Saturday, 16 January 2010

The Princess, the Frog, and the Mixed Message

Last month I, like many 20-somethings attempting to reclaim some Rosebudian piece of their childhood, saw Disney's The Princess and the Frog. This was it: the return to animated glory, to the days of The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and, hell, I'll even throw in The Return of Jafar because I always had a soft spot in my heart for that sequel.

(Be warned, this blog is not above spoilers)

I must say I liked it. It was cute, fun, and felt much stronger and classic than anything else that has come from Disney animation (Pixar excepted, of course) in the past decade and a half. The Shadow Man was a bad-ass villain, I was impressed at the choice to off the comic relief, and Tiana was a far cry from the man-obsessed, whiny bitches like Snow White or Ariel (coming soon: "Why all Disney characters are whiny bitches"). She was independent, career-minded, and did not want to get around in life by wishing on stars or flowers or teapots or whatever it is every other princess feels the uncontrollable urge to wish upon instead of just getting of her ass and doing her own dirty work.

Then I made the mistake of going to Disney World. Don't get me wrong; I love everything about Disney World (well, except Epcot). I love the forced kindness from the "cast members." I love that people can walk around with Donald Duck's rear or Goofy's mouth on their heads without fact, they’re almost expected to look so asinine. I love the angry lesbians who are always in charge of crowd control when characters come out to sign autographs. But my sojourn to the second happiest place on earth (first being my local Chevy's) also reminded me what Disney is all about: wishes. Tiana (the Princess half of The Princess and the Frog) may say that wishing on a star is not what you need. She may try to convince little girls all you need to prosper in life and get that great art deco restaurant is a lot of hard work, some delicious southern cooking, a manic, overweight rich white friend, and a lot of hard work, but she's lying through her teeth.

Yes, I will admit Tiana is more of a busy bee than most Disney princesses. Aurora sings and sleeps her way through her film, and Cinderella only really does any domestic labor because she's forced to, and even then she mostly outsources to various mammalia rodentia. Tiana saves like a miser, works 20 hour shifts at most dining establishments in New Orleans, and has thrown her biological clock out the window all to get her dream restaurant.

But none of that makes a bit of difference.

When the real action of the movie begins, Tiana has just learned that years of toiling have gotten her nowhere. Her dream building for her dream restaurant will remain just a dream and her money just isn't enough to become Paula-Dean-before-Paula-Dean.

And so she wishes on a star.

Enter the Frog Prince. She kisses him, has many lovely adventures, falls in love with him, and then, voila, she eventually gets her restaurant! With money she got from her wonderful prince. Not money she saved up. In fact, she probably could have spent that money on a good bunch of Hurricanes and Mardis Gras beads and gone out with every Tom, Dick, and Charming in the town and as long as she seduced that prince, she still would have gotten her dream fulfilled (come to think of it, she could've sold out to Shadow Man and gotten it, so many ways to skin a catfish that rely much more on magic and wishes than on hard work).

Now, you could argue that Tiana's sedulous nature that she built up over the years of her ascetic lifestyle was what got her and her prince through their ordeal so she could eventually get her dreams. However, that wasn't enough. She needed the wish. She needed the star to give her her prince. Snow White or Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty wouldn't have gotten their man if they were butt-ugly. Hell, Ariel couldn't get laid until she could talk. Tiana may need her work ethic, but it ultimately becomes just an accessory to the main catalyst: the wish.

Of course, this situation is in a way indicative of every fictional plot. No matter how industrious or good a character is, no matter how much she saves up or brushes her teeth, she has no control over her fate. Or his fate. The star, the godlike figure, the writer has to grant his or her wish regardless of how talented or untalented he or she is. In fact, Tiana's tenacious hold on her aspirations is really just as much a gift of fate as any deus ex machina that could be devised. She was not naturally a hard worker. She got that when the screenwriter was laying down the script; possibly the same moment he or she decided that Tiana would be saved by cosmic intervention. All magic could be extirpated from this movie and she would still have as little credit for the ultimate outcome and her inevitable prosperity as she has now or as any Disney princess has ever had. Well, unless we changed this movie to Darren Aronofsky's The Princess and the Frog.

So, I suppose this leaves us in a bit of a pickle. I started this first blog entry hoping to denounce Disney for using the illusion of "keeping one's nose to the grindstone" to mask its stereotypical reliance on magic, fate, love, and everything that a most people never really attain in life. But I may have just condemned most Hollywood cinema as equally flawed.

I refuse it! Damn metafiction! Rick Blaine deserves more pats on the back than Briar Rose ever will. So I'll wrap up with this line.

All movies are Disney movies. But some movies are more Disney movies than others.

Tiana and the Princess and the Frog may be taking a baby step away from the Jiminy Cricket and his doctrine, but in the end, I can still see them suckling at the teat of the Blue Fairy and hoping for a miracle, as much as Disney may want to deny it.

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