide some of the film’s admittedly great music — let themselves get associated with such grotesque caricatures.
Also, I thought we were all over this Princess-Prince Charming fairytale crap. Wasn’t the whole glorious point of Shrek that it’s better to be an ogre than a phony? Okay, I know, princess culture is bigger than ever. But I’ll always root for the Fionas of the world.
The Princess is drawn in the sort of color-saturated dreamlike style of the Technicolor movies of yore — as if stop-animation, 3D, or Pixar in general had never happened. It’s as if Disney took one big gamble — okaywe’llhaveablackprincesstherewesaidit — and then backpedaled furiously on the last few decades of political, technical and aesthetic progress. Plus, it’s not very funny, or well-written.
Cole and I went to a screening of the film at Disney’s Burbank headquarters. I was truly excited to take my son to his first film studio, with its promised interactive event afterward. On the way into the theater, just when I was about to be frisked to make sure I wasn’t sneaking in a movie camera, the tip of Cole’s shoelace got stuck in a floor vent, and he went crashing into the hard metal knee first. (Bootleggers: This is an excellent diversion tactic. Just bring your own Band-Aids.) The small army of smiling greeters who had carefully pointed us from the parking lot to the theater down the not-to-be-veered-from path seemed suddenly stunned by this unscripted freak accident. Noone offered to help me get Cole up; they took about 15 minutes to find a Band-Aid (people, you’ve invited hundreds of kids onto your property; have some first aid ready!); and he never got ice.
The interactive event consisted primarily of photo ops with actors dressed as various Disney princesses. The free popcorn was great and Cole had a good time once his knee stopped hurting. But now I have to figure out how to restore the dignity of the bayou in his impressionable little mind. Heading over to iTunes now for some Michael Doucet and Buckwheat Zydeco.