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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.