Happily Ever After, American Style
I’m not sure you could make The Little Mermaid nowadays. Ariel is only sixteen years old; basically a child. And not even a very mature child—her best friend is Flounder, who’s clearly even younger than she is (he must be like 13). She runs away from home to be with a stranger who she has a crush on. And at the end of the movie, her dad actually gives permission for them to marry. (I mean, aren’t they going to even date for a while? She’s sixteen.)
Personally, I don’t have a problem with The Little Mermaid. It’s just a fairy tale, and it’s set at a time when sixteen was a totally appropriate age to get hitched. But my point is, The Little Mermaid is arguably the least feminist Disney animated film of the bunch. Just think about the climax, when the heroine flops around helplessly on a rock, while her brave prince rescues her with a pointy boat.
But as we said before, Pocahontas and Mulan are clearly the two most proactive princesses, and the two least popular. Maybe the more feminist you make the Disney film, the less little girls like it. However, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Maybe those two are less popular because they don’t wear the frilly dresses girls love. Maybe it’s because they aren’t technically princesses. Maybe little girls are filthy racists.
In any case, The Princess and the Frog is clearly doing a tricky square dance: how do you tell a story with a strong female role model, while still delivering enough princessy stuff to satisfy all those little girls? Is that even possible?
First of all, Disney left no doubt that Tiana becomes an actual princess. The love interest, Prince Naveen, really is the Prince of “Maldonia,” a fictional country where they have sexy Latin accents. But the filmmakers work really hard to demolish the idea that being royalty is inherently awesome. Prince Naveen is broke, cut off by his parents. He’s visiting New Orleans partially to marry a rich woman, so he can continue his life of sloth. But there’s a critical scene halfway through the film where Naveen tells Tiana about how he used to have servants brush his teeth for him:
Hey, I admit, it was a charmed life. Until the day my parents cut me off. And suddenly I realized I don’t know how to do anything.
He says this with a genuinely embarrassed, sad tone. For a movie that’s aimed right at the hearts of millions of princess-obsessed little girls, this is a rather remarkable statement: being royalty and living in a castle isn’t so great after all.
Think about the long list of Disney movies that end with the happy couple moving into a castle. This movie is the complete opposite—the Prince happily puts aside his life of royalty to live in the her world. In the final musical montage, we see the two of them buy the dilapidated old building, and painstakingly fix it up. They open the restaurant she’s always dreamed of, and call it… wait for it… “Tiana’s Palace.”
The movie has its gumbo, and eats it too. Yes, Tiana marries a prince and becomes a princess. But she doesn’t seem to care that he’s a prince at all; there’s no indication they even visit his country. Instead, she builds her own palace. This is like if at the end of Coming to America, Eddie Murphy decided to stay in Queens and help Lisa open a whole chain of McDowell’s restaurants.
This is the first Disney princess movie since the creation of the Disney Princess brand in 2001, and it’s clear they have mixed feelings about the monster they’ve created. Tiana’s friend Charlotte is a rich white girl, absolutely smitten with all things princess. In fact, the reason they become friends is because Tiana’s mom is a seamstress, and Charlotte demands a huge collection of frilly princess dresses. When Prince Naveen comes to town, Charlotte is obsessed with marrying him, sight unseen, simply because he’s a prince. Becoming a princess is her one ambition in life… just because. Charlotte is a funny character, but she’s also a pretty biting caricaturization of this movie’s core audience. Her princess obsession, contrasted with Tiana’s complete disinterest, feels like a gentle rebuke to the girls who bring their own tiaras to the multiplex. I actually saw these people.
But of course, it’s a VERY gentle rebuke. Because even though this movie thumbs its nose at the traditional idea of princesses, it’s also very much a part of that Disney Princess brand. Visit the DP website (if you dare!) and you’ll see Tiana front and center.
There’s one early scene that sums up this conflict completely. Tiana attends Charlotte’s masquerade ball, and falls into a table of food. Charlotte, who for all her ditziness is a good friend, offer her a change of clothes. And that’s how Tiana ends up in her gorgeous princess dress. It’s not her dress at all. It’s a costume, and it’s somebody else’s costume.
That’s it for my chart, but I have a couple more points.
An Animated Movie WITHOUT Will Arnett??
It’s become par for the course to stock your children’s animated films with famous voices, usually comedians. Before The Princess and the Frog, there was a trailer for Despicable Me, which prominently featured a big list of names: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Will Arnett, Danny McBride, Russell Brand, Jermaine Clement, Mindy Kaling, Jack McBrayer, etc etc. This is a sneaky way of getting parents onboard. Madagascar had Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Sacha Baron-Cohen. Kung Fu Panda had Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, and for HBO-loving parents, Deadwood’s Ian McShane.
It’s easy to forget that animated films didn’t used to lean on big names like this. The only recognizable voice in The Little Mermaid was Buddy Hackett as the seagull. Beauty and the Beast had unknowns in the major roles, but then tossed in Angela Landbury and Jerry Orbach (Did you guys not know that the singing candlestick was the gruff Law & Order detective? Surprise!). But I think it was Aladdin that changed things. Robin Williams didn’t merely play a role–he brought his own comic persona to the role, in a way all the adults would recognize. And Williams’ presence in the movie was publicized to great success. (Aladdin made way more than any animated film in history at that point.) The lesson Hollywood learned from this is that star power can sell animated movies, in the same way that it can sell other movies.
But in recent years, you could see Pixar trying to wean itself off celebrity voice talent. Cars had Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Larry the Cable Guy, etc. But for Ratatouille, the main role of the chef who befriends a rat was actually voiced by a Pixar staffer named Lou Romano. Wall-E’s main characters didn’t even have voices.
And with the Pixar folks taking over all of Disney animation, maybe it’s not surprising that they didn’t want to anchor The Princess and the Frog with A-List talent. According to IMDB, Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys, and Tyra Banks all pushed hard for the lead role. Instead, it went to a relative unknown. Maybe it was because the relative unknown was head-and-shoulders above the rest. Or maybe it was because the studio didn’t want a recognizable voice that would overshadow the rest of the production. Ditto Prince Naveen—it’s a great comic role, and I’m sure they could have found a famous comedian to ham it up. Instead they picked Bruno Campos, who seems to have spent the past ten years doing TV. He’s great in this. And I’ve got to say, it’s a pleasure not to recognize the voices and just enjoy the movie. I was a little annoyed when John Goodman sailed in, doing his Oh Brother, Where Art Thou southern accent.
Revenge of the English-Accented Majordomo
It is a time-honored Disney tradition that all princes must have a royal sidekick. This person must be perpetually frazzled by the headstrong prince, and subjected to constant physical abuse. More importantly, this person must have an English accent, regardless of what nationality the prince is supposed to be.
This tradition probably started with Cinderella. In that movie, the Prince himself kept largely offscreen. But the King was always attended by the Grand Duke, a priggish monocled fellow who lived in constant fear of his master’s wrath. And with good cause—in one scene I used to rewatch constantly, the old man chases the Duke around with a sword.
No manservants in Sleeping Beauty, but The Little Mermaid brought us Grimsby. Like the Grand Duke, Grimsby was a guy whose dignity was imperiled in pretty much every scene. The first time we see him, he’s vomiting off the side of a boat. In Beauty and the Beast, Cogsworth played the same role. In The Lion King, it was Zazu. All these characters are fiercely loyal, but their pompous self-regard makes them irresistible targets. Call them the Disney Malvolios.
Prince Naveen has Lawrence, who at first seems to be the perfect stereotype. He’s English-accented, comically fat and mutton-chopped, and constantly humiliated by the Prince. Because he fits the part, we expect the guy to be doggedly loyal comic relief. The twist is, Lawrence is actually villainous comic relief.
The switcheroo is pulled off nicely. We see Naveen and Lawrence tied up and helpless as the witch doctor, Doctor Facilier, casts some sort of evil and highly musical spell. Soon after, a strangely different Prince Naveen shows up at a party. Naturally, we assume it’s Facilier. But in a later scene, we find out it’s Lawrence, who’s working with Facilier as payback for a lifetime of abuse. It’s a clever little twist that harkens all the way back to the Grand Duke dodging that sword.
(There is one other Disney movie in which the royal sidekick betrays his boss: Aladdin. But I’d argue that’s different. We know Jafar is the villain before we know he works for the sultan. Besides, Jafar doesn’t fit the Disney Malvolio stereotype.)
They Are Not Afraid to Make Little Kids Cry
Finally, I have to mention the most surprising part of The Princess and the Frog. Remember that hilarious cajan firefly from the teaser trailer?
Yeah, he dies. No, he doesn’t come back to life. He takes on a herd of ghosts in a cemetery, and the evil Facilier steps on him. He lives long enough to say goodbye to his friends, and then his light slowly fades. And I may be wrong about this, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Disney movie with an actual funeral.
I was definitely caught off-guard by this. It seems perverse to try and sell stuffed animals of this critter to kids, and then kill him off. But I like it. It smacks of Pixar to me–those guys are convinced that children’s entertainment shouldn’t be sanitized of all of life’s unpleasant realities. And the funeral is actually really well done. All the fireflies put him on a leaf, and float him into the mist of the bayou. It’s sad. Real sad, but in a good way. The Princess and the Frog is clearly a more commercial exercise than the Pixar stuff, but it’s still got heart. And balls.
In case you couldn’t tell after 3,000 words, I like this movie a lot. I think the question you have to ask about any Disney animated film is, “Would I mind being subjected to this on DVD about 50 times?” I think by the 40th time, I’m going to relish that firefly’s death scene, but all children’s entertainment should be this good.
Sadly, America seems fairly meh towards Princess. The movie grossed about $25 million in its opening weekend. Which is… fine. But considering the marketing blitz, it’s probably a little less magical than they were hoping for. On the bright side, the movie got mostly glowing reviews, and if it counts for anything, I’m still humming the songs. If the Disney people can keep that kind of quality up, I’m looking forward to adding new rows to my chart.