Special Issue:
Women & Voodoo
August '08

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Disney Does Voodoo?: The Princess & The Frog
Kim Wells

August 2008

Around these parts, we've seen and own every Disney movie out there. I think that there are a lot of stereotypes in the films over the years; just key in those phrases to the YouTube search engine and you'll find half a dozen senior college English projects with clips and (sometimes flawed but sometimes fair) arguments. I think, overall, the Disney of today tries very hard. Sometimes they still miss, but one person's stereotype is another's homage. I think the most important thing to take into account is intention, and context of the film. If the Villains are all one way and the good characters another, and it's consistent over time, you have to deal with that. This doesn't mean I don't wince when I see the Indians in Peter Pan, or the Siamese cats in the Aristocats, (or Lady and the Tramp) but I also take into account the time period in which each text was created. Disney has brought us princesses who valued reading above all else, who rescue the prince rather than wait around to be rescued, who help slay the dragon, who are independent and strong and also know how to whip up a good fashionable ensemble. Disney women are not just the passive, modest models of nineteen forties values anymore, and race and gender and class are often represented in a very diverse way in the films. They aren't perfect over time, and it's possible for them to miss here and there.

Controversy has already begun to swirl around Disney's very first African American princess in the animated feature set to be released in 2009. The film, titled The Princess & The Frog, takes place in a 1920s Jazz Age New Orleans. The main character is a very pretty young woman named Tiana, and as of early August 2008, there really aren't a lot of details as to the story's plot. The character list, though, includes two characters who will most likely be of a "Hoodoo" nature: Dr. Facilier, voiced by Keith David and Mama Odie, voiced by Jennifer Lewis. Wikipedia lists the characters as "a Voodoo magician/fortune teller. The villain of the movie" and "a 200-year-old Voodoo priestess/fairy Godmother" respectively. It doesn't, however, list the source of those descriptions, and Disney is being rather tight-lipped about the characters at this point. There are also what will most likely also be stereotypically "southern planter" types-- John Goodman is listed as "Big Daddy LaBouff", and I can recall his portrayal of a Southern lawyer in Bee Movie and hear it already.

The official website at Disney has released a teaser that shows Tiana on a wrought-iron balcony a la the French Quarter, with a lovely landscape of New Orleans, complete with the Mississippi curling in the background. She is holding a frog who puckers up to be kissed and she is actively negotiating not actually having to kiss him. Tiana tries to kiss the frog on the cheek, blow him a kiss, shake his hand, and then says "I don't seem to recall anything in the fairy tale about kissing on the lips." A Cajun firefly remarks that this is "gonna take some time". There will be a "trumpet playing alligator"-- I can only guess that will be the character listed as Louis (as in Armstrong? probably). With Randy Newman doing the music, there is a lot of potential.  I like the look of the teaser, though, the colors and feel are good.

Like most Disney characters, the character stills of the princess that have been released look very much like the actress who is voicing the character, Anika Noni Rose. Apparently, though, the princess was first described as a chambermaid, and her name, rather than Tiana, was Maddy. People thought Maddy was too much like Mammy, and were upset that she was a maid. Others have pointed out that Cinderella was a maid (of sorts). And it is true that most princesses have had to overcome humble surroundings to reveal their "inner" royalty. These are, after all, fairy tales. Fairy tales are NOT reality, and have never been meant to reflect the world as it is.

Youtube has some character concept sketches that show quite lovely images, and I hope some of them are official. I have to say I'm looking forward to the idea of a portrayal of Hoodoo/Voodoo in a way that shows it has two sides. It is a complex and diverse tradition, an amalgam of folk magic, ancient pagan religions and yes, superstition. If there is a bad villain & a good practitioner, I think that's a GOOD thing. Especially when, as is inevitable in Disney, the good Mama Odie wins out over the bad Dr. Facilier. I just hope they don't sacrifice any chickens. Really, Disney. I'm not sure I'd be able to forgive that.

Time will only tell how the controversy swirls out, but it really is about time Disney released an African American princess as a strong character, and I'm also pleased that it seems to feature a good side of New Orleans. Princesses are complicated: but we've had blond (Cinderella & Sleeping Beauty), brunette (Snow White & Belle), red head (Ariel), Asian (Mulan), Hawaiian (Lilo & Nani), Arab (Jasmine.) I'm just intrigued, though, as to what the setting, time period, and race issues will reveal. I'm also "jazzed" (sorry) about it being old-fashioned 2-D animation, rather than too much computer animation. Classic. Time will tell, and I will try to update this site when I see the movie.... which, since my daughter & son will be a little over four when this comes out, will include not only a trip to the movie but a purchase of the DVD, most likely.

But it's just got to be a step in the right direction.

For Kim's bio, go here

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