Monthly Archives: July 2013

July 22, 2013

Disney Canon #49: The Princess and the Frog (2009)


ADAM It was a little too impeccable.

BROOM Visually?

ADAM In general. It was so carefully regional and carefully politically-correct-but-not-too-politically-correct. It was just careful. I thought it livened up at the end, but the first half seemed a little dead.

BROOM I felt the same way. Once it started to be about the stupid technicalities of the plot, that’s when I had something to care about. Moreso than at the beginning, when it just felt like the obligatory setup of a typical Disney story. And that’s sad. You should get to care about something more than just how the rules of the magic kiss work.

BETH I was disappointed, but I actually liked the first twenty-five minutes or so. I liked that it was about someone who had real-world dreams. She wasn’t a princess. I liked that she wasn’t striving for something imaginary.

ADAM [whispers] And she was black!

BETH That’s something that we can get into – though I don’t know if I feel like getting into it — why it is that the black lead character is the earthiest, most grounded heroine in the Disney oeuvre.

ADAM Well, is she really, or is Lilo?

BROOM That’s true. Of course she and her sister were about as “black” as they’d done before.

ADAM Truly, this is the promise of Barack Obama’s America.

BROOM No kidding! But they must have been making it before that.

ADAM Doesn’t everyone have an idealized black friend? Like, in their mind? Okay, let me refine that before you put it in your blog.

BROOM No shame, keep going.

ADAM I mean, of course, the heroine who was very stylized and rendered and characterized but not too characterized… I sort of felt this originally when we had the family in The Emperor’s New Groove and they were homey — but just a little bit off — but in a homey way. The good characters have just been getting more and more good in a focus-group way.

BROOM Don’t you feel that Pocahontas was the worst of that, and now we’ve been going the other way?

BETH What about Brother Bear?

ADAM I’m not talking about the glorious PC-ness of Pocahontas. In the 90s, you would have a commercial where there were three white dudes and their black friend, and they’d be like, “hey guys, wooo!”

BROOM “Wazzuuuup!”

ADAM Exactly, and then in the 2000s, you’d have commercials where all the friends were black, but it was just as much of a “gotcha” post-racial thing, just a little bit more subtle. To me this was that.

BROOM All right, well, I’m going to go further into offensive territory.

ADAM That’s because you have a pseudonym on this blog.

BROOM You can have a pseudonym! Starting now!

ADAM “Mike”?

BROOM How about “Dustin”?

ADAM “Laetitia.”

BROOM When I see portrayals of black characters in children’s fare like this, I have the same skepticism that Adam has, and I think it’s because I sense that…

ADAM … it’s no accident.

BROOM … that it’s medicine, condescending medicine from white people. Because it must be, because we all know that what black people would really do is feed themselves shit.

ADAM Whoa, whoa, I wasn’t going to go there.

BROOM I’m saying it’s subconsciously racist of us, that this is where our skepticism seems to comes from. I recognize myself feeling like, “I could believe that black people would make and enjoy things that denigrate black people,” but when it’s healthy and benign like this, I find myself thinking, “hm, this seems like it must be the work of condescending white liberals.” That cynicism is problematic. When I see something that seems like it would probably be perfectly good for a little black girl to watch, I tend to think, “well, this is obviously white people being presumptuous.” I’d like to get past that.

ADAM But this isn’t for little black girls, it’s for little white girls.

BROOM Well, what makes you say that? This is my point.

ADAM That’s where the “medicine” quality comes from.

BETH I think it’s for everyone, really.

ADAM Can’t we just accept Disney’s medicine? “You tried with Belle, you tried with Pocahontas, you’ve been trying for a long time.” She didn’t even have a dead mother, this time!

BROOM Don’t you see this and Mulan as different from Pocahontas? Pocahontas was not made for a Native American audience. Such people don’t exist as an audience, as far as Disney is concerned. That was purely a sanctimonious guilt trip movie, for the conquerors. But Mulan and this are intended for the Asian and black audience. In a foolish way, but still.

ADAM Oh, I think this is for the white audience that voted for Barack Obama.

BETH I think it’s for the white audience and the black audience.

BROOM Let’s look at the non-politically correct elements. The fact that the bad guy was like every pusher-man pimp stereotype…

BETH He looked like Samuel L. Jackson.

BROOM He looked like Prince to me. But the character was like Sportin’ Life, the bad guy from Porgy and Bess. An old standard negative black caricature.

ADAM But he had more heart to him than Tiana and Naveen did. They just seemed so careful that they lacked vigor.

BETH I agree.

BROOM But that’s why I’m saying they weren’t written “to show white people what black people are like.” I mean, yes, I think they thought it would work both ways, for both audiences.

BETH It wasn’t The Cosby Show.

ADAM It wasn’t as lively as The Cosby Show. Bill Cosby was very gifted at characterizing. This just felt a little wan to me. How many “New Orleans details” can we throw into this? How much gumbo was there in this damn movie? And Mardi Gras beads and streetcars…

BROOM In these movies, when the Rescuers go down under, of course it’s going to be some stupid stereotyped version of Australia…

ADAM But this was even more lavish and quote-unquote “authentic” than the Rescuers’ Australia.

BROOM Yes, this was much better than that. It made New Orleans seem warm and appealing – in fact I was thinking that it might make kids want to go to Mardi Gras, and then the parents will have to say, “no, we’re not going because it’s not actually like that.”

ADAM Was this movie begun before or after Hurricane Katrina?

BETH Absolutely after. Maybe they thought it would be a boost.

ADAM A tribute.

BROOM I’d guess this idea had been kicked around for a while; New Orleans seems as promising a place to set a movie as “down under” or “the old west.” Speaking of which, for much of this movie I felt about the same as I did about Home on the Range. Until it started getting sort of moral at the end. As for the racial aspect, I guess I was relating it to that George Lucas movie…

BETH The one about the Tuskegee airmen.

BROOM Red Wings? [ed.: Red Tails]

ADAM The one that was sunk by its piety?

BROOM The movie he made, he George Lucas, to help black culture. He who is now married to a rich black woman. I don’t know if that qualifies him as a princess…

ADAM Who’s he married to?

BROOM Some successful black businesswoman from Chicago.

ADAM Oprah?

BROOM It’s not Oprah. You can look her up. Anyway, that he made this movie essentially from a condescending white person’s point of view, but a well-meaning one, and I felt like there was the same kind of queasy well-meaningness here. And we ask, “well, why should Disney deserve to be well-meaning?” At first I had the same skepticism that you had: “Oh sure, a beautiful black family that has no characteristics.” Other than that they love each other.

ADAM And are hardworking.

BROOM Hardworking, serious people who happen to be poorer than their extremely spoiled white friends.

BETH But they love life, they love people, they love food…

ADAM But that white girl…

BETH Honey Boo Boo.

ADAM She was spoiled but she had a good heart too. In some ways she was a more interesting character, because she wasn’t Anastasia and Drizella.

BETH She wasn’t a wicked stepsister; she was bratty but loving.

BROOM She was obviously totally spoiled, and they weren’t going to moralize about it.

ADAM And I also liked the voodoo man. He was different from other Disney villains in a way that was interesting. And I kind of liked the slapstick-y ethnic-caricature Cajuns, who remind me of the slapstick-y ethnic-caricature Irish types of sixty years ago.

BROOM The bad guy assistant to the prince was more like one of those characters. He was the same guy who brings the kids to Pleasure Island.

ADAM No, he was an exact replica of someone more recent than that.

BETH He was like someone from Cinderella.

ADAM He had the same voice and the same look as… someone from Aladdin, maybe. That exact character was in one of them, recently, down to the buck teeth. I’ll have to think about it.

BROOM Well, when you read your own words, maybe you’ll think of it. Anyway, I do think there was something interesting about where the movie went when it came time for a moral. Because Tiana kept saying “I’m hardworking; you can’t just wish for things.” And then the lesson was kinda, like…

BETH “No!”

ADAM “You can just wish for things!”

BROOM … “Maybe you should dream a little.”

ADAM Lighten up a little bit!

BETH Relax!

BROOM The spoiled girl and the spoiled guy are both good-guy characters. This is not going to be a movie about how you have to work all the time. The star that he thinks is a firefly is not a firefly, and you are not doing him any good by telling him that. He is happier than you.

ADAM Couldn’t they have waited one year until the following Mardi Gras, when presumably that same girl was going to be the princess again?

BROOM Or couldn’t he have gone to find another princess? His parents probably know some princesses. They might have cut him off, but if he writes home to say “I’ve been turned into a frog; can you get me a princess?” they probably would want to help.

BETH I don’t think he can write, because he’s a frog.

BROOM You got me there.

ADAM Do you think we can find an angry commentator saying that Mama Odie is a magical negro character in a way that is deeply problematic?

BETH Yeah, sure we can find one!

BROOM The whole movie was a magical negro. I mean, she provided her services to other magical negroes; they help each other out.

ADAM Was Naveen black? Or was he just foreign?

BROOM He was of mixed and/or vague race. Which is to say he was from Maldonia.

BETH I don’t think he was “black.”

BROOM I think he was North African slash Mediterranean.

ADAM Well, that was super-progressive of Daddy LeBouff in 1912.

BETH I would say 1920.

ADAM The newspaper splash was “Wilson Elected,” at the very beginning.

BROOM And then she ages.

ADAM Oh, right. So it’s like 1923. Well, that was very progressive of Daddy LeBouff in the 20s.

BETH To even patronize the black establishment.

BROOM To go to her restaurant at the end?

BETH No, at the beginning. He went into the diner. Everyone there was black except for him.

ADAM Well, he just liked the beignets.

BROOM Is it true that New Orleans has always been a little more progressive and mixed? Isn’t part of the point of setting this in New Orleans that black people were genuinely less marginalized there than in other parts of the country?

ADAM The stereotype has always been that in the south, they would “let you get close, but not let you get high,” and in the north it was the other way around; there was no social intimacy with blacks but there were fewer impediments to their success.

BROOM I thought New Orleans was a little pocket with a slightly different racial culture.

ADAM Did this remind you of True Blood?

BROOM I’ve never watched True Blood. It reminded me of The Secret of Monkey Island.

ADAM That voodoo was super-scary!

BROOM Way too scary. When his face changed into a skull-clown during his song… I love it, now, as a grown-up, I find that kind of thing exciting. But way too scary.

BETH I was thinking minimum age 12.

ADAM When he gets dragged to hell in the cemetery? That’s scary!

BROOM Well, he did owe some kind of debt to Papa Legba or whoever. Going back to Mama Odie. I thought her hideousness was interesting, interesting that they had gone there. She reminded me of the dwarf-y old lady who comes to save the house in Poltergeist

ADAM He was the Mad Hatter! Sorry, but, of course! He was the Mad Hatter.

BROOM I don’t know about that. But at least you found what you wanted to say.

BETH Mama Odie looked to me like the witch from Snow White.

BROOM Really? The craggy “here’s an apple” witch?

BETH Yeah, but much more saggy.

BROOM She looked like her skin was falling down, a droopy falling-apart face.

BETH I thought it was calling back to that a little bit. Just sayin’! All right, I guess we’re all inaccurate.

BROOM So the moral was in her song, which is that it’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need, which is different. And that getting what you want is not actually important, and it’s just going to get in your way.

BETH I liked that moral.

BROOM It’s a complicated moral, because these movies are all about what you want!

BETH I thought, “what is a kid supposed to make of that song?” Tiana says, “I just need to work harder and get my restaurant,” and Mama Odie is like, “God, no! You don’t understand!” As a kid I would be really confused by that.

BROOM I think a kid would understand it, and not be puzzled the way you are now, because they wouldn’t be looking for a moral. I think as a kid the takeaway would have been clear to me. Tiana’s nice and all, and her commitment to work is obviously good for her, but: she’s never danced!? She doesn’t know love!? She needs to be happier! And we all know that. I appreciated that they trusted kids to get it. On the other hand it is confusing because all the other movies that resemble this don’t say the same thing. They say that “what you want” is your storyline.

ADAM [singing] “I wanna know…”

BROOM And also: she still got her damn restaurant at the end.

ADAM That’s true, she did.

BROOM The ending seems to be that they have to settle for just being frogs and being happy, and getting married in the woods, but then of course by magic it all works out that they get what they want too and that’s the real ending. It’s a complicated problem. Because if it had ended with them staying frogs, like Brother Bear, I would have found that totally annoying.

ADAM Where did they get all the money for the wedding?

BROOM The wedding in the woods?

ADAM No, the second, fancy wedding, with the carriage.

BROOM That we saw suggested during the credits?

ADAM I guess the parents came over, so maybe they just sprang for it. But do you think the parents were satisfied being served by their son, the prince, as a waiter in a restaurant?

BROOM He was a “featured dancer,” I would say. And ukelele player.

BETH I thought the backgrounds were gorgeous.

BROOM Yeah, that’s really what I got out of it. A kid watching this would get atmosphere out of it, and sure, so did I. I thought it was redundant with a lot of other movies. I know I’m saying the message was a little unusual, but otherwise it seemed to be copying a lot of things from other movies outright.

BETH Don’t you think it was winking homage, a lot of the time?

ADAM They had Cinderella’s carriage in the first shot.

BETH And they had Cinderella’s dance shot.

BROOM I mean, the whole Cinderella thing happened… I was kind of bored in the first half because it was so thorough in being familiar.

ADAM When she was a waitress and then an actual, literal prince arrived, I was like, “oh really??” Couldn’t she just have been a metaphorical princess, for the Disney princess line? No.

BROOM Not for the rules of the magic. Though I don’t think voodoo really cares about princes and princesses. I liked the scary voodoo gods.

ADAM The shadows? They were terrifying.

BROOM Straight out of Fantasia.

ADAM I liked that they pulled Naveen by grabbing his shadow.

BROOM You know, it was fun! I didn’t mind it so much.

BETH I didn’t really like it! But good for you!

BROOM It didn’t really work. But I’ve been teaching myself to watch them the way a kid who enjoys them watches them. And as I get closer to that, it gets simpler. “Was this a picture book?” Sure. When you flip through a children’s book, the question is, are the pictures spaces that you can sort of zone into? Sure, these were! It was like Thomas Kinkade, inviting me into all these cozy lights.

ADAM It had the nourishing attention-to-detail of American Girl Place.

BROOM There was an American Girl quality to it.

ADAM Which is not actually satisfying, because it’s too careful.

BETH I’ve had easier times getting into the past couple movies, I think because the heroes were male. And in this one I initially was relating to the character, and then when it started seeming like a mess to me, I was like, “Oh, I can’t connect to this anymore.”

BROOM You have higher standards for the ones with female characters.

BETH I guess it’s just that since I invested part of myself in it, I wasn’t able to watch it the way that you were just describing.

ADAM And then you were like, “All you’re good at is cooking? Why can’t you do archery? Lean in, girl!”

BROOM That’s how everything was for me for a long time. When I read Proust in college, I thought, “this is amazing because it reminds me of thoughts I’ve had, about life!” because that was one of the first times that I’d had that experience. Prior to that, I took almost all movies with the attitude of, “Obviously none of these people is like me! That’s absurd! Of course not! Of course I’m not ‘invested’ in this! I’m watching a movie!” And I think that a lot of the offense that one can take against a Disney movie is some form of “what about me? And what about reality?” Well, guess what! It doesn’t work that way.

BETH I know! But because my initial thoughts were, “Oh, this is so much more about reality than usual!” I was let down by where it went.

ADAM Well, you’ll be pleased to know the next one is about a struggling web designer. It’s mostly about font choice, actually.

BETH Great!

BROOM It’s called Lilo and Beth. Songs? Randy Newman? Thoughts?

ADAM They were good. True to form, but they totally worked.

BETH They didn’t jar.

ADAM I did not feel jolted out of the action.

BROOM I thought the first song was the weakest, and that hurt my impression of the movie. “Almost There.” That’s not a very specific hook.

ADAM Was that the first one? Wasn’t there a “New Orleans” one before that?

BROOM Oh, that’s right, that weird montage of all the characters that we didn’t know yet. At the end, you said, “That was super-complicated!” And it was. Now, in retrospect, I understand that we saw the Shadow Man eyeing John Goodman because he had a plan to kill him and take over the town. But I didn’t follow that at the time.

ADAM Well, it wasn’t a very good plan.

BROOM Now we’re going to institute a new feature that I call “Predict the New York Times Review.”

ADAM I think the New York Times review is gonna be just like what we said. It will be generally praising but a little bit eye-rolling.

BETH I think it’s going to be 80 percent positive.

BROOM I think it’s going to be very positive, because this was the return to traditional animation after they said they were never going to do that again.

BETH It was super-lush. I thought the colors were wonderful. I enjoyed looking at it.

ADAM It was very pretty.

BROOM So I think it’s going to say that it’s great that they’re doing this again.

[we read the review]

BETH Ooh! That was harsh.

ADAM That was a little more cynical than even I felt.

BROOM Boy, I got that wrong.

BETH We all did.

ADAM I mean, it does feel focus-grouped. I think you will be satisfied when you see the next one that it feels a little bit fresher than this.

BETH So this is really just four years ago.

ADAM This is the year that Barack Obama was inaugurated. It was a different time. More hopeful.

BROOM [reads from this article about objections raised before the movie’s release, up to this paragraph:

“Disney obviously doesn’t think a black man is worthy of the title of prince,” Angela Bronner Helm wrote March 19 on the site. “His hair and features are decidedly non-black. This has left many in the community shaking their head in befuddlement and even rage.”


ADAM Well, in fairness, she has a point. What if the guy had been tall and nappy-headed? It would have been a slightly different affect.

BROOM I don’t think you can make a legitimate point by saying, “This character is not black so clearly Disney doesn’t believe that a prince can be black.” That’s not reasonable.

BETH I guess if you’re following the argument that everything in this movie is focus-grouped, then it is reasonable.

ADAM I mean, she does have very straight hair.

BROOM We have these phony conversations. At any time, any interest group can stand up and say, “well, Disney hasn’t yet made a movie with Palestinians in it who are just ordinary characters. They obviously don’t think Palestinians deserve to be a prince and a princess.”

ADAM Come on, come on! Disney obviously was willing to reap the PR benefit of having the “first black princess.” And then the first black princess looks like a white girl with some black, sort of —

BETH I don’t think so!

BROOM She didn’t!

ADAM She has very straight hair, and very Anglo features.

BETH I don’t think her features are very Anglo.

BROOM I think her features were convincing as —

ADAM Well, she doesn’t look like Precious.

BETH Should she??

ADAM Well, you know what I mean.

BROOM I don’t know what you mean!

BETH On the subway ride home tonight, you’re going to see a lot of black women with beautiful features and straight hair.

ADAM Okay, but fast-forward four years to the debate about Brave. Where in the movie version of the character, the girl has this frizzy red hair, and then they lost heart and made her thinner and have straight hair, particularly in the action figurines. I mean, this stuff matters! And if you’re gonna try to get points for progressivism, you deserve to be faulted for things like this.

BROOM It matters in a game, exactly, of point-giving. Here’s something else from this article:

Donna Farmer, a Los Angeles Web designer who is African-American and has two children, applauded Disney’s efforts to add diversity.

“I don’t know how important having a black princess is to little girls — my daughter loves Ariel and I see nothing wrong with that — but I think it’s important to moms,” she said.

BROOM cont. That’s right! It’s always all to save the children, the children, the poor little children. And then of course Disney wants to show that they’re good guys, they want people to think of them as good guys… How do you feel about the proposal that Ender’s Game the movie be boycotted because Orson Scott Card has written articles against homosexuality? Does that make sense to you?

ADAM I haven’t really followed it, I don’t know the details.

BROOM Someone posted on Facebook today linking to an opinion piece arguing that boycotting Ender’s Game is not a good response to Orson Scott Card’s homophobia — and it got this thread of furious Facebook responses: “This is bullshit!” “This guy should think before he writes.” All this anger because they’re so excited to boycott a movie.

ADAM This is a debate that goes back T.S. Eliot…

BROOM What’s the T.S. Eliot connection?

ADAM He was a raging anti-Semite. Should we not read T.S. Eliot? But this is a different question. This is not about “who is the shadowy creator behind this?” This is about “what are the images that are being put forward for public consumption, and being valorized as somehow a step forward?” So, okay, yes, she’s black, but she’s also wasp-waisted and super Anglo-looking! It just strikes me that it’s, you know, two steps forward, one step back. I get where people are coming from with a comment like that.

BROOM All right. Well, I can get where people are coming from and still think that they’re wrong. The question is whether there is such a thing as “forward.” I think that a lot of this rhetoric is falsified. And when you say it’s not about the shadowy creator, well, the quote in the article about “Disney clearly doesn’t think a black man can be a prince” — that is about a shadowy creator, an imagined enemy figure.

ADAM All right, let me say something different, which is that if we’re trying to score these in terms of progressivism, which maybe is a dubious —

BROOM Okay, but before you finish that: are you? Do you want to score things in terms of progressivism?

ADAM I’m saying, to the extent that that’s the game that we’re being invited to play, and clearly that’s the game that Disney wanted us to play, because that’s how they were building buzz for the movie, I think Lilo and Stitch is a much more quote-“progressive” movie than this is. And a much more radical departure from their normal mode.

BETH Yes. That was a radical movie.

ADAM Lilo and Stitch was a crazy, cool movie, and it’s a shame that it’s not more prominent. In retrospect it seems much more appealing to me than it did before.

BROOM Would you agree with this?: that anyone who says “Give us points for being progressive!”, it hardly matters what they’re doing — they’re not being progressive.

ADAM Well… no. Because sometimes, whatever token thing you’re doing is valuable. If there were a movie about, like, gay princes who had a relationship, I would be super-tickled, no matter how horrible the movie was in other ways. Even if they were body-dysmorphic, and white, and gender-conformist.

BETH But don’t you know people who actually look like that in real life? Why are they supposed to make a character who is not appealing? It seems like what you’re saying is, “Let’s make her look like Precious because that’s real.” But what’s real is everything.

ADAM But they’re inviting us to pat them on the back, so we might as well —

BROOM Well, they’re inviting us to pay them money. And the fact that we want to pat ourselves on the back for boycotting the bad guys and doing business with the good guys is a game that we buy into, that we create. Yes, of course, if I had to go into kids’ entertainment, and they told me, “you know, the moms will be up in arms unless you do this!” Then, sure, I’ll do that. That’s not the same as being proud of myself first and then begging you to love me.

ADAM Well, okay, let me a different proposition, which is that if Disney films did not have totemic cultural power, we wouldn’t be doing this exercise in the first place. For better or worse, their actions are scrutinized. When they replace a fat woman chasing a pirate with a fat woman chasing a pirate holding a pie, we’re entitled to ask, “is that really a legitimate change?” And that’s sort of what they’re doing here. They’re inviting us to consider this in explicitly political terms. And so it’s only fair to take them up on that invitation.

BROOM Okay, but you sort of made a lateral move there. They have totemic power as what they are, which is things for kids to watch. And the mode in which kids watch them is not evaluative, it’s just receptive. Which is why it’s powerful. But then there’s a separate thing, which is the adults looking in critically on the choices. Curriculum review. “Oh-ho, I see you’ve got in your curriculum that you’re going to read Cry, The Beloved Country.” The kids who actually read it have a basically innocent experience. I think sometimes we predict what it’s going to do them and we get it wrong. When an administrative decision is made, that’s an entirely different thing from the actual power the product ends up having. So I think that a lot of the conversation about what power these things have is phony, on both sides —

ADAM I would like to know how my nephews react to this movie.

BROOM You’ll find out.

ADAM I’ll find out. It would not surprise me to find that Eddie had a Tiana doll. I don’t know that I need to carry this torch all night. I mean, I don’t know how committed I am to this position, but that is, I think, the rejoinder to what you’re saying.

BROOM All right. Three to go.