Yes...an entire year after it debuted, I am finally writing a piece about Disney's first black princess. (Actually, this is a belated second attempt. I started a piece last year after I saw the movie, but never completed it. And I cannot BELIEVE that I am just getting back to editing it again...) I am revisiting this film because I just had a chance to watch it again and because I have a baby niece for whom I hope this movie will become a beloved favorite.
So when I first saw this film, I was impressed by the underlying story that remained quite true to what I might call the Busy Black Woman's motto: "Anything worth having is worth the effort." Busy Black Women may have dreams, but they do not wish upon stars in hopes of securing those dream. Tiana, before becoming a princess, is the cartoon embodiment of every hard-working BBW I know. Until of course, they ruined it by making her a princess, and it was at that point her dreams came true...but what else would I expect from Disney?
After all, this is the company that markets grand illusions of happiness. The vacation of a lifetime is to travel to one of its theme parks and the greatest adventure of all time is to watch one its movies. Disney has transformed the princess fantasy from the real-life tragedy of Princess Diana to a marketing juggernaut.
It was through its shrewd update of the female heroines that Disney got its animation groove back in the late 80s and early 90s. In "The Little Mermaid", Ariel is a fiesty red-head princess who disobeys her father to pursue the man of her dreams...she even saves him from certain doom. In "Beauty and the Beast", the tables are turned on Belle whose love interest is actually the beast while the hunk is the villain. "Mulan" and "Pocohantas" are clearly the heroines of their respective films, which is a complete 180 from the previous damsels in distress as represented by the likes of Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella. Thus when the first black princess comes along, it is consistent with Disney's new girl-power ethos.
Did I have a problem with the film being cast in New Orleans, with its spooky voodoo themes and easy to gloss over history of race relations? No, because there is nowhere else a Disney fairytale involving black people could unfold. Did I have a problem with Prince Naveen being of undetermined ethnicity (even though it is obvious that he is either Spanish or Portuguese)? No, since the story takes place in New Orleans. Did it bother me that Tiana spent most of the movie as a frog? No, but it did undermine the title a bit. Did the story unravel with its too-good-to-be-true happy ending? Yes, and that is probably the most critical thing I will say about this movie.
Not having seen the earlier Disney movies until well into my young adulthood, I tend to be much more critical of them and the messages they imparted to little girls about love, marriage and womanhood in general. Luckily, Tiana'a story did not disappoint me, although I am still wary of the princess mythology that Disney peddles. Love is magical and life requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice (froggy Tiana's message in the film), but those messages will be lost in the loads of Princess Tiana merchandise that people like me are all too willing to purchase. But, I am not mad at them since at least for a few years, there will be a lot of dreamy-eyed black girls wishing on stars.