Sunday, 14 February 2010

Once Upon a Time there was a Princess and a Frog

I have been excited about the release of the new Disney film for weeks. Not only is it a back-to-basics hand-drawn animation based on a fairy tale, a return to the roots of what we love about Disney. But in this film we are also presented with the first black princess. I went to see the Princess and the Frog with my friend Parissa and I think we both agreed it was a landmark moment. If you like, it was the Martin Luther King moment in Disney history. I have always loved Disney, and it is not like there has been no visual variety in their leading ladies. We live in a world that has known Jasmine and Pocahontas... but if you are ever looking for a Disney princess birthday cake, banner, or tablecloth (and I have, for reasons I will explain below), what I have found inexplicably odd is the distinct lack of ethnic diversity in the princess merchandising.

Parissa's favourite Disney film is Aladdin and Jasmine was always her favourite princess - everyone played Disney princesses in primary school and she would be jasmine - So when it came to her 24th birthday, a seemingly scary ripe old age, we decided to revert to childhood and have Disney themed decorations for her surprise dinner party. A great idea in theory, however, in practise you would not believe how impossible it is to find jasmine stuff. Disney merchandise does seem populated by some kind of weird Arian race consisting of Cinderella, Sleeping beauty and Tink... with the occasional wild card inclusion of Ariel or Belle. It struck us at the time, why was this? It is only silly kiddie decorations, but why did it all have to be so singularly white, and overwhelmingly blonde?

We all have our favourite Disney film. Apparently, expressing my individuality from an early age my favourite was Robin Hood - I watched that VHS tape so many times I wore it out. However, if I were to pick a favourite princess, it would always have been Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. I was absolutely transfixed by the beauty of the animation and lost in the romance of the story, but also… Cinders and Aurora both have blonde hair and blue eyes, just like me. I could watch it and pretend to be a princess; they were relate-able.

Now as an adult, whilst still able to appreciate the fabulous storytelling mastery of Disney, a couple of things trouble me. The first is ethnicity. Disney was such a big part of my childhood and it is sad to think some children might not feel the Disney magic was accessible to them. If there had been no blonde haired blue-eyed princesses, I may never have felt the films were for me and maybe I never would have pretended to be a princess or felt the same enduring love for Disney. Which brings me to my second concern, in a lot of the classic Disney the princess is not a heroine, she is a victim in need of rescuing by a handsome prince. Beauty saves the Beast, Mulan saves China, but in the main and certainly in the classic films the princess relies not on her intelligence but on magic, fate, wishing on stars, and her prince. Now as a child, this did not seem to bother me, as a young woman, this is distinctly unpalatable, when I choose to think about it.

Enter the Princess and the Frog. This princess is not like any other, she is rooted in the real world. Specifically she inhabits the world New Orleans, a bustling jazz hub of music dancing and great monetary and ethnic inequality. The film manages, with no agenda, to represent all walks of life from the spoilt rich girl, the ‘princess’, to the hard working but poor, heroine of the piece, yet in the main money and ethnicity is a polite undercurrent to the main wave and swell of the story.

This film filled with the most exquisitely stunning animation I have seen in any classic Disney. The Characters are loveable, the story is heart warming as we would expect, and best of all, the princess rescues the prince… and after putting in all the good old-fashioned hard work necessary to reach their dreams, they live happily ever after.

The end.

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