Watch Wednesday

Watch Wednesday #13: Why Princess and the Frog is Severely Underrated

I know that we’re approaching our 63rd post today, but I need to admit that I’m still figuring out what I really enjoy writing about, and what I hope you guys have fun reading.  For Watch Wednesday, while I enjoy noting things that I think you should be watching, I’m hoping to expand that.

The Princess and the Frog, when I first saw it in theatres at the end of 2009, quickly became one of my favorite movies.  To this day, Tiana has to be my favorite princess.  And yet, for all the worth I see in the film and its characters, when I express that it’s a favorite, I most often get the question, “Really?  Why?”

Today’s post isn’t anything really different–essentially, I’m going to tell you to go and watch The Princess and the Frog, especially if you already haven’t–but, rather than just telling you, “Hey, this is what this is about, this is why it’s great,” I’m hoping to offer a sort of rebuttal to that “why” that I always seem to get.

Why Princess and the Frog is Severely Underrated

When it comes to all things Disney, everyone has a favorite.  In fact, for lots of us, it’s very hard to even begin to pick a favorite.  Oftentimes we must break down these films and their characters into different categories to try and make any sort of choice.  One of these categories in fact spurred its whole Disney brand (with TV campaigns that make me tear up):  Disney Princesses.

Tiana is an entirely new breed of Disney Princess.  Yes, she’s African American–but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Tiana is all her own, a stand alone in what is a relatively sparse selection of heroines who actually take part in a character arc with some substance.  Princess and the Frog is totally underrated, and here’s why.

Tiana is an Active Protagonist

When Princess and the Frog was initially released, reviews were positive, but many reviewers commented that it wasn’t quite the “Golden Age” standard set by early Disney animated films.  But, to me, that’s exactly why this film was great–it quickly improved upon a common trope of the past.  That is, Tiana, the princess, actually took part in her film.

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If you re-watch Cinderella, Snow WhiteSleeping Beauty, there’s one common itch:  The movie may be named after them, but they’re sure not the stars of the film.  In Cinderella, the mice take up the majority of the screen time.  In Snow White, it’s all about them dwarves.  In Sleeping Beauty, Aurora is asleep for half the film, but the focus of the film is mostly the fairies, anyway.  It’s weird, isn’t it?  But it was the pattern of an early age of visual storytelling.  Tiana’s story isn’t like that–it’s her story, she is the protagonist, she is the one who we’re interested in.

Tiana has Character Flaws

Tiana is one of the very few of the Disney Princess brand who actually begins with a character flaw.  And I mean real flaws, not, “Oh man, my step-mother oppresses me.”  Even Belle is essentially perfected from the beginning.  She is an outcast who finds her place, but she doesn’t actually make a betterment in character by the end of Beauty and the Beast.

Tiana is a great character who is affected by the ghost of her past–her father’s death, and therein the death of what she saw as his big dream, opening a restaurant.  This pushes her to become a bonafide workaholic, spending every waking hour attempting to earn the money to keep her father’s dream alive.

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While her ethics are admirable, Tiana quickly loses sight of what really matters, why her father really dreamt of that restaurant–love.  Tiana is so zeroed in on what is ultimately just a material goal, a goal that will not satisfy the loss of her father.  As a character, Tiana has to choose to confront the lie that she’s been telling herself all along, that getting that restaurant will bring her peace with the fact that her dad chose her over that restaurant.  While her dad may have chosen to give up on a dream, he did it in the pursuit of an even bigger dream–his family.

The Mirroring of Naveen and Tiana

Naveen has coasted through life without giving much purpose to it other than enjoying himself.  When his parents cut him off, his entire way of life is threatened.  For Tiana, when she realizes that even hard work may not give her what she’s pushed for all these years, her lifestyle is threatened as well.  For both of them they must ask, “If this isn’t going to work anymore, then what am I supposed to do?”

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Princess and the Frog utilizes the contrast between these two characters as a sort of mirror.  They are opposites in the sense that they’re two heads of a coin.  Tiana’s entire life centers around the thought that her father was unable to be truly happy because it did not attain some tangible thing.  When you think about that, Tiana’s mindset is, “Happiness is acquired through attainment.”  You work hard to get something, you get it, so you’re happy.  In the end, Tiana’s not incredibly different that Naveen–she too is in pursuit of a physical thing in order to achieve happiness.  While Naveen’s focus is on money, he is simply pursuing his own happiness, just like Tiana.  There are not simply, “opposites attract”.  They are actually quite similar, mirrored images of a ideal and are equally flawed in that view.

Music Dipped in New Orleans Culture

With the cultural touches of New Orleans, including creole waltz, blues, and jazz, this film boasts some fantastic musical numbers.  I mean, come.  “Down in New Orleans”–enough said, right here.  “Dreams do come true in New Orleans!”

Fully Rounded Side Characters

For the most part, princess films both before and after Princess and the Frog are full of wonderful side characters, but who are quite flat.  I say “flat” here to mean that, other than supporting the protagonist or antagonist’s wants, they don’t seem to have much else influencing them.  Great side characters not only work well within the theme of the film, but make the choices they do because of their own motivations rather than simply saying, “I do all of this because I want to help [protagonist/antagonist] [get what they want]!”

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Charlotte, Lawrence, and Louis are great examples–seemingly sprinkles-on-top side characters who all have their own clear motivations that make their actions and choices within the film not only make sense, but contribute to the overall theme of the film.  While Lottie is fully intent on her childish dream of being a princess, it is that ideal that has her marrying a man that she’s really just met–because, in the end, it will achieve what she’s always wanted.  Lawrence, longtime pack mule to a prince, yearns to flip the scales.  Louis, fueled by his love for music, yearns to play for real–thus, his greatest wish is to be human.  All of them put too-heavy emphasis on the idea, “Once this happens, then I’ll really be happy.”  Each and every character has a motivation, and it all makes sense within the scheme of the film.

Glorious Art

I was, at first, a little upset at the thought that the majority of the movie would see Tiana as a frog, but dang, I’m so glad that was the case.  The see just a glorious representation of the artfulness that is the bayou was simply wondrous.

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What movie do you think is underrated?

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