Why conservatives will love Disney's THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG. Seriously.
It's not an exaggeration to say that, when the curtain formally goes up on Disney's The Princess and the Frog this weekend, the patient hopes of millions of African American girls (and not a few African American women) will have finally come to fruition. Seventy-two years, the span since Disney unveiled its first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, is an offensively long time to wait for the company to finally release an animated film with a black lead protagonist (and no, Song of the South does not count).
But better late than never, certainly. And as I wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle this week, Disney has pulled out all the stops in making this film—it's an animated tour de force at least equal to any in the grand Disney tradition, replete with jaw-droppingly beautiful graphics, razzle-dazzle musical numbers, snappy dialogue, and engaging vocal performances from top to bottom. And yes, it features Disney's first-ever black animated lead and first African American member of the exclusive "Princess" sorority—a strong, beautiful and self-reliant heroine named Tiana, played with verve and grace by Tony Award-winner Anika Noni Rose.
Here's the interesting thing: During the five-year runup to the movie's ultimate release, conservative critics have regularly lambasted the project as an exercise in political correctness and knee-jerk, quota-driven multiculturalism. Well, the film's here—and as much as I enjoyed watching it, I have a sneaking suspicion that far from being rejected by the Right, the movie's going to end up as a GOP cause celebre.
I don't want to give away any spoilers, because this is a film that really should be watched through eyes sparkling with innocent wonder. But the way the movie's key themes and plot points map out to Republican talking points is really pretty stunning.
- Tiana is a bootstrapping entrepreneur who refuses to ask for charity, preferring to work two jobs to make her small-business dreams come true.
- She castigates those who rely on others for welfare, and only changes her ruggedly individualist outlook when she's pointedly reminded of the importance of having a family—and finding a suitable partner in life.
- There's an amazing Messiah-metaphor moment that the Christian Right will swoon over—a moment that I will not ruin by describing, for those of you who prefer to ignore literary/political subtext. (Let’s just say that for the savvy, the name given to a particular heavenly entity in the film should be a dog-whistle foreshadowing of what happens at the film's climax.)
- And here's the kicker. The primary bad guy in the picture is a thin, jug-eared, light-skinned black man of mysterious origins who practices an "exotic" religion, manipulates reality to suit his ambitions, hides his true nature behind a charming and verbose exterior, and literally bleeds the elite to lift up the underclass. Furthermore, in the exercise of his villainy, he manages to run up a debt of cosmic proportions—a deficit he decides he can't repay without, uh, stealing from the rich.
Cue the horrific teabagger parodies now.
In the half-decade that Princess and the Frog was in development, its creators repeatedly rewrote its storyline and revamped its character descriptions to accommodate both those who were invested in Disney delivering an inclusive, authentic and empowering depiction of black America, as well as those demanding that Disney make good on its family-values promises. The decision they ultimately made was to seek a middle ground between these progressive and reactionary agendas, which is usually a recipe for disaster.
It's a testament to John Lasseter and co.'s incredible skill that the movie not only works as a piece of classic entertainment—it's also a work that both Left and Right are likely to end up embracing, each seeing it as a validation of their respective beliefs and a thumb in the eye of the other ideological side. Now that's some real Disney magic.