The Princess and the Frog: A Comparative Analysis

These cows almost killed Disney.

These cows almost killed Disney.

It was only five years ago that Disney ran up the white flag and did the unthinkable: it shuttered its 2D animation facilities. This is the Walt Freaking Disney Company: they invented animated movies as we know them. But a series of flops (Treasure Planet, Brother Bear, Home on the Range) at the same time as Pixar churned out a string of instant classics was too much for the Mouse House. They decided that the public clearly wanted computer animation, and that’s what Disney was going to give them.

Except that didn’t work either. 2005’s Chicken Little didn’t even make back its budget domestically. So in 2006, Disney took the if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em route, purchasing Pixar for $7.4 billion (which actually seems like a steal to me). The Pixar people were suddenly in charge of Walt Disney Animation… and the first thing they did was get the 2D animation department back up and running.

John Lasseter and Co. were betting that audiences hadn’t stayed away from Home on the Range because it was 2D. They had stayed away because:

a) It was lame, but more importantly…

b) a trio of sassy cows wasn’t what audiences wanted to see from Disney.

Anyone who’s been around a little girl in the last twenty years knows that the old Disney films still resonate, maybe even more than the new Pixar stuff. In 2009, the Disney Princess line of merchandise netted over $4 billion for the company. In a way, the continuing popularity of those 2D films is what enabled Disney to buy Pixar.

So when they set out to make The Princess and the Frog, they had a tricky task: produce something that recreated what people loved about the old Disney movies (especially the early-90s triumvirate of Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin), but also something creative enough to get consumers back into the habit of reflexively going to Disney movies. It’s sort of like making a Bond movie–you need to stick to the formula, but also keep it fresh.

So how did they do it? Well, let’s go to the chart. (And by the way, bigtime Princess and the Frog spoilers begin now.)

disney-chart-1-0

First of all, when I say “Magical Disney Princess Chart,” I don’t mean the princesses themselves are magical. I mean the chart is magical. But then again, aren’t all charts? And by the way, this is a work in progress, so if anyone has a clear sense of how long Belle spends at the Beast’s castle, let me know.

Okay, here’s the big picture. Most of these princess movies hit the same notes. The motherless child, the dream of another life, the whirlwind courtship (usually a matter of days), and the HEA (happily ever after) in a beautiful castle. Pocohontas, however, messes with the script: no HEA. Just a sad goodbye as a wounded Mel Gibson sails back to England. Then Mulan goes completely nuts. For starters, both her parents are alive and well. Instead of dreaming of another life, she only wishes she had an easier time conforming and being a normal girl. And whoa, there’s no love. There’s a love interest, but he thinks she’s a boy for most of the movie. Don’t get me wrong, I like Mulan a lot. But Pocohontas and Mulan are the least popular of the movies on this list. Clearly, The Princess and the Frog is trying to get that early 90’s mojo back… while still doing things a little differently.

Okay, let’s take it column by column.frog-parents

The Disney Mom Gets to Live!

This is big, big news people. It’s been a long time since a Disney animated character had a mother in her/his life. And that was probably Bambi.

I’m not quite sure what the Disney company has against moms. There’s an interesting theory that the death of Walt’s own mom in 1938 influenced all his later works. In any case, Disney kills off the dude this time around. Tiana’s dad, briefly voiced by Terrence Howard in an early sequence, dies in WWI. Since he was the one who taught her how to cook, his absence seems to solidify her desire to open a restaurant. Which brings us to column two…

Finally, Someone With a Specific Dream

Snow White had a vague sense that “someday my Prince will come.” Cinderella just hoped that one day she wouldn’t have to mop so much. Aurora sighed over a mysterious man she met once upon a dream. Ariel wanted to be where the people are, Belle wanted more than this provincial life, Jasmine wanted to see life outside the palace walls, and Pocohontas was always dreaming of what’s around the riverbend.

None of these girls have any actual plans for their futures–they just hope something will happen to them (and it does).

Tiana is different. She wants to open a restaurant, and she’s working two jobs and putting aside all her tips. She even knows exactly what building she wants to buy, and she can hardly wait to fix the place up all by herself. The other Disney princesses are off in the clouds. Tiana has dreams too, but she’s working her ass off to make them happen. She is the change she’s been waiting for.

But the biggest way Frog differs from its sisters comes right at the end…

16 Comments on “The Princess and the Frog: A Comparative Analysis”

  1. Akuma #

    You forgot Lady & the Tramp
    = Lady led a pampered life until her walk on the wild side
    + HEA with puppies

    + Tramp would fit into the empty slot on the Human/Dog chart
    = Tramp eats human pasta and scraps, but lived in the streets as a stray, all the other dogs on that list have owners, Tramp did not.

     
  2. Emilia #

    Snow White and cindarella both have their Dads. Show Whites dad took her to the forest to kill her and cinderellas dad marryed again at the start.

     
  3. Jon Eric #

    This is a great article.

     
  4. Matthew Belinkie #

    @Emilia – Sorry, but wrong. The Queen doesn’t send the King to kill Snow White. That’s her “huntsman.” (I assume this was a real profession at some point.) And Cinderella’s dad dies in the first 60 seconds. The whole POINT of the film is that she’s an orphan, at the mercy of her evil stepmother.

    @Jon Eric – Thanks!

     
  5. Gab #

    Oprah was Tiana’s mom. And Emeril Lagassi was the alligator that tried to eat them. I only knew that because I watched a special on it the day before it was out, though- I would have thought Oprah sounded familiar but not placed her, and I wouldn’t have noticed Emeril. But there is no way in heck I’d miss Keith David. His voice is impossible to NOT recognize. I nominate him as another of your muses, actually- he’s everywhere and made of awesome no matter if he’s turning to stone by day or fighting off volcanoes in L.A. by night.

    I was shocked at Ray’s death, too, and I don’t think I can recall an actual funeral in a Disney movie, either. That was the first death of a major good-team character in a Disney movie I can think of. And by that I mean one there for the main part of the plot- I don’t count Mufasa because the plot of _The Lion King_ revolves around and depends on what happened to him and how. Shang’s dad in Mulan gets killed, but there isn’t much contemplation of that, and we barely see him in the movie. Anyhoo, my point is that was the first thing I said when the credits were over, “I can’t believe Ray actually DIED.” But two things. First, the funeral sequence was absolutely exquisitely drawn and depicted. It had this fluidity to it that made it almost like a dream, sad as it was. Which leads to the second point, that another star shows up next to Evangeline.* However cheesy it was, that actually did help ease my heart a bit. And whether it actually happened in the world of the movie makes no difference, too- the affect would have been there, regardless.

    I think Disney achieved exactly what they wanted, which was to create an AMERICAN fairy tale. Tiana was pro-active not only in a feminist sense, but in alliance with the American dream of making your own fortune. To use the language of the movie, she made her own magic and miracles. While Naveen’s parents are shown happy for him at their wedding, his decision to stay with her and help her live HER dream seems to me as though it’s alluding to how from “all around the world, they’re coming to America,” so to speak. Our dream is much better than those old, stuffy European ones, and he chooses America with the blessings of his parents, the rulers of their own kingdom. It’s much more satisfying to earn what you’ve got instead of having it handed to you by servants, according to the message given throughout the movie. The cynic in me wants to speculate about whether his parents helped them buy the building or not once he told them his intentions, but the majority of me that loved the movie so much just beats the cynic into submission. I’d much rather see it as it’s surface-level portrayed. I also think it’s pretty significant that her dad dies in WWI- a poor black man dying in the Army while troops were still segregated, yet his daughter is close friends with the riches white girl in the city. Meant to prove how individually, Americans are Good People and Do The Right Thing, maybe? Why not?!

    One small bit: I know some people were still angry about a lot of things in it because of racism, but I haven’t been able to find any moral outrage because of the frog hunters. They were pretty stereotypical “poor white trash” or “hillbilly” or something of that nature. At the very least, they seemed like a borderline, if not outright classist portrayal.

    *Is this a reference to the Longfellow poem, or is it going for the meaning, “bearer of good news”? I dunno, but it’s worth thinking about… Ahem…

     
  6. Lisa #

    Regarding the “Revenge of the English-Accented Majordomo,” this was actually done earlier in the mostly-not-animated “Enchanted.” (Which I finally just sat down to watch.) It might not be quite the same, as it’s established pretty early that he’s in cahoots with the evil queen.

     
  7. JP #

    Great article, loved the movie, quite funny

     
  8. Katie #

    I think you should remember that Bambi’s mother was killed very prominently, and that affected kids greatly. Disney hasn’t ever been one to hide all sadness from kids. Do you remember Dumbo? Remember when his mother is in jail and Dumbo can only visit with her trunk, and that ‘Baby of Mine’ song plays? Talk about some little kid heart-wrenching going on. Also, Fox & the Hound- sad.

     
  9. Ken #

    It was an awesome article, and I loved the movie! Seen it twice already.

    There are just some comments I wanted to make about the article:

    1. The lack of moms in Disney movies really has nothing to do with Walt Disney. In the fairy tales these films are based on, the protagonist didn’t have a mother to begin with.

    2. You are right about the Disney princess and doing something to make their dreams a reality. I do think Ariel actually tried to make her dream come true by going to Ursula, but that really wasn’t a positive thing to do. I’ve always hated how Belle wanted to have adventure in the great-wide somewhere, but ended up crying when she got her wish. True, she was held against her will, but she was in an Enchanted Castle for heaven’s sake! Haha

    3. Ariel is 16, and like you stated, 16 was an appropriate age for girls to marry centuries ago. In the original fairy tale, the mermaid was 15. Aurora was also 16 and Snow White is rumored to be around 14. Yikes! I’m not sure if Tiana is the eldest Princess at 19 though. Anyway, we really don’t know how much time passes between Triton turning Ariel into a human and Ariel marrying Erin. In that time, I’m sure they got to know each other and truly fell in love. People also mention the fact that Ariel gives up everything — voice, family, friends — to be with a man she didn’t know and that he saved her at the end. What people fail to remember is Ariel actually did save Eric in the beginning of the film. I see the climax as Eric sort of saying “Thank You for saving my own life earlier”. I do love how Tiana defeated Dr. Facilier on her own!!!

    4. I was very confused about the endind of the movie. Do you really think they stayed in new Orleans forever? I mean, when Naveen’s father dies, who will rule Maledonia? That’s the question I left the movie wondering. Oh, and Coming To America ended with Akeem and Lisa staying in Zamunda.

    5. I’m glad I couldn’t recognize the voices of Eudora, Tiana’s Dad, and Big Daddy. If I didn’t know going in, I wouldn’t have know those roles were voiced by Oprah, Terrance Howard, and John Goodman.

    All in all, i loved your article and the analysis. I look forward to reading an analysis of Rapunzel next year if you do one. I’ll surely be getting Princess and the Frog when it comes out on DVD.

     
  10. Akilah #

    I loved this article.

    Except Mulan shouldn’t even be on the chart as she is NOT a princess. Hers is not even a princess story. I think they just brand her as a princess because she’s a girl, and girl = princess, and they have no other conception of how to market her. Badass warrior doesn’t have the same ring to it, I guess.

     
  11. Matthew Belinkie #

    I’ve been traveling for a bit, and I apologize for not responding to the comments right away. But there are some great points here, so better late than never:

    @Gab – First of all, a big hell yeah re: Keith David. The man took part in what is probably the greatest fistfight of all time in They Live. He also played a pivotal role in one of my all-time guilty pleasures, The Chronicles of Riddick. And as Pete is fond of saying, we at OverthinkingIt love actors who get steady work. Keith David is right up there with J.K. Simmons as a guy that shows up in a lot of things you already like and makes them better.

    I’m totally with you about the funeral scene too: it’s a beautiful thing that sticks with me weeks later. And the appearing star was really well done – I admire that way that if you WANT, you can view it religiously (“Ray’s in heaven now”). But only if you WANT – it’s a spiritual moment that works almost regardless of your personal views on death (unless you are a cold, cynical humbug).

    Little aside: my four-year-old didn’t cry during that scene, or react in any big way. But a few days later, after I put him to bed, he called me back to his room. “Daddy,” he said after a moment, “no one will die, right?” Which is a tricky question to answer of course, but it was a conversation I was happy to have. I think kids stories, when they’re well-done, should teach something about the way the world works. They can take very abstract concepts, like death, and give the kid a sense of what that means.

    Anyway, your point about this being a very American story is dead on. Really it’s a complete REJECTION of princessness… which is why it’s so interesting that it’s being sold as a princess movie.

    The frog hunters were pretty broad stereotypes, but I’m fine with stereotyping rednecks. I was strongly reminded of another Disney movie, Pete’s Dragon, which also features a bunch of dumb country hicks. And wow, do I vaguely recall that they made a Country Bears movie? Who the hell greenlit that one?

    It is interesting how the movie sort of pussyfoots around the issue of racism. The closest they come is when the white real estate brokers don’t want to give Tiana the property, but you can see that as SEXISM, or maybe just reluctance to deal with someone who makes their down payment in coffee tins of nickels. I’m not really criticizing the Disney people for not showing how racist America used to be, but one might accuse them of whitewashing the past. In my book, they took on a tricky assignment and did it better than anyone expected – you can quibble about the details, but this is definitely a Win.

     
  12. Matthew Belinkie #

    @Lisa – Yes, very good catch about Enchanted! Actually, it’s VERY similar, right? Much-abused fat guy ineptly betrays his dim-witted master. Only difference is, I don’t think Lawrence wants to have sex with Dr. Facillier.

    @Katie – I think the OLD Disney stuff used to be a little more upfront with death and sadness. Bambi’s the prime example. But for purposes of this article, I was really just looking at the PRINCESS movies, which tend to kill off only the villains.

    Hmm. Interesting that Bambi and Dumbo are about little BOYS, and they’re more traumatic. The GIRL movies are kinder and gentler.

    @Ken – That’s an interesting observation about Belle. At first, her fairy tale seems like a nightmare version of those books she’s obsessed with. The point seems to be, be careful what you wish for, and marry Gaston when you have the chance.

    Hmm. Okay, you might have a point about the gap between Ariel getting permanent legs and the wedding scene. MONTHS could have gone by. Personally, I think it’s more like days, but you never know.

    And yeah, Ariel does save Eric, and he repays the favor. So it’s not quite as sexist as I made it seem. I’m still not a fan of the “get him to fall in love with you without actually speaking to him part.” I know that’s the fairy tale, but it’s kind of the worst possible message to send to young girls. Still, let me make something clear: I love the movie, and I wouldn’t change a thing.

    I think Princess and the Frog made it pretty clear their story ends in New Orleans… for now. I would not be at all surprised if they are currently working on a direct-to-DVD movie about what happens when they go visit Maledonia. Wait, did I just describe the plot of Shrek 2? Anyway Ken, keep in mind that Naveen may have a bunch of siblings – just because he’s a prince doesn’t mean he’s in line for the throne.

    And my point was that Coming To America is the exact opposite of Princess and the Frog. In CTA, they go to his country and live in a palace. In PATF, they stay in America and build a life together through elbow grease.

    Finally…
    @Akilah – Yeah, I’m totally with you. Mulan is not a princess, no way, no how. That’s just a fact. Except that she’s part of this Disney Princess brand, so I included her on the chart. Mulan is a great example of how difficult it is to make movies for little girls. They told a great story about a strong female who saves her entire country. But to make money off of it, they have to force her to wear pretty dresses and call her a princess for no reason. If no one’s written a book about the conception of princesses in America, someone should get on that.

     
  13. Saeg #

    I think Mulan’s mother was dead, actually.

     
  14. Gab #

    @Ken: I have to defend Belle here a bit, if only because she’s mah favorite. When she cries at the castle, she doesn’t yet know it’s enchanted. And when she flees, it’s out of fear because the Beast goes kuh-ray-zay on her. Neither is out of boredom.

    But now this makes me question how awesome she is, since it’s easily argued she, in fact, GIVES UP her dream when she marries the Beast(sansfur). Unless the whole ordeal IS the “adventure,” but a castle is HARDLY a “great, wide somewhere.” And there is nothing to demonstrate he does understand she wants so much more than they’ve got planned, since we have no indication she ever leaves the castle once they’re hitched. That makes me sad.

    Saeg: No, she’s very much alive. She sings and gets Mulan “ready,” even:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe3Y-nXHsFI

    I’d argue Mulan has MORE family than the typical Disney character (excluding the dalmatians and the Darlings)- living, at least, she has two generations above hers in her household; and if you want to get REALLY crazy with it, she’s got a whole shrine-full of dead ancestors. (That’s off the top of my hypedoncoffee brain, though- there is probably somebody else with more family than that somewhere- I just can’t think of any at the moment.)

     
  15. Megan from Lombard #

    Loved the article. I can remember watching the old Disney princess movies over and over when I was little on VHS(!) and have even played around with the idea of getting them on DVD even though I know it’s an obvious play to milk the Disney Princess cash cow for all its worth.

    Also, in ‘Beauty and the Beast’ Cogsworth was voiced by David Odgen Stiers who played Major Charles Winchester on MASH (and according to his IMDB profile he was also the narrator)

     
  16. Gab #

    @anybody that cares (since I’m a well of useless information and notice crap like this when watching movies):

    David Ogden Stiers was also Wiggins *and* General Ratcliffe in _Pocahontas_. He has kept up that role of Cogsworth in a bunch of other things for Disney (games, specials, etc.), and he has also narrated a number of Pooh-related things for them.

    (Hahaha, read that last clause aloud… I need to grow up.)