Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Princess & the Frog: Disney get it slightly wrong (again)

It’s ironic that after my rant yesterday about patronising poor people, I spent a good proportion of this film thinking about how patronising this film is of poor, black people.

If you want to set a film in 1920s New Orleans and not mention racism, yet make it aspirational for black people, then this film would give you some tips. Like, ignore history completely.

In fact, go the other way – stereotype your main white character as a spoiled rich kid wishing upon a star while the world is handed to her on a platter, and your black heroine as a hard-workin’, two-jobs-a-day, real-world-inhabiting believer that you are the only person who will make it happen. And you’ll do it through hard work, not crying to your rich plantation-ownin’ daddy.

Disney has copped a lot of flak for it’s ‘Princess’ idea that all you have to do in life is be beautiful and wait for your Prince Charming to turn up. So, fair play, they have tried to reverse that style of thinking. But there is still an undercurrent here that nags – for a black girl to be a princess, she has to be a hard-workin’ girl with ambition and drive and a feisty attitude to win her prince. Whereas all white girls have to do is leave a glass slipper behind, or fall asleep under a spell, or something.

I’m sure plenty more intelligent folks will have plenty to say about the lazy stereotyping of the Bayou, with voodoo, jazz, gumbo, and a population that has nothing else to do than mess around with voodoo, play jazz and eat gumbo. New Orleans is some kind of hedonistic paradise where you can laze away the days with music and fine (fried) food. It's the easiest version of the Big Easy ever. The only thing I’d say is that it’s nice to see Disney stereotyping Americans so badly.

This is, of course, what Disney does: project a fantasy ideal of what life should be like. This is 1920s New Orleans without the bootlegging, or the racism, or the lynch mobs. Everyone smiles. Everyone has enough gumbo to eat. Voodoo works – if you’re a good person, at least. There’s a happy ending. There are no hurricanes.

This commentary makes it sound like I hated the film. I didn’t. It has serious flaws. But the frogs were fun. I liked Louis the jazz-playing alligator and Ray the lightning bug. I liked the dog, although she was hardly in it. There was some character development and growth. The bad guy was genuinely creepy. And most of the songs were by Randy Newman, so were of a good standard.

The problem was I was just left looking for the magic. Maybe the 20th Century isn’t long enough ago to count at ‘once upon a time…’

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