Review: Tiana Sparkles, but ‘The Princess and the Frog’ Dims Disney Legacy

There is a lot to love about Disney’s new Princess Tiana from the animated movie “The Princess and the Frog.” Tiana is stunning as she demonstrates courage, self-determination, and black beauty. But in plot and personality, the movie falls short of Disney’s animated endeavors from the 1990s.

The movie opens with Tiana, played by Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose, as a young girl fascinated by the fairytales her mother, Eudora, played by Oprah Winfrey, reads to her and her friend Charlotte. Tiana is giddy about the idea that wishing on a star can provide immediate gratification, but her father (Terrence Howard) reminds her that it’s okay to dream, but without hard work, the dream isn’t worth much.

Fast-forward about 15 years and you find Tiana, a waitress laboring through two shifts a day as she saves money to fulfill her dream of opening a swanky restaurant. Her friend Charlotte, on the other hand, has her sights set on winning the heart of a prince.

Meanwhile, hard-partying Prince Naveen, who is visiting from a faraway land, wants to marry into a prosperous family because his parents disowned him due to his undisciplined behavior. Everyone’s plans get derailed when Dr. Facilier (Keith David)–for reasons not explained clearly– turns the prince into a frog.

What happens next are the typical tribulations and revelations that lead to a happy ending. The story, written by Ron Clements and John Musker, the same directing team behind “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid,” along with black screenwriter Rob Edwards, is full of commendable teachable moments that, at times, are too heavy and prevent the audience from getting lost in the story.

Aside from an array of dainty yet daring damsels, Disney’s animated classics are best known for magical plots and fabulous musical scores. Given its reputation for eerie phenomenon and a history steeped in jazz, Louisiana was the perfect setting for Disney’s debut foray into the telling of an American fairy tale. For Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation after 11 years, the animators, writers, and actors did a fine job of bringing New Orleans and all of its sights and sounds to life.

What Disney did not bring to life was the racism that permeated every nook and cranny of the 1920s deep South. The lack of historical or cultural context hasn’t stopped audiences from flocking to other Disney animated films — “Pocahontas” has been criticized as being historically inaccurate and Jasmine’s outfit in “Aladdin” was criticized as indecent — and the erasure of racial discord likely won’t keep droves of children from loving Tiana’s story either. (Parents can use Tiana’s story as a platform to provide background on the U.S.’s racial disharmony.)

Tiana definitely holds her own in the ranks of Disney’s princesses, who, unlike her, are usually being rescued. She becomes the ring leader for a misfit band of fauna out of the Louisiana bayou, including the frog prince; a loquacious Cajun firefly; a trumpet-playing alligator; and a 197-year-old voodoo priestess.