I have been less than impressed by Disney’s animated films since the Lion King. [Please Note: None of the following criticism appertains to the Pixar films, which I do not associate with Disney, despite the corporate structure]. Not only have the originality of the storylines, the creativity of the dialogue, and the quality of the animation have been going slowly down hill, but I felt the underlying message of the tales was increasingly non-Christian. One of the biggest indicators of this trend was the nature of the villains: they were ambivalently evil, often the product of misguided aspirations or ignorance, who failed to come to justice.
Needless to say, when I heard Disney was adding a “new Princess” to the classic cannon, I thought it was a last ditch effort to increase paraphernalia sales. I suspected that her skin tone was a politically-motivated means of extending the brand to a new demographic and was bemused by the idea of a princess in New Orleans. On top of this skepticism was laid an inherent dislike of voodoo. I never really planned on seeing it, but tonight as I was scrolling through my instant Netflix, I decided to give it a shot, and I’m glad I did.
PLOT: A poor black girl, Tiana, grows up with a seamstress mother who makes dresses for a rich, spoiled but nice white girl (who befriends Tiana) and a hard-working father who dreams of opening his own restaurant. First point of commentary: I LOVE the family dynamic of these three — there is genuine love and respect and they enjoy each other. Very rarely do I find an example of this kind of quality family in any kind of media; I believe we need more images of whole and happy families to inspire us in our own homes.
Tiana’s father dies in what I’m guessing is World War I and Tiana becomes a little obsessed with fulfilling her father’s dream. She works multiple jobs as a waitress to save pennies in jars and holds onto her dream despite receiving regular skepticism and temptations to “play”. Again, this concept of working hard, saving diligently, and putting a long term goal before immediate pleasure is rare.
Tiana’s rich friend, Charlotte, has always dreamed of marrying a prince and what do you know? The ethnically-ambiguous Prince Naveen of Maldonia arrives in New Orleans. He looks very fancy, but he has been disowned by his parents for being a playboy and so he has come to woo and marry the heiress, Charlotte. On the way to her house, he and his servant are drawn in by the Shadow Man who uses voodoo to reveal their secret desires: Naveen, “for green” and the servant, to become like the people he serves (he is, as far as I can tell, Mavolio from Twelfth Night, so that is what I shall call him despite the film naming him Lawrence). Hence, the Shadow Man turns the prince into a frog, and using the prince’s blood, makes the servant look like Naveen.
Now, despite my initial hesitation about the voodoo, I think it is used perfectly here. The magic the Shadow Man uses is obviously evil; he has friends “on the other side” which are fiends; and he, like Satan, uses our perceived desires to ensnare us and lure us into places we don’t want to be. It is in no way attractive. The result is continual fear and enslavement. Nor, do we find later, is his power even real — he is borrowing the power from “his friends” whom he clearly fears and they are only in it for the expected returns of more power and more souls; his own soul is the collateral for the loan. The Shadow Man is the truest depiction of evil I have ever seen in a G-rated film.
So now Tiana is at Charlotte’s costume party, dressed like a princess, and so Naveen asks her to kiss him and restore him. He is as slimy on the inside as he is on the outside, but Tiana agrees on the condition that he help her fund her restaurant. Instead, her kiss transforms her into a frog as well [moral: shortcuts often lead to dead ends]. Now they wind up in the swamp and are directed to find Mama Odie by an alligator and a firefly. While the alligator is mostly comic appeal, the firefly ends up being one of my favorite characters. He is a gap-toothed, French-speaking hillbilly and I expected the director would use the stereotype to get a few laughs. Instead, the depth of this little guy continually unfolds as one of the wisest, most loyal and romantic souls in recent animated history. He is in love with the evening star, whom he calls Evangeline [gospel?], and his faith in her inspires the other characters; she lights their paths. In the end, he sacrifices himself for his friends and sure enough, a second star appears in the sky, connected in radiance to Evangeline. He’s like a red neck’d Dante.
Naveen and Tiana find Mama Odie, a blind (Tiresias!) toothless woman who wears white and uses what I’d consider white magic. They are told that while they know what they want, they do not know what they need, and are sent on their journey back to New Orleans to be kissed by Charlotte who will be Princess of Mardi Gras until midnight. By this point, Naveen has fallen in love with Tiana and wants to propose (yay for marriage!), but he thinks she only cares about her restaurant and so he decides to marry Charlotte so he can fund that goal. About the time the firefly reveals Naveen’s secret love to Tiana, Naveen is stolen by the Shadow Man’s “friends”, his blood is used to make Malvolio look like the prince again who in turn starts to marry Charlotte atop a wedding cake float in the middle of the Mardi Gras parade when the firefly frees Naveen who interrupts the ceremony. Tiana ends up with the medallion that carries Naveen’s blood and hence maintains Malvolio’s charade. The Shadow Man offers to grant her all her wishes, but she realizes that even though her father never got what he wanted — the restaurant — he had what he needed — his family. She smashes the medallion which means that the Shadow Man cannot keep his bargain with the demons, who drag him into hell (they are fittingly already in a cemetery for this scene). It’s the perfect demonstration that evil never offers mercy and the wages of sin is death.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t break the spell and by the time Tiana makes it back to Naveen and explains she loves him, it’s too late for Charlotte to transform him. So, they decide to get married by Mama Odie as frogs, and sure enough! When Naveen kisses Tiana (who has been made a princess by her wedding vows) they both transform back into humans. It’s a classic comedic ending, where good triumphs and love offers redemption. They then also get married in church and Naveen’s parents show up (restoration of relationship with repentance of folly). They buy Tiana’s desired property, not with royal supplements, but with Tiana’s jars of coins, and working by hand, side by side, they create her dream restaurant. The end.
All in all, I highly recommend this film for its classic and Christian themes as well as some fun Randy Newman jazz-inspired music.