The Disney Princesses, each the star of her own movie, are now a team and something of a marketing juggernaut. They have transcended their individual stories and now appear together in a wide range of merchandise. And now Snow White (born a princess and married to a prince), Cinderella (married a prince), Little Mermaid Ariel (born a princess and married a prince), Belle (married a prince), and Sleeping Beauty (born a princess and married to a prince) will be joined by the first African-American princess, Tiana.
Disney has had non-white female lead characters before — Mulan (not a princess or married to a prince), Jasmine (born a princess), and Pocahontas (a Native American equivalent to a princess). But Tiana is the first African-American to star in her own fairy tale movie, based on a combination of a traditional story, a recent novel, and Disney’s own magical transformation. According to The Washington Post’s Neely Tucker,
It draws inspiration from an 18th-century fairy tale from the British Isles, and “The Frog Princess,” a 2002 teen novel from Maryland writer E.D. Baker. Disney transferred the story to 1920s New Orleans and changed her name, race and almost everything else.
In the Disney version, Tiana is a young waitress and talented chef who dreams, like her father, of owning her own restaurant. She eventually kisses a frog and is transformed into one. She must journey into the dark bayou to get a magical cure from a good voodoo queen. She is aided by a goofy firefly and a trumpet-playing alligator. The frog turns out to be handsome Prince Naveen, from the far-off and fictional land of Maldonia.
The stills released by the studio show Tiana in full princess regalia: a powder-blue gown, tiara and hair in an elegant upsweep.
Tony Award winner Anika Noni Rose voices Tiana. Other parts are played by Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Terrence Howard and Keith David. The music is by Oscar winner (and New Orleans veteran) Randy Newman. It is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, the same team behind “Aladdin” and “The Little Mermaid.”
Tucker writes about the sensitivity involved in this image, as have all of the Disney heroines, which have been criticized for ethnic and gender concerns. At one time, he writes, the character was called Maddy, short for Madeline, but it sounded too much like “a slave name.” The love interest is of indeterminate race.
Prince Naveen, for the record, is neither white nor black, but portrayed with olive skin, dark hair and, need we state the obvious, a strong chin. The actor who plays him, Bruno Campos, hails from Brazil.
Tiana is a fantasy figure and so it is not surprising that she fits an idealized and doll-friendly image. But we have come a long way from the racially insensitive images in past films like “Dumbo,” “Peter Pan,” and “Song of the South.” I appreciate the care and yes, love, that have gone into creating this character and I am really pleased to have what appears to be a very strong and beautiful role model added to the princess line-up.