BY MY ESTIMATION, Disney's animated features took a dramatic turn for the terrible with the release of Pocahontas in 1995. With a few exceptions, the 15 movies since have squandered a good deal of cultural capital—what American kid wasn't half-raised by Disney cartoons? How much would you have to pay the average American adult to watch Chicken Little?
Disney's newest, The Princess and the Frog, abruptly and unexpectedly reminded me just how good Disney movies used to be. The hand-drawn, 2D animated feature is a deliberate callback to the fairy tales produced by ol' Walt himself—one challenged to balance its happily-ever-afterisms with a responsible social message. And it does.
Disney's First Ever Black Princess is Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), a waitress who works double shifts so she can save enough money to start her own restaurant. As she flits from table to table, dishing up hotcakes and beignets, the powdered sugar on the beignets just sparkles—New Orleans' culinary offerings are rendered here as appealingly as the city itself. Soon Tiana meets Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), turns into a frog, goes to a swamp, makes friends with a firefly and an alligator, and learns a lesson about just how far hard work can get you. Oh, and there's a scary voodoo guy. Details don't really matter; what matters is that The Princess and the Frog is true to the spirit of Disney's best films, and that it updates the fairy tale formula with relevance and respect.
So... how was the "race issue" handled, then? Honestly, I have no idea. I was too busy misting up over a heartbreaking subplot involving a lovelorn lightning bug to bother taking furious notes about the insect's stereotypical Cajun accent. Criticism of the film's treatment of race has focused on the fact that it fails to represent the realities of a racially segregated South. To which I respond: The movie isn't about race. It's about princesses. And, sorry, but racism is kind of a downer. Aren't little black girls entitled to star in escapist fantasies once in a while? For parents who'd like to use the film as a jumping-off point for a discussion on race, an opportunity is provided: Two real estate agents back out of a deal with Tiana, explaining they're reluctant to sell to a "woman of [her] background." For a Disney movie? That's pretty damn good.