If you search the internet for Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, you see a lot of comments on how it sealed the fate of Disney’s two-dimensional animated features. Despite the tremendous critical success it enjoyed (it received three Oscar nominations), it only did solidly instead of overwhelmingly well at the box office, and that—they say—led to Disney shutting down its hand-drawn animation department. It also routinely gets called out for not handling the issues of race and class in Jazz Age New Orleans with the sophistication they need.
But critics of The Princess and the Frog miss some of the fantastic things the film did accomplish that have kept it fresh and relevant years after its release, despite its post-World War I setting.
Tiana is the 99 Percent
Sure, there are other Disney princesses who have come from less-than-royal upbringings. But Cinderella’s father was a well-to-do merchant before his death, and her job is inside her own family home (likewise Snow White). Belle doesn’t have a job, despite her father’s non-traditional career. Aurora is raised in the woods, but keeping her secret means she doesn’t interact with other people, and certainly not in anything resembling a job.
Tiana, on the other hand, works two jobs. And she is amazingly good at them—she notices the messy face of a child while delivering other food, carrying multiple orders all at the same time. Not only that, but she can cook, and do it so well that she’s dramatically overpaid to produce her famous dessert on short notice.
Tiana has dreams of being an entrepreneur. She believes in that traditional American Dream: work hard and you can achieve the life you want. When she finally gets enough money saved up to achieve her dream, she goes straight after it. And what happens? Those crooks who work for the real estate office lead her on, only to tell her they don’t think “a woman of your background” can handle the responsibility of being a small business owner (parents can pick up this nod to the racism and sexism of the era, which is not otherwise prominent in the film, and use it to open the topic with their children or not as they choose).
There are many aspects in the movie that can be read as critiques of capitalism and inequality (the very kind rich white patrons and friends of Tiana’s are apparently blind to the standard-of-living differences between their mansion and Tiana’s impoverished neighborhood). While Tiana eventually does show those rich white men a thing or two, in part due to her own hard work, there’s also the sense that her rise in the world is in part dependent on her friendship with a very dangerous, toothy alligator.
Dr. Facilier is one of Disney’s Scariest Villains
Carefully avoiding using any symbols of real Vodou, which is typically portrayed in Hollywood as exclusively evil, Disney managed to create a balanced pair of magic practitioners. On the one side, there’s Dr. Facilier, who has gotten power by trading in souls. But like a good bank, the shadowy spirits who made this exchange are charging him interest for their investment, and if Dr. Facilier doesn’t pay it back, it’s his own soul on the line. While that might make his “friends on the other side” even scarier than he is, the fact that he’s willing to trade in souls and very calmly plots murder in order to lead the citizens of the Big Easy down the easy path to riches—harvesting their souls in the process—makes him one of Disney’s darker villains.
He’s so well known for his evil that though unsuspecting tourists like Naveen know him by his stage name (a play on “easy”), New Orleans residents from Tiana’s neighborhood call him “The Shadow Man,” giving the sense that it’s dangerous to speak his name. And even though his shadows can be defeated with a little bit of light, their shapes are the stuff of nightmares.
In contrast, there’s Mama Odie, who wears the traditional white of Vodun practitioners and is totally in tune with the wild and dangerous nature that surrounds her. While she’s a wacky old lady, she has no fear that the world around her could possibly harm her. And the audience gets the sense that it’s because she really is the most powerful thing in the bayou.
Mama Odie’s character design hearkens back to another Disney witch: Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone. But in contrast to both that wicked witch and Dr. Facilier, her whole place in the story is to help the characters be true not to what they want, but to what they need, a moral that rejects the possibility of taking the easy path.
The Tropes are Genderswapped
Tiana’s whole storyline is about how sacrificing her personal life for work means she’s missing out on the important things. This trope is almost always assigned to men. Take, for example, Peter Banning from the film Hook. After leaving his childhood behind, Peter is so wrapped up in work that he misses out on the lives of his children. Even films such as Despicable Me play on this trope, almost always with the male character as the one missing out. It could be considered an example of Married to the Job, as TV Tropes calls it.
In contrast, Prince Naveen has been cut off from his fortune and is reduced to the role of a Gold Digger. In order to live in the manner to which he has become accustomed, he has to marry a wealthy girl and get access to her finances. Over the course of the film, both characters find a happy medium without ever really losing their cores: Tiana still believes in hard work, which she shares with Naveen, but Naveen never loses his love of dancing and music, which he uses to brighten the entertainment scene at Tiana’s restaurant.
Its References are More Sophisticated Than You Think
It’s not hard to pick up who Louis, the trumpet-playing alligator, is named after. It’s even stated directly in the song “When We’re Human:” “You’ve heard of Louis Armstrong,” the alligator sings.
But here’s where you get a bit of extra jazz history. Louis goes on to mention “Mr. Sidney Bechet,” a jazz soloist who beat Armstrong to the recording studio, though his career was shorter and (arguably) less successful. Both of these jazz men were prominent in their era, and, more importantly, were well known in their hometown of New Orleans. The choice of these musicians is intentional and regional, and the use of Armstrong-styled trumpet throughout the score underscores Armstrong’s importance to jazz in general and New Orleans jazz in particular.
Randy Newman, the composer for the film, was born in Los Angeles but spent a portion of his childhood in New Orleans. He incorporated not only the well-known Dixieland style into the film’s score, but also elements of other regional music: Cajun music, zydeco, gospel, and blues. These musical references are a fantastic introduction for young listeners to be introduced to what could be unfamiliar styles—and have an echo of home for regional young listeners who don’t often find their music represented in Disney films.
But the music isn’t the only reference point: there’s a literary angle explored, again from a genderswap perspective. Ray the firefly’s beloved Evangeline is a reference to the long poem Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Set in Acadia—which, like New Orleans, has a substantial French influence—the poem tells of a young woman named Evangeline who searches for her lost lover after they have been separated. At times, her love is closer to her than she realizes, and eventually (spoiler alert for a poem written in 1847) she finds him only to have him die in her arms. In the film, it’s Ray who longs for his far away love, Evangeline. Rather than having the lost love die after discovery, the film offers them a reunion after death as stars in the night sky.
It’s Valuable Because It Might Be the Last
Fully-realized hand-drawn animation may not survive with all the flash and glitter of the CGI dominated animation landscape. So while there are plenty of internet mongers who will label The Princess and the Frog as the downfall of the art style, instead it could be considered the swan song. The gorgeous blend of art deco and art nouveau in the least three-dimensional scene in the film, during the song “Almost There,” gives not only a peek into art styles during the era of the film, but also shows just how far hand-drawn animation developed.
If the style had to go, it went out on a high-note in terms of the quality of the animated feature. As Drew McWeeny summed up in his HitFix review on the movie’s release: “Visually lush, the film strikes me as the most American of the Disney Princess movies, using uniquely American iconography to paint the fairy tale.”