The Problem with the Princess and the Frog

Editor: Please welcome back guest author Mark Storer to The Disney Blog.

When Disney’s The Princess and The Frog first came out, there were all kinds of pontifications. Many pundits thought it Disney’s best work, sublime, thoughtful and artfully crafted. Risky, said others. Other still said the film was racist. When it failed to show at the box office as intended, recriminations poured in. “This is proof that America is racist,” said some. But in the face of electing the first African-American President ever by a large margin, that argument never rang true.

Having just watched it this evening, it would be impossible not to fall in love with these characters. Princess Tiana is as engaging a young girl as many Disney ever produced. Sure, she’s eclipsed by some other Disney Princesses, but that’s not because of her. Indeed, race is not the issue here. The issue here is that this film is dark.

It would be hard to argue that to a young person’s mind anything was scarier than the 1937 Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She’s followed up by the witch in Sleeping Beauty and the evil stepmother in Cinderella. They all have evil in common. But their scariness is limited. Their background music, their magical powers, all serve the purpose of painting them as someone to be feared. The thing is, in every one of those films, evil is limited and the underlying theme is that it can be defeated. Even at its darkest, shadowiest moments, there is a fight between good and evil and it is clear in those stories that good can win.

Dr. Facilier in Princess and the Frog is not nearly as engaging a character. True, he has a great voice and his facial expressions are just right. But his body-type, thin and lanky, languid and dancer-like, make him more menacing, more dangerous. He lingers in the shadows and is called “the Shadow Man” by those that know him on the Bayou. His minions are shadowy ghostly figures that crawl by night and make groaning, ghostly sounds. This is The Haunted Mansion, another unacceptably frightening film, on steroids and it’s no wonder kids don’t like it. My daughter didn’t.

She loved Louis the trumpet playing Gator and he is a fine suspension of disbelief. Raymond the lightning bug is even more fun, more dialect driven with his Cajun accent and his love for “Evangeline,” the night sky star that draws him each sundown. But his death at the hands of Facilier and the ensuing funeral, even though it ends with the metaphor of Raymond appearing next to Evangeline in the sky, is too haunting for young minds.

Children don’t really understand death and for the most part, they believe that those who die can, in some way, return. They find it hard to process that information and even though Facilier meets a just and timely end, it’s a frightening scene in which he is taken into a tomb by the very demons that he uses to harm others. Even though he’s gone, the shadows still lurk and continue to cause harm, the damage they’ve done is permanent and it has a direct effect on the characters for whom loss is real.

My nearly nine-year old daughter wasn’t thinking these things, of course. But any parent recognizes the lasting effect of metaphor and imagery. Conscious or unconscious, film in this visually motivated generation will have lasting effects on memory. When she first saw the demon shadows come into the story, she immediately left the floor where she was sitting and curled up next to mom. This was frightening, uncomfortably so.

If Disney is really wondering why the Frog didn’t deliver, they need look no further than this truth-most parents concerning themselves with their children’s viewing habits will make decisions clearly based on how frightening a film is. The three aforementioned Disney Princess films and others, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, none of them had such terrifying villains whose powers never faded. Even Mermaid’s Ursula was comic in her villainy. The scenes in Beauty and the Beast where the Beast is introduced are powerful and even a bit scary, yes-but once the audience is introduced to him, he becomes a sympathetic character. As for the evil queen, the witch and the step-mother, all have their menacing traits, but none of them are so menacing that they are lasting in their treachery.

With this newest jewel in Disney’s Princess crown however, there is a dark shadow cast by Dr. Facilier and his shadowy minions. These are unrelentingly frightening characters and children don’t need that at any age. If Disney doesn’t understand that, they’ve missed the mark on what parents want for their children.

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36 Responses to The Problem with the Princess and the Frog

  1. oh amanda says:

    This is why we haven’t seen it yet. Oh, my 4yo LOVES Princess Tiana…but only what she’s seen at The Disney Store. My husband actually just bought the DVD so we could watch it before her. But after reading your review, I think we definitely won’t be showing it to her!

    I wish we’d let kids be kids.

  2. Tim W. says:

    That’s a very interesting analysis of the film, Mark. As a single adult without children, I never thought about how those scenes might frighten or even terrify children.

    This makes me wonder how Disney previews/screens a film before it’s release. Do they show the film to a population of people young and old to see how it will be accepted and build in time for re-writing, or do they just accept the story as is and take their chances that it will be accepted by the public?

  3. Kurt Miller says:

    A spoiler alert would’ve been nice…

  4. angi says:

    Let me tell you my 10year old daughters reaction. She LOVED the movie and saw the truth that those who work evil will by that same evil be destroyed. I think the themes of hard work (Tiana didn’t expect a gov’t bailout), love and consequences of behavior are themes children NEED to see. I think each parent should watch the movie and decide if they think their children can handle it. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to young children, but, if they’ve seen Pirates of the Caribbean, I think they could handle it. Maybe talk with them about potentially tense scenes beforehand.

  5. Adam says:

    I must respectfully disagree. The canon of great Disney films is full of elements that could be considered dark or frightening – from the first ever animated film, Snow White, and its talk of poisoned apples and evil witches crushing girls with boulders, to Chernabog’s demons and dancing nude women in Fantasia, to stabbings and talk of asylums in Beauty and the Beast, or a father dying onscreen and an uncle trying to kill his nephew in the Lion King. All of these films are considered Disney icons and great films by critics and parents alike, despite (or because of) these elements. Then you’ve got even rides at Disneyland, like the stabbed skeletons in Pirates and pretty much the entire Haunted Mansion. Walt Disney did not talk down to children – he said this himself. Instead, I think he tried to keep things clean things friendly and fantastical enough that children could watch, but at the same time, he tried to deal with issues that take place in the real world, and use their depictions to help children grow and learn about these issues a little bit, while being interesting and emotionally/intellectually appealing to adults . The idea that Disney must pander down to the youngest children is one that could put the brand at risk of seeming irrelevant to anyone over 10. I think the Princess and the Frog was quite refreshing, and continued the long tradition of maintaining just the right balance of magic and menace.

  6. Donald says:

    I agree with the article written. This was the first Disney “Princess” movie that made my little girls hide their eyes from being scared. I liked the movie personally and I am sure they will like it as they get older, but my girls are not clamoring for any items related to the story at this point. Trust me, this is rare. The characters were good, the music was good as well, but the movie is not on the same level as Little Mermaid, Cinderella, or Snow White. And in my opinion, many of those do not even belong on the same shelf as Beauty and the Beast.

  7. darren72 says:

    I agree the Princess and the Frog had some problems but not those mentioned in this review.

  8. Robert says:

    I disagree with the argument that the film failed to perform because the villain is too menacing. Yes there are scenes that would frighten a 4 year old, but I don’t believe this film was made for such young ones. The same holds true for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

    Snow White’s escape into the dark forest, the evil queen’s transformation into the old witch, and then the climatic scene as the dwarfs chase her to her death off the rock cliff. This is scary stuff. Walt Disney didn’t make Snow White for preschoolers. It was meant for an older crowd. The 1937 audience at the Carthay Circle Theatre premiere wasn’t made up of toddlers, it was packed with adults.

    So the issue with The Princess and the Frog not selling as many tickets as the studio had hoped for lies in the usual place–the story.

    Ariel’s dream was to be part of Prince Eric’s world. Jasmine wanted to marry for love. Snow White was waiting for her prince. No matter the time or place, it’s hard to top True Love when it comes to an emotionally-charged motivation.

    Tiana’s dream was different, one that would have made her father proud. She set off to follow her bliss, to achieve financial success as a restaurant owner in a time when such a thing was anything but the norm. Along the way she just happens to find love. A good story, just different from the normal princess tale and thus feeling a little less magical.

    The Princess and the Frog is a fine film with an excellent villain. And like most of the Disney princess films before it, it’s not meant for 4 year olds–although the marketing department I’m sure does not want to hear such things.

  9. Kelly says:

    I was terrified of Maleficent (the “witch” in Sleeping Beauty) when I was a little girl. Saying that kids wouldn’t be afraid of those movies but are of Princess and the Frog, well, it just doesn’t work for me.

    Disney movies have always involved death (Mufasa dying because of a plot his Uncle concocted?) and evil characters. Learning that evil can be overcome if you just believe and are a good person is an overlying theme of almost every Disney movie ever created. Princess and the Frog is no exception.

  10. Anonymouse says:

    I have to disagree because the theory is all wrong. How does someone get scared unless they actually WENT to the movie? And that’s the problem. Nobody cared enough to buy a ticket so scary or not, the failure is a lack interest. In fact, based on ads you couldnt tell it was scary at all.

    Now as for the racism part. It shouldn’t be dismissed that easily because it’s very close to what’s wrong. People aren’t being “Racist” necessarily, but they are being “PLACIST”. Even if you put a white heroine in there it would fail because New Orleans and that accent are not very appealing even to Americans, let alone the rest of the world. It’s a tough accent to listen to and as you add more characters it got worse.

  11. Matt S. says:

    I agree with Adam. Are you kidding? Ursula was stabbed in the mid-section with a boat. Gaston fell to his death, much like Muntz in Up. I could think of many more examples. What really worries me about your critique is this line: “These are unrelentingly frightening characters and children don’t need that at any age.” At any age? The world is full of much scarier things, and children need to learn that at some point. If some parents want to shelter their children, that’s their decision, but I certainly don’t endorse that.

  12. Wholeheartedly disagree. Facilier, with his desperate pleading and bargaining hardly comes off as a more unrelenting evil power than his Disney villain forebearers. I don’t think Disney has EVER had a more firghtening villain moment than when the Old Hag is Snow White is first revealed, leering and cackling right out at the audience. Certainly Maleficent and Ursula are far more frightening too.

    And you know what? A lot of kids, deep down, enjoy the movie all the more for the feelings of fear it gives them. Confronting terror in a movie is a great way to get used to scary things. Suggesting that the evil in Princess in the Frog is bad for kids or worse than the long history of dark Disney baddies is laughable to anyone with a passing familiarity with the movies.

  13. Joe says:

    This premise is faulty. Parents–including the author of this article–didn’t choose to see or not see the movie based upon its “scary” content. There were many other reasons they didn’t see it, but this is not one of them.

    “The Princess and the Frog” failed because it was marketed poorly: from its title, to a reliance on a girl’s toy brand, to the release date. (Aside, although I like the film, it’s also not nearly as good a movie as some critics smitten with the return to hand-drawn animation make it out to be. It’s good, but it’s not Second Golden Age great.)

    DISNEY PRINCESS TM
    It was marketed as a “princess movie.” So, those with little girls heard about it, but few others. And they probably thought it was just another direct-to-DVD “Disney Princess” cheapo from Disney Consumer Products. Who could tell the difference after a decade of “Disney PrincessTM” branding? It has been written elsewhere that Disney realized this in the weeks before the films release but by then a few new commercials were too little/too late to change the public perception–if they even had one–of the film.

    POOR TITLE
    The title stinks. Hitchcock–one of the best filmmakers of all time–had a preference for short titles. Indeed, he preferred one word titles. And his films were huge hits. Disney should have kept that in mind, perhaps calling it the original title “The Frog Princess” (or better yet, something else without the word Princess at all). If I said the mouthful, “I’m going to see ‘The Princess and the Frog,’” to someone, half the time my statement was returned with a blank stare.

    RELEASE DATE
    The film should have been released on Thanksgiving where Disney has done well in the past. This would have given Disney some time between this movie, Avatar and even The Chipmunks 2. Instead, Disney was worried about keeping A Christmas Carol in theaters and decided to launch Old Dogs on Thanksgiving instead. What did Disney get? Two under-performing films, and one outright bomb. There was no room for Frog to breakthrough.

    SCARY, REALLY?
    Even if–as the author asserts–we need to shield our children from all that is scary, who in the audience knew it was scary before making their choice? Very few. I bet far more were forced into this decision: do I go to Frog and make my 4-year old girl happy? Or to Chipmunks and make my sons and daughter happy? Or do I go to (the extremely violent and scary) Avatar and make me (and my kids) happy? Hmmm. Where to spend my money?

    I watched the special on ABC that ran to promote The Princess and the Frog in December. In it, Sigourney Weaver goes on about how scared she was when seeing the Queen in Snow White; hiding her eyes, and crawling into her parents seat in the theater (I’m paraphrasing,but that’s the gist of it). But you know what, she then went on to say how she relished that movie–scary queen and all. She was happy that it all ended happily ever after. I just don’t buy “children don’t need that [scariness] at any age.”

  14. Mark Storer says:

    Thank you all for your comments. You make good points that I didn’t consider. I stand by my original thought that the ghostlike shadows are a bit much. But your comments have me rethinking.

    I appreciate you reading the piece.

    Mark Storer

  15. Admiral Duke says:

    The Shadow’s are actually an element I hadn’t given too much thought to. They reminded me of the Shadow thingy’s from the Patrick Swayze film Ghost, but I see your point that they represent an unresolved evil that can seem daunting to small minds, but in the real world there are actual real life unresolved evils that they will encounter in their lifetimes.Personally, I can think of no better way for children to become aware of them than through the careful hands of the folks at Disney. I think Joe’s comment really got to the heart of the issue if not to the exact point. The reason Princess & the From did not do well in theaters can be summed up in one word; AVATAR. It is now the highest grossing film of all time. It is a juggernaut that Disney didn’t see coming. That’s it, and that’s all. In this unending bad economy money is still tight and the dollars to spend on family entertainment are quite limited… And if you were a human being with a pulse in December and January you were probably spending those dollars on AVATAR. Yes P&F is darker in some aspects but overall I think it stands head and shoulders above Disney’s most recent entries in traditional animation and right there with Disney’s other entries into the Princess genre. Even with the controversy surrounding the film, it simply could not beat the Blockbuster Buzz of AVATAR. If you want a real test of the success of Princess and the Frog go to the Disney Store or the toy aisle at Walmart, or better yet, go to Toy’s R Us. You will see little girls begging Mommy and Daddy for all things Princess & the Frog while AVATAR toys languish, covered in dust, adorned with multiple clearance tags. Princess & the Frog will make a killing where Disney ALWAYS makes a killing. In merchandise and DVD sales.

  16. JayMonster says:

    Add me to the list of people that don’t think it had to do with Disney brining the scary. Heck you had a river of death in Hercules and actually watched the hero deteriorating before your eyes. (Granted the “minions” weren’t all that scary).

    Actually, let me clarify, I don’t think it was the ONLY reason… though there are certainly some people that would stay away for that reason.

    Whether you want to accept racism or not, it is out there, and there is a segment of people (just look at the protests that happened over the weekend with healthcare) that are in fact racist.

    Some (and I am surprised nobody brought this up before) associate Voo Doo with Evil (Satanism, Devils worship, whatever) and will not go to a film that is “against their religion.”

    Add in people that don’t like or get NOLA accents, and some other things I am sure I am not thinking of, and well, you have a whole lot of little groups becoming a large mass of “not going to see.”

    Finally, I thought the timing for release was poor, and the ad campaign less than stellar,and well… you have what you have.

    What will be interesting to see (I think) is if this will build over time and will Tiana and company eventually just build itself an audience and fandom of its own.

  17. Chris says:

    I don’t think it was that scary. For me, it goes back to Tiana. She appears (as herself), in less than 50% of the film. Isn’t it odd that the main character, the first new princess in years, is a frog for the majority of the movie? It just wasn’t a good story for Disney IMO.

  18. Kate says:

    I just wanted to applaud your article. I was really enjoying the film and would have purchased it on DVD all the way up until the moment that the lightning bug was killed. I found it unnecessary, gratuitous, and an amateur move by the writers to try and force an emotional response from the audience that was inappropriate to the story they were trying to tell.

    The body counts in Disney cartoons have gotten out of hand. I can’t even count how many characters died in Brother Bear. It got to be a joke. It was what turned me off from Disney cartoons, and I was a lifelong fan. I feel like there is someone in the Disney writers room that really loved that moment in Bambi when his mom was killed and has tried to stick it in almost every “serious” cartoon since the Lion King, not understanding that there is a time and place for that message and sticking it in at the end of a film right before the big happy wedding scene is flat out poor storytelling.

    I don’t know why the rest of the world didn’t see it or buy the DVD, but that’s the reason why I told people not to see the film.

  19. Shelly Smith says:

    We saw the film in the theater, darkness and all. The 3 or 4-year-old girl next to us was delighted, as were all the children in the (full) theater.

    Disney movies have always had scary moments. How can we be happy for the protagonist in the end if we don’t feel that the villain is an actual threat? (Exception: So Dear to My Heart).

    Maybe your daughter is one of those kids who are very sensitive to certain things. That’s not at all a bad thing. I’m willing to bet she’s more compassionate than her classmates as well – the two often go hand-in-hand.

    I actually thought it was good that they didn’t bring Ray back. It made his sacrifice more touching. Tears are also part of the Disney magic – just like it says in “it’s a small world”. It also made “Evangeline” more real.

    I’m really sad that the film didn’t do better. But it’s not Disney’s only box office disappointment that later would be regarded as a classic.

  20. A very interesting discussion in comments re: why The Princess & The Frog did not make box office magic. http://bit.ly/cd1r1S

  21. RT @TheDisneyBlog: very interesting discussion in comments re: why The Princess & The Frog didn't make box office magic http://bit.ly/cd1r1S

  22. J says:

    First Thought.
    This is just a sign of the times and parents trying to shield their kids at a young age. Alice in Wonderland had scarier more gruesome moments then The Princess and the Frog and it is a hit. Sure it’s not an animated film, but why must all animated films be cookie cutter rainbows and butterflies. Dr. Facilier was not in any way as scary as Chernebog(the devil and his ghost minions and ghouls he brought up from the underground), Maleficent (and all the forces of hell, a fire breathing dragon, surround by the fires of hell), I could go on and list more individual villains but what’s the point. This isn’t about the scary themes, this isn’t about the character in question, this is about Parents of today trying to shield their kids from anything that could potentially harm them.

    Second Thought.
    I’m starting to get tired of people picking and prodding at why this movie didn’t do well. At the end of the day there are probably several reasons, but it’s over, let disney figure this stuff out and let’s just hope that the future of releases will overcome the slump that disney is in and will be successful. I have my own theories like we all do, but it’s done, the movie isn’t about to get a re-release, so if we like it then let’s go out and buy the dvd or bluray, let’s just show we care and support it. Maybe this will turn into the little mermaid and over time turn into a success. But enough of the over analyzing.

  23. Carriek says:

    My 5 year old was not scared at all. Maleficent & the Snow Queen on the other hand, still scare the bejeezus out of her. So, to each their own.

    We also loved the movie, Tiana is quickly surpassing Cinderella as my daughter’s favorite princess. She also now wants to grow up to be a chef, with her own restaurant – at Disney World of course. :)

  24. Aubrie says:

    I absolutely LOVED Princess and the Frog. Then again, I’m 20 with no kids, so the darkness never bothered me.

    But it made me very happy to see, for the first time, a Princess character who works hard and doesn’t want to just meet a prince and live happily ever after. Double points for having a prince with an actual personality! Unlike those other generic handsome charming dudes, I can actually remember his name.

  25. anon says:

    I hate to be blunt, but all this review is saying to me is “don’t see this movie if you have wussy kids”.

  26. chris says:

    My seven-year old is one of those kinds of kids who will not see a movie that is scary, but he loved Princess and the Frog. I’m going to go with the conventional wisdom on this one and agree that the word “princess” turned a lot of parents of boys off, not to mention parents of girls who were sick and tired of princesses (I’ve heard those exist). I’m always disappointed to hear that parents don’t introduce their boys to classic Disney films because they’re “for girls.” Cinderella comes to mind. Here’s a film with tons of slapstick and silly stuff that boys love, but the minimal princess treatment gets all the attention.

    I thought it was a beautiful movie. I hated that Raymond died–he was one of the best characters. I cringed when Tiana and her mother moved to the back of the trolley as it went downtown, but applauded them for giving us some reality from that time. And I thought that the princess theme was really one of the lessor elements of the film.

  27. allyn says:

    i completely agree. dr. facilier was way over-the-top scary and my 6yo daughter spent all of the scenese when he appeared in mom’s lap. i think the film would have been just as good and a lot more pleasant for the young ones if those scenes had been toned down.

  28. Gary kalow says:

    I really didn’t see the shadowman as one of the most evil villans. Honestly, if someone can hande the judge from hunchback, who was even more evol by thinking he was good, the the dr here is a cake walk!

  29. Dan says:

    I don’t think the film being too dark is the problem here. It’s the weak storyline and mediocre songs/score that hampered the film from being truly spectacular.

  30. Chris says:

    A couple of counter points to make:

    1) Snow White is a scary movie. Maleficent is evil. Don’t disrespect the villains (or derogate or deride). They are evil to the core. Dr. Facilier is not a new evil, he’s as evil as the witch from Snow White.

    2) Kids need to know that evil exists, that evil is bad and that Good will always triumph. If the kids are scared of the bad guy – good! Encourage that. Bad guys are not to be emulated.

    The Princess and the Frog may not be up to par with the movies of my childhood but it’s not because the movie is dark.

    If you haven’t seen the movie yet, what are you waiting for? If you’ve got young kids, they may not enjoy the scary parts, but that rings true of most Disney movies. I babysat a two year old who got scared when we watched Aladdin. If your kids are older and don’t like the movie, that’s fine, they don’t have to. But don’t make a general assumption based on a specific response.

  31. Paul says:

    From my perspective my 4 year old and 6 year old love the movie. They understand that the shadows are bad and so is the Shadow Man. They ask questions and I answer. They also think its neat that Ray and Evangaline are together at the end as well. I personally was more concerned about Gaston stabbing the beast with a knife (rather graphically) or seeing Ursula impaled on the bow of a ship than I was about the shadows. I don’t think Princess and the Frog is that bad for my kids, and we are on the marathon of how many times it can be watched in a week at my house. :-)

  32. andy holden says:

    Good article, but like others I have to disagree although I see your point

    Personally I can’t believe we’re talking darkness and disney but nobody has yet mentioned the darkest one of all: pinocchio.

    Children been transformed into donkeys and carted away into enslavement by shadowy figures and a volatile,cruel and violent villain in Stromboli aren’t as dark or scary as PATF? Really? Those things still scare me as a twentysomething let alone a young child let not only was it a financial success but a beloved film that can be argued as Walt’s greatest film.

    For modern examples you need look no further than coraline, a children’s story that did well both on the page and on the screen but is exceptionally dark (dead children with buttons for eyes anyone?)children inherently like to be scared;look at timeless tales through such as grimm fairy tales for instance.

    Just my two cents ;-)

  33. Barbara says:

    My 4 year old step-brother thought Facilier was “scary”, but he just wanted to protect my mom from the bad shadows. I don’t see how Facilier’s death is any scarier than Scar being ripped to shreds by hyenas at the end of The Lion King (Coincidentally, again being brought low by the minions). It under-performed for a lot of reasons but it’s a fantastic movie and a shining addition to the Disney library.

    And Maleficent is a (dark)fairy not a witch!

  34. Brian says:

    My daughters love the movie. They saw it in the theater, and since we got the DVD they have selected it for viewing more than a few times (while having our entire Disney library to choose from). It must depend on the children, I suppose. We would never force them to watch something like this, but we do give them the choice.

  35. Ceronomus says:

    While well written, this article strikes me as more over-protective parenting.

  36. Crystal says:

    I do agree with you and how this movie in particularly can scare children of the younger age, but it doesn’t scare all children. I believe that is how ideas of fearing something is brought to the minds of children. I believe that in fact it is how parents make the children believing what is scary is. My five year old saw the movie and loved it and didn’t find it to be scary, but that because we’ve taught him not to fear things, but to take control of his fears.

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