Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Princess and the Caricature

Cartoons often rely on the shorthand of stereotypes to convey their messages. So obviously, cartoons and race are a volatile combination. That's one reason animators have been so reluctant to produce films starring minorities. This December, though, Disney is slated to release a new animated movie featuring their first black princess, the next addition to their line-up of such heroines as Cinderella, Snow White, the Little Mermaid and Belle of "Beauty and the Beast."

William Blackburn, a 2007 Charlotte Observer community columnist, was one of the first upset with Disney's plans. He wrote in April of that year:

"Recently the Walt Disney Co. announced it has started production on a film featuring a new animated princess named Maddy. After some 80 years creating a collection of princesses that have represented Middle Eastern, American Indian and Chinese cultures, Disney finally has seen fit to develop an African American princess.

This endeavor may seem like a long-overdue step in the right direction, but Disney should be ashamed of what it is trying to pass off as its first black princess. . . .

For one, this princess' story is set in New Orleans, the setting of one of the most devastating tragedies to beset a black community. And then they throw in the voodoo theme and an alligator sidekick. When you put New Orleans, alligators and voodoo together, there's no beauty there.

And what's in a name? I have no desire to see my daughter play with a Maddy doll. Maddy? Say it five times real fast, and it'll start to sound like Mammy.

After all of this time, Disney owes us better than this ill-considered fairy-tale. Black consumers especially must implore Disney to go back to the drawing board. In 2009, Disney will bring this character to the big screen, and you'll see posters, trailers and other PR advertising this black princess as something glamorous. But the movie is called 'The Frog Princess.' Enough said."

Disney must have heard him, or others with similar concerns. Since then, the heroine's name has been changed to Tiana, and the movie's name has been changed as well, to "The Princess and the Frog." Others complained that Tiana originally worked as a chambermaid to a white debutante, which smacked of slavery. As it summerizes the plot, The New York Times says that concept has been rewritten as well:

"The film, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, two of the men behind 'The Little Mermaid,' unfolds against a raucous backdrop of voodoo and jazz. Tiana, a waitress and budding chef who dreams of owning a restaurant, is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince.

The spell backfires and — poof! — she is also an amphibian. Accompanied by a Cajun firefly and a folksy alligator, the couple search for a cure."

Blackburn's 2007 column is the main opposition voice to the Disney movie in both the New York Times story and a similar piece in the London Telegraph. While others are said to be upset that the male lead in the new movie doesn't appear to be black, many other folks are quoted in the stories as being excited about Disney's efforts.

One of the most enthusiastic voices thus far is the Manhatten Institute's John McWorther. He says the hand-drawn film" reveals one of the deftest, most soulfully accurate renditions of a black American in the history of animation."
"Look at that configuration of the eyebrows, the lower lip, and the angle of the shoulders pulled back. This is not merely a look of skepticism--it is a perfect rendition of a facial expression and bodily posture local to black American women expressing the kind of skepticism one would have about kissing a frog (or sampling fried grasshopper, or having a shag rug installed, or being gifted with a PT Cruiser).
Yes, it is a 'black' demeanor. Picture Beauty and the Beast's Belle in the same pose with the same expression, or even the warmer, realer Jasmine in Aladdin (whose facial expressions were some of the sexiest ever drawn for a cartoon character). The animators here actually did some thinking and feeling--Tiana is going to be not just painted brown but identifiably black in the cultural sense. "
Not only Disney, but many cartoonists as well, are banking on the movie's success. As the Times says, "The movie also marks a return by Disney to traditional hand-drawn animation. A failure could be the final nail in the coffin of an art form pioneered by Walt Disney himself."

Granted almost no one's seen it yet. But what do you think?

-- Kevin Siers


Anonymous said...

The Manhatten Institute person quoted in this post is John McWhorter. I'm sure he would appreciate a correction.

The Observer Editorial Board said...

Thanks, sparkschip, for noting my slip of the keypad. It's corrected.