Disney took until 2009 to have a black princess. This came after a redhead, one from the middle east, a Native American, and one from China. Ron Clements and John Musker are the co-writers and directors and are responsible for multiple Disney Princess films. Anika Noni Rose plays Tiana, the hard-working lead trying to save up to open her own restaurant in New Orleans before being transformed into a frog.
Tiana spends the bulk of the film not as a black woman, but as a frog. This mirrors the more recent, black-focused Pixar film, Soul, where the black character is stuck as a cat for the bulk of the film and a white voice takes over the black body. This is unique in Disney/Pixar films, few other non-white princesses or characters are removed from their bodies. It was a detail I did not think about until sitting down to write this review, but it is a problematic pattern.
The film is also set in the 1920s, not a great time to be black in the United States. The opening scene has Tiana tagging along with her mother as she makes a dress for a wealthy white man’s daughter. While it is not a master/slave relationship, the power is one-sided. Tiana struggles to imagine the wonderful futures that the white daughter does. Later in the film, in one of the last scenes with Tiana as a human, she is sidelined at her best friend’s party making beignets. She has remained something of a plaything for her white friend.
It is hard to get past how problematic this film is to be the first black Disney princess. We meet a handful of stereotypical Louisiana characters. A less than honest Voodoo practitioner is the main villain. Voodoo is a religion for many practitioners, but here we get the souvenir from a drinking trip to New Orleans version. When we venture into the swamp, we meet with Cajun and Creole characters. They are often portrayed as simple-minded. It takes most of the film for everyone to come around and understand that Louis, the Cajun firefly, is not crazy in his relationship with a star and past lover.
On the positive side, the story is a colorful journey through New Orleans and the surrounding swamp. The music is heavily jazz-influenced and is a solid representation of the area. That does not make up for the systematic issue with the film and Disney in general. I went to Disney around 2015 and the only character I remember their exact location of was Tiana. She was near the hall of presidents out of the way near some dumpsters. There was a small line waiting for pictures and autographs, but she was hard to find. Disney has never respected black people and their continued moves prove that they are not going to change that anytime soon.