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The Princess and the Frog's Postmodern Family

The cost of child-rearing.

By Petrarch  |  December 13, 2010

There was a time when American families instinctively assumed that any Disney product was wholesome.  That was never really true - virtually every one of Walt Disney's own animated features hammered home the message that fathers are feckless morons - but for a while the political-correctness was caustically nauseating: from Pocahontas the neopagan streaker to Mulan the feminist transvestite, whatever good messages there might be were buried beneath a thick layer of politically-correct dreck.

Then there came Meet the Robinsons, where not only did the entire plot of the movie revolve around the vital importance of family, the father was arguably the only sane and responsible character to be seen.

So when The Princess and the Frog was released, featuring Disney's First! Black! Princess! Ever! (and did we mention she's Black?), some trepidation was in order, and your humble correspondent was in no particular hurry to rush to the theater.  The wheels of Netflix grind unceasingly, however, and one day in the course of time the disc showed up.

Pleasant surprise: The film had a lot of good things to say and nothing notably bad beyond the customary presence of black magic in a fairy tale.

Startling jolt: In its desire to be reasonably modern and realistic, the movie also taught some modern lessons which are all too true yet deeply sad.

A Pocketful of Spoilers

First, a brief summary of the story.  Tiana is a working-class black girl living in New Orleans of the 1920s.  She has big dreams of starting a great restaurant and, unlike many of her fellow New Orleanians, she is willing to sacrifice her short-term interests in order to fulfill her future.  What's more, she has the support of a deeply loving father and mother who work like dogs to provide for her.

Enter Prince Naveen, a typical spoiled, but not particularly evil, rich brat whose royal parents have cut him off for being a leech.  He shows up in the Crescent City with the intention of marrying Charlotte La Bouff, daughter of the fabulously successful sugar magnate (but devoted father) "Big Daddy" La Bouff.

It might seem Disneyesque that filthy-rich Charlotte is a close childhood friend of working-class Tiana's, but that wasn't at all unusual in the Old South; Disney simply reflects that historical reality.  Disney also reflects the historical racial bias of their chosen milieu, but in a gentle and well-handled way; a pair of bigoted realtors get an appropriate but not over-the-top comeuppance.

Yes, Tiana is black; the Prince is sort of Arab-looking but definitely not white.  Nothing racial whatsoever is made of this: the evil bad guy is blacker than both of them combined, and the lily-white La Bouffs, while ludicrously wealthy and somewhat spoiled themselves, never come across as the least bit mean or exploitative.  They're rich, but they're happy to pay generously for whatever they want and treat everybody much the same whether seamstress or Prince.  Actually, "Big Daddy" La Bouff is arguably more respectful and less domineering towards Tiana's seamstress mother than Charlotte is to her royal intended.

On the way to pursue the eagerly-anticipating Charlotte who'll do anything to fulfill her dream of becoming a princess, Naveen is waylaid by the evil voodoo witchdoctor Facilier.  Result: Facilier sends in a ringer to marry Charlotte and glom onto Daddy's megabucks, while Naveen hops away in the wrong sort of green.  He runs into Tiana, mistakes her for a princess, wheedles a kiss... and instead of him being reprinced, she, too, winds up enfrogged.

As Kermit was wont to inform us, it ain't easy bein' green.  The two don't get along well, considering that he's never worked a day in his life and she does nothing but work; in conventional Disney fashion, an arduous trek amongst the talking animals results in them meeting in the middle.  If anything, Naveen falls harder for her than the other way 'round, but he realizes how important this longstanding culinary dream is to the woman he now both loves and admires; he plans to marry Charlotte anyway so as to have the money to back "Tiana's Place."

It works out all right in the end, of course: Dr. Facilier's plot is foiled, Charlotte is touched by seeing "true love" and willingly helps out, and Tiana gets both Naveen and her restaurant.  "Dreams do come true in New Orleans!" as the closing lines have it.

Don't expect any little Princes anytime soon.

What Price Wealth?

It's heartwarming to see a Disney movie explicitly admit that wishing on a star doesn't get you squat unless you're willing to go out there and work for it.  Tiana's three jobs, refusal to go out partying, and singleminded dedication to savings and investment are an example to us all.

Even more inspiring is the sight of her father, though bone-tired from "double and triple shifts," showing his wife and daughter the loyalty and affection they deserve; Tiana's dreams of kitchen glory came from happy hours spent with Dad and his gumbo pot.  Doubtless there is no shortage of black women wishing they could find men like that - forget the Prince with his fruity French accent.

The underlying problem is foreshadowed by Tiana's friends who'd like her to go to a dance and meet guys; she clearly understands that spending time on a relationship would threaten her goal.  In a magic-dream climactic sequence later on, Dr. Facilier makes the point even plainer: Tiana's father worked every bit as hard as she does, but since all his efforts were dedicated to taking care of his family, "his dreams never got off the back porch."

You know what?  The voodoo witchdoctor is right.  It is a lot easier to become rich and famous when you don't have family, or at least don't have kids.

Take a look at the society pages and glossies: the celebrities either a) have no kids, b) had them very, very late after they were already rich and famous, c) have royally screwed-up families, or d) some combination of the above.

The same is true of business magnates: get rich first, and then and only then have children.  Bill Gates got married in 1994; he had his first child in 1996 when he was the world's richest man.  In fact, he had all three of his children when holding that exalted status, had none before that, and none afterwards.

This idea has floated around Hollywood for some time, most notably in The Family Man, where Nicholas Cage gets to choose between being a single Wall Street tycoon and a family-loved tire-salesman.  You could even look back to It's a Wonderful Life, where Jimmy Stewart spends the whole movie trying to escape Bedford Falls to do great things, only to stay stuck in Podunk as a familial and honorably loved nobody.

In The Princess and the Frog, Disney argues that we must choose between fame, fortune, or family.  As women are discovering that they can't have it all, men, too, must make the same choices.

Is this new to our day, or has it always been thus and we were just too busy wishing on stars to notice?