"Another twenty-five years and you'll be able to shake their hands in broad daylight."– Blazing Saddles

January 28th, 2008

Last week a still from a new Disney animation film, “The Princess and the Frog” hit the Internet.

Normally I wouldn’t care. Okay, that’s the understatement of the year. It’s a Disney movie. It has the word “Princess” in the title. I’d be more interested in Mitt Romney reading a phonebook.

But, “The Princess and the Frog” will be, for Disney at least, a historic film — regardless of its ultimate quality — for two reasons.

First, “The Princess and the Frog” marks the studio’s return to 2-D animation. Since Disney bought Pixar a couple years ago, this makes perfect sense: the Pixar brand is synonymous with quality 3-D animated films. Disney, for all its effort, hasn’t made a 3-D cartoon to rival it’s biggest hits—movies like “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” or “Beauty and the Beast.”

The last 2-D animated Disney flick was 2004’s awful “Home on the Range.” Audiences are smart enough to know that it’s the quality of the stories in the Pixar films that make them so successful. The fact that they’re 3-D has nothing to do with it — and refocusing the Disney studio’s effort on 2-D seems like a no-brains marketing decision. (By the way, “Beauty and the Beast,” a 2-D film, remains the only animated feature ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar).

Second, “The Princess and the Frog” will be the first Disney cartoon to feature a black princess.

About #$@#% time.

Here’s what I can tell you about the movie:

According to imdb.com, it comes out sometime in 2009. It’s about Princess Tiana, who lives in “New Orleans’ French Quarter during the Jazz Age.” Reading further, on the less-reliable wikipedia.org, this movie will feature both debutante and voodoo culture. There will also be, again, according to wikipedia.org, a jazz-inspired soundtrack.

So it’ll be cute, something to take the kids to, fine. But, here’s the important question: will it address issues of race and discrimination that characterized that era? And, if so, how?

That’s what I’m wondering. And I think Disney might get it right this time. There are more than just the morals of making an honest film at stake. There’s potentially a lot of cash to be made from marketing, well beyond “The Princess and the Frog” lunch boxes and dolls.

I predict that Disney will retool its popular theme park attraction, Splash Mountain, to reflect “The Princess and the Frog.” Splash Mountain, a flume ride adventure, is currently tied to characters from 1946’s “Song of the South.”

In “Song of the South,” Uncle Remus, a former slave, tells a young boy the stories of B’rer Rabbit, B’rer Bear and B’rer Fox, from Joel Chandler Harris’s collection and adaptation of “Uncle Remus’s Tales.”

“Song of the South” has been criticized for racism and whitewashing issues of slavery. In 2007, Movies.com listed it as the fifth most controversial movie of all time. It’s locked in the Disney vault.

Meanwhile, millions of Disney World visitors ride Splash Mountain every year. Pay close attention to the singing animatronic characters and catch subtle racism — offensive dialects and songs extolling the virtues of laziness. Any hint of Uncle Remus is gone from the ride, but B’rer Rabbit and friends are there. (Thankfully, the ride is based on the briar patch story, not the Tar Baby).

It seems to me that if “The Princess and the Frog” is a hit, Splash Mountain can be easily retooled — still rooted in Frontierland-style Americana, but reflecting a more-inclusive sensibility. And — to quote Yogurt from “Spaceballs,” “Merchandising! Where the real money from the movie is made!”

I’m not so sure Disney, if this is what they do, should totally erase “Song of the South” from their history. Yes, it’s offensive. But, it’s also culturally important — beyond the Oscar-winning song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” “Song of the South” is important as a pre-civil rights relic, showcasing at best, white ignorance, at worst, white justification toward segregation.

This isn’t to say Disney should simply rerelease “Song of the South” on DVD, packaged with material showcasing the studio’s eventual positive black characters (Raven Baxter, Frozone, to name a couple). It might be more appropriate to make “Song of the South” avaliable to black studies departments at American univerisites, much as the 1940 Nazi film “Jud Süss” is avaliable to some Jewish studies programs. Educational context and classroom discussion is key.

So yes, Disney: kudos in advance for “The Princess and the Frog.” But, there’s still a long way to go.

Staff writer Josh Eiserike can be reached at 703-878-8072 jeiserike@potomacnews.com.

2 comments to “"Another twenty-five years and you'll be able to shake their hands in broad daylight."– Blazing Saddles”

  1. You are so right. When I was at this film yesterday, my reaction was that Splash Mountain will be replaced by a “The Princess and the Frog” attraction with minimal effort.

  2. Thanks! And thanks for reading! We’ll see what happens, but I think they’re in a position, if the movie is a hit, to make a lot of money. How is the movie, by the way? I’m not really interested in the story but the animation from what I’ve seen looks gorgeous.