Ladies and gentlemen, all the way from New Orleans, Disney’s first black princess: Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009)

The Princess and the Frog

Set in New Orleans in 1920, Tiana is a young woman working two jobs as a waitress so that she can get enough money for the restaurant that she’s been dreaming for since she was little. But when it seems like her dreams can’t come true, she encounters Prince Naveen who was tricked by the Shadow Man into transforming into a frog. Naveen, assuming that the logic of the original fairy tale The Frog Prince can apply in real life, asks Tiana to kiss him, mistaking her for a real princess during a costume party. She agrees thinking that he’ll have enough money to fund her restaurant. However, as she isn’t a real princess, she ends up transforming into a frog herself. Now they have to find a way to get back into their original forms, with the help of some colourful characters, including a firefly and a crocodile.

This was the introduction of the very first African American Princess, and it was such a huge deal that celebrities like Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Tyra Banks were dying to voice the character, until finally the honour was given to Broadway star Anika Noni Rose, who became the first African-American to play a Disney Princess. However, Rose was drawn to the project more by its story than Tiana’s ethnicity or the fact that she’d be voicing Disney’s first black princess. Either way, she always wanted to play a Disney character. It’s so easy for Disney to create controversy, (sometimes for stupid or made-up reasons) and here one of the main controversies was creating the first black Disney Princess. In early development, Tiana was originally named Maddy and worked as a chambermaid, but public criticism caused the creators to change her name and profession, because it was considered racist. Either way, Tiana’s the only Princess to have a job in her feature film (unless you sorta count Mulan who served the army), having two waitressing jobs. And one last interesting trivia is that although people recognise her in the merchandising and advertising in her iconic human form, she only appears as so for 19 minutes during the whole running time of the film: she’s seen as a kid at the beginning of the film, and the rest of the time she’s a frog.

Tiana from The Princess and the Frog

Tiana as a character has received mostly positive reception. As for me, I do like her just fine. Tiana’s probably the second most unique Princess compared to Mulan, because Mulan’s story is slightly further away from the typical Disney formula: no love story, no magic spells (other than a dragon and the spirits of her ancestors), and it’s based on a Chinese folk tale as opposed to a European fairy tale we’re more familiar with. All these aspects appear in The Princess and the Frog, however the story here makes a twist to the familiar storyline of The Frog Prince. In fact, it’s loosely based on The Frog Princess, where the princess turns into a frog herself. I’ve seen other parodies do this already, so the twist is nothing new. Still, the film handles the story very well.

Unlike other Disney films which just plays the story as it is (with its own twist), this film is aware of the original fairy tale and is aware of the twist going to happen: instead of the princess kissing the frog and immediately turning him into the handsome prince, this time the princess turns into a frog. So the film tries to bring back the magic it had with the original Disney classics while keeping a more updated perspective on the whole fairy tale genre. With the knowledge that Tiana is the most modern Disney Princess, being born in the 20th century and all, we realise that she’s the most realist out of the Princesses. Something else which makes her stand out from the others is that she’s a workaholic.

I love it when stories present extremes, because it further clarifies the binary oppositions in a narrative. Tiana represents two extremes of two spectrums. The first is that she’s a realist and doesn’t believe wishing will automatically solve anything. Her best friend Charlotte is the opposite end of that extreme, and lives in her fairy tale ideals, which includes marrying her Prince Charming. By the way, I really like this character: I’m glad they didn’t try to make her mean based on the usual stereotype, and thankfully she’s a funny, likeable and supportive character. It makes sense when you consider their backgrounds: Tiana wasn’t raised in riches, but with a hardworking father, while Charlotte was raised and treated like an actual princess, and although she is quite spoiled, she still has a heart of gold and helps her best friend. Neither side is exactly wrong, but they both have consequences when you’re pushing that extreme too far.

Tiana’s entire philosophy is based on her father: her father told her that wishing will only take you half-way to your dream, and that the rest of it constitutes effort and hard work. He also told her to not forget what was more important, but Tiana misunderstood what he meant, and it takes her a while to figure that out. Her hard-working attitude becomes both a good trait and a bad trait: she does end up earning enough money for her restaurant and it makes her a more serious, focused and self-driven woman, but at the same time making her career her priority makes her set aside her family and friends. There is a legitimate reason to why she does this, because she’s trying to achieve something her father couldn’t. She wants to prove that hard work is important to not just her, but to everyone else. The harsh side of reality is that some people will be more fortunate whether they work hard or not, and Tiana sees the unfairness of this. It’s unfair that her father worked so hard in life and could never achieve his dream to own his own restaurant, so Tiana attempts to finish that dream for him. So when someone underestimates Tiana for her background (it’s more addressed to her social status, and not so much her race actually) she really gets offended, because it’s someone telling her that she will never be able to achieve that dream and that what she’s doing is for nothing. She wants hard work to mean something, to lead to something great.

Even if Tiana gets her restaurant, and even if Charlotte gets the prince, how will they know if it truly guarantees their happiness? Both Tiana and Charlotte realise that sometimes getting what you wish for  might not be exactly what you had in mind when you have it in real life. And that sometimes what you get in the end might be better than what you wanted, and that you should never lose track of the good things you have now. Yes, her father never got the restaurant he always wanted, but his hard work did pay off with a somewhat stable life and his loving family. He had what he needed, and never lost track of that.

Tiana and Prince Naveen in The Princess and the Frog

In the other spectrum, Tiana represents work, while Prince Naveen is on the other extreme: he’s all about fun and leisure. It’s the typical opposites attract storyline, but it’s done well here: both have something to find from each other and learn within themselves. Like Charlotte, Naveen comes from a rich background. He’s more of the fun-loving guy, preferring to play music and make friends, but he is pretty lazy and dependent on others. His parents cut him off for being too lazy and not taking full control of his life. Either he can take the easy route by marrying a rich lady, or get a freaking job. He’s tricked into being turned into a frog because he prefers the easy way out. And he convinces Tiana to also take the easy way out to her dream (because after she finds out there’s no chance of having her restaurant, she thinks that his funds will be enough to help her restaurant). Although this is a setback, his sociability is a strength and does come in handy as well. For example, after they meet Louis the trumpet-playing alligator, Naveen manages to persuade Louis to take them to Mama Odie.

Naveen in one scene says that she’s a stick-in-the-mud who doesn’t know how to have fun. Well, for all the working she does in the film, we see that part of her does want to enjoy herself. In the scene where she sees Charlotte dance with the fake Prince at the party, we see Tiana moving her head to the music like she wants to join in. We also see her showing some regret after telling her friends that she can’t go out with them. Then we have the scene where the two manage to escape from the frog hunters, and have some fun in the process. So it’s not so much that Naveen teaches her how to have fun: she always had the ability to be fun, but she’s never had the opportunity to do so because she put it aside for work. It’s the opposite with Naveen. This becomes a reality check particularly in the scene when Tiana shows him how to mince. He starts to get why he got cut-off in the first place: he’s never had a job and he never did things for himself. But with Tiana he realises that he can do it: he just has to try. Also realising that he has feelings for Tiana, he says that instead of marrying Charlotte, he’s wiling to get one or even two jobs just to get her restaurant. I also like it later when Tiana says she doesn’t know how to dance, and then Naveen pulls her towards her and says, “If I can mince, you can dance.” Love that line.

The story is about finding that balance in life: between play and work, dreams and reality. That’s a good message, especially since Disney is more leaned towards the message of following dreams and its fairy tale themes. It’s also about understanding what you want and what you need. It’s not saying that what Tiana wanted was wrong: Tiana here does end up with Naveen, but also ends up with the restaurant she always wanted. Naveen himself does end up getting a job and becoming a hard worker (including helping Tiana fix-up the restaurant), but also gets the freedom to play music and have fun like he wanted.

The Princess and the Frog marked not just the return of hand-drawn animation, but the return to Disney’s fairy tale tradition. Providing a story about the value and balance between our dreams and our reality, we also get a quick-thinking and self-driven female character. Whether people think she’s too one dimensional or not (according to some of the negative reception), I’d say that Tiana is a great role model for anyone: a hard-working and independent young woman with a heart of gold.

Next time I’ll be introducing the first CG animated Disney Princess of the line-up: Rapunzel.