Dis­ney’s new lead­ing lady mar­ries Prince Charm­ing – and tears down cul­tural bar­ri­ers

De­spite a shaky me­dia start, Dis­ney’s lat­est ‘hap­pily ev­ery af­ter’ will go from rags to riches at the box of­fice. By GUY ADAMS

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - PEOPLE -

OUR HEROINE is young, whole­some and ef­fort­lessly beau­ti­ful. Tiana works hard, smiles sweetly, and flut­ters her eye­lashes – a lot. Af­ter a se­ries of un­likely events she ends up mar­ry­ing her Prince Charm­ing.

Then, we must pre­sume, every­one lives hap­pily ever af­ter. So far, so nor­mal, in the candy-floss na­ture of fairy­tale ro­mance, but do not be fooled. This lead­ing lady is tear­ing down cul­tural bar­ri­ers.

Seven decades years af­ter Walt Dis­ney’s pen­cil-wield­ing an­i­ma­tors gave Snow White to the world, Tiana is about to de­but as the Hol­ly­wood stu­dio’s first-ever African-Amer­i­can car­toon princess.

The Princess and the Frog launches this week in New York and Los An­ge­les, be­fore rolling out across Amer­ica and at least 30 other coun­tries, hit­ting the UK and South Africa in late Jan­uary.

To Dis­ney, Tiana’s launch is both a sym­bolic mile­stone and a se­ri­ous com­mer­cial op­por­tu­nity. When The Princess and the Frog was first an­nounced in early 2007, she was lauded as a pos­i­tive role model with the po­ten­tial to reach out to black audiences, a fre­quently ig­nored sec­tion of the film-go­ing pub­lic, and lure them into movie the­atres.

Her “voice”, the Broad­way ac­tress Anika Noni Rose, was pegged as a ma­jor star in the mak­ing.

“I grew up watch­ing Dis­ney films and al­ways wanted to be in one, but I thought I’d be cast as a skunk or some­thing. I never guessed that I might play a princess,” she re­calls.

“This is some­thing that peo­ple were so ex­cited for, and so ready for, that it’s just a dream come true, in a much grander fash­ion than I’d ever hoped.”

The dream hasn’t al­ways run smoothly, though. Dis­ney orig­i­nally hoped that the heart-warm­ing na­ture of Tiana’s rags-to-riches story would broaden its so­cial ap­peal and erase any lin­ger­ing mem­o­ries of their stu­dio founder’s flir­ta­tion with racist pol­i­tics in the 1940s. But the press at times read from a dif­fer­ent script.

Af­ter the de­ci­sion to cre­ate the stu­dio’s first black princess was an­nounced, com­men­ta­tors be­gan to ex­plore its po­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions. Plenty of them de­cided that it was noth­ing more than a cyn­i­cal stunt. Many bris­tled at the thought of what they pre­sumed was a largely white pro­duc­tion team “Dis­ney­fy­ing” jazzera, 1920s New Orleans, where The Princess and the Frog is set.

Still more were up­set by early rev­e­la­tions about the plot, which casts Tiana’s mother as a ser­vant for a wealthy fam­ily of white peo­ple, and ex­pressed se­ri­ous reser­va­tions about the pro­file of the film’s sin­is­ter vil­lain, Dr Fa­cilier, who is a black voodoo ma­gi­cian.

A year ago, amid mount­ing dis­ap­proval, a highly crit­i­cal ed­i­to­rial ar­ti­cle in The Voice – per­haps the West­ern world’s most prom­i­nent black news­pa­per – dubbed the whole project “dis­ap­point­ing”.

At the time, Dis­ney could say lit­tle in re­sponse. Spokes­men coun­selled that peo­ple should wait un­til they’d seen the film be­fore knock­ing it.

The stu­dio press of­fice did, at one point, pub­licly re­but some wilder ru­mours, in­clud­ing one that sug­gested a white ac­tress would be voic­ing Tiana. But the real test of their black princess would, they main­tained, only come at the world’s box offices.

Now, fi­nally, that is about to hap­pen. The first re­views of The Princess and the Frog have been pub­lished this week, and the pay­ing pub­lic’s re­ac­tion will be­gin to take shape. And if the all-im­por­tant buzz is any­thing to go by, omens for the pic­ture are pretty good.

For one thing, ev­ery show­ing in New York and Los An­ge­les for the next fort­night is al­ready sold out. And the film has al­ready se­cured some valu­able en­dorse­ments from within Amer­ica’s black com­mu­nity. Lead­ing mem­bers of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Coloured Peo­ple were in­vited to a screen­ing in Los An­ge­les last week – and re­sponded with a 10-minute stand­ing ova­tion.

Ad­vanced screen­ings have also gen­er­ated sur­pris­ingly pos­i­tive feed­back (over 80 per­cent ap­proval, ac­cord­ing to stu­dio sources). Most ex­perts ex­pect it to be one of the big­gest two or three ti­tles to hit Amer­i­can cin­e­mas in the lu­cra­tive pre-Christ­mas win­dow.

“The gen­eral con­sen­sus with this film is so far that yes, it’s very good in­deed,” says Tim Gray, the ed­i­tor of Va­ri­ety.

“So my pre­dic­tion is that it’s go­ing to do very good busi­ness. “I’m sure there are racists in Amer­ica who hav­ing a black princess will be a fac­tor for, but I don’t think they will stop this be­ing a hit.

“When kids and fam­i­lies can fall in love with Shrek, a green mon­ster, or a fish, in Find­ing Nemo, or a robot in WALL-E, I don’t think skin colour is a huge is­sue.”

If he’s right (and, in fair­ness, pre­dict­ing box of­fice suc­cess is al­ways some­thing of a gam­ble), then Dis­ney must take credit for adopt­ing a painstak­ingly care­ful ap­proach to the cre­ation of its first AfricanAmer­i­can princess. Last week, the stu­dio ex­plained how it had con­sulted with a wide range of prom­i­nent black in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions while fi­nal­is­ing the tone and plot of the film.

This ex­er­cise saw them change the film’s ti­tle (it was orig­i­nally to be The Frog Princess) and also write in a big­ger role for Tiana’s fa­ther, so as not to ad­vance stereotypes about black, sin­gle-par­ent fam­i­lies.

The heroine’s name was also al­tered: orig­i­nally, she was to be called Madeleine, but fo­cus groups com­plained that “Maddy” sounded dan­ger­ously like “Mammy”, an un­wel­come re­minder of the seg­re­ga­tion-era Deep South.

The film-mak­ers also knocked on the door of black Amer­ica’s great­est opin­ion for­mer, Oprah Win­frey. She was asked to cast an eye over the script to high­light any po­ten­tially tricky ar­eas, and was so taken by what she saw that she re­quested (and got) a small role in the film, as Tiana’s mother.

Oprah also sug­gested a small but im­por­tant plot change. Peter Del Ve­cho, the film’s pro­ducer, re­vealed that she ad­vised him that Naveen, Tiana’s brown-skinned Prince Charm­ing, should be re-in­her­ited by his par­ents (he be­gins the film pen­ni­less) when he even­tu­ally se­cures his bride.

“When we re­alised what a big deal hav­ing a black princess was, we wanted to of course make sure that we did it right, so we con­sulted widely, with Ms Win­frey and oth­ers, and got lots of very help­ful feed­back,” he re­calls.

Del Ve­cho also cru­cially hired Rob Ed­wards as his screen­writer, who had achieved promi­nence writ­ing The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a 1990s sit­com deemed ground­break­ing be­cause it fo­cused on a black fam­ily from an ex­tremely priv­i­leged and wealthy back­ground.

The out­come of this lengthy ex­er­cise in step­ping on eggshells is that the only peo­ple who could re­ally take of­fence from The Princess and the Frog are white view­ers, who may iron­i­cally com­plain about in­stances of in­verted racism.

One vil­lain is a fat, white ser­vant with a plummy English ac­cent; oth­ers are white es­tate agents. A comic turn is per­formed by three red-necked in­hab­i­tants of ru­ral Louisiana, who boast nary a tooth be­tween them.

Away from the box of­fice, a range of mer­chan­dise – in­clud­ing slip­pers in­spired by the film’s trum­pet-play­ing al­li­ga­tor Louis, and themed tarot cards – is al­ready in stores. The film also boasts a po­ten­tially lu­cra­tive jazz-themed sound­track. And its “look” – it is Dis­ney’s first hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion for sev­eral years, buck­ing the trend for com­puter- gen­er­ated im­agery – could reignite in­ter­est in the firm’s back cat­a­logue.

Mar­ket­ing ex­perts there­fore say that the film’s wider com­mer­cial prospects are ro­bust.

“As a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, broad­cast­ers and film stu­dios sim­ply have to re­flect their au­di­ence,” says Dar­ren Campo, a TV ex­ec­u­tive who re­cently pub­lished the sci­ence fic­tion novel Alex De­tail’s Revo­lu­tion, which has a black fe­male pro­tag­o­nist.

“In the case of this film, I think the Dis­ney fac­tor is go­ing to at­tract a big com­mer­cial fol­low­ing any­way. And the cu­rios­ity fac­tor of a black princess might also end up pulling in audiences who wouldn’t nor­mally go to see a Dis­ney film.”

And that would be just fine for Dis­ney, and also for Tiana’s al­ter ego, Noni Rose.

“In the his­tory of car­toons, brown-skinned peo­ple, of many dif­fer­ent eth­nic back­grounds, have not been treated well,” she re­flected.

“Tra­di­tion­ally we’re the vil­lains, we’re the bad guys, we’re the scary ap­pari­tion com­ing from the back. But with this film, that’s now changed.

“When peo­ple see the movie, and re­alise that it has been made with real love and re­spect and care, I think their con­cerns will very soon dis­ap­pear.” – The In­de­pen­dent

KISS ME: Princess Tiana with a friend in Dis­ney’s The Princess and the Frog

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