Hello you all. Some of you might have wondered what happened to fairy tale month and if this blog is dead altogether. As you can see, it isn’t. But I have to apologize: this is not what I had planned for this year. My intention was to tackle Snow White. The first article was nearly completely written but I had a little accident. Nothing bad I just slipped, but during the fall I hit and overstrained my finger and, well, let’s just say I now know exactly how often I actually use this particular finger. Especially during typing.
So I was kind of limited and I just wasn’t confident if I would manage to write at least three, maybe four article in time. In the end, I changed my plans. Snow White will be up next year, and this year I’ll go into the The Frog Prince (btw, technically the correct translation of the German title is The Frog King) in one big article. Mostly because there really is only one Frog Prince adaptation I intend to discuss.
See, The Frog Prince isn’t really a fairy tale suited for adaptation. The story goes like this: The golden ball of a princess falls into a well, a frog demands all kind of promises to retrieve it, the princess agrees but then runs away believing that the frog won’t be able to follow anyway, the frog turns up at the castle, the king insists that the princess fulfils her promise, she finally snaps when he has to share her bed with the frog, smashes him against the wall, he turns into a prince/young king and they live happily ever after.
I think you already see the problem. Not only is the story fairly short overall, it also makes little sense. Why exactly does the princess get rewarded for her behaviour? It goes against every fairy tale convention and I suspect the one reason why the story is popular at all are the memorable verses which are part of it.
And no, I have no idea how public perception moved from “smashing the frog against a wall” to kissing it. But then, it is not unusual that the solution from Sleeping Beauty is bleeding into other fairy tales. But usually you can pinpoint the change to a specific adaptation. In the case of The Frog Prince, the idea of kissing the frog is already referenced in literature before there is an official version or adaptation which features the change. So I am kind of at a loss there when or how exactly this particularly shift happened.
In any case, though, you can imagine that most adaptations don’t really follow this story at all. The only one which kind of does is the 1988 adaptation, which had the frankly brilliant idea of telling the story as it is, but when the prince becomes human he says that the curse on him is not broken yet, because the princess didn’t fulfil her promises, and then the princess spends the second half of the movie correcting her mistake. It is actually a pretty fun take. The only reason it didn’t get an article of its own is because while I like the character of the princess overall, the movie doesn’t really provide a good reasoning for why she is suddenly madly in love with the prince. But I still think that it has the best angle to make a close adaptation which works.
Now, Disney didn’t really opt for a close adaptation. In fact, it didn’t even adapt the fairy tale at all, instead if adapted a book based on it but pretty much the only aspect of the book which was left in the movie was the notion of the princess being turned into a frog after the kiss. Anything else is all Disney. And the result is, well, kind of messy.
But I am not here today to discuss the flaws of The Princess and the Frog. Maybe one day I’ll tackle the soundtrack on my other blog, or analyse it in another context. Today I’ll focus on Tiana alone.
I have to admit I had a hard time with Tiana in the beginning. Of all the princesses, she was from the get go the most controversial. Everything, from her name to her job was subject to scrutiny. But that wasn’t even what kind of put me off. No, it was her design. There is something stiff and closed off about her. Which, I guess, it kind of the point, she is supposed to be someone completely focussed on her work and her goals and her loosening up is a major plot point. But if you start out with a closed off character, it takes longer for the audience to related to it.
At one point, I saw concept art of Tiana, and, well, to this day I am kind of disappointed that the end result of her design and story wasn’t closer to the first concepts. In this picture, she is immediately likable. The curly hair, the pants, the way she is sitting there, everything about this screams: Modern woman with a positive outlook on the world. Just looking at the picture, I really want to get to know this girl. I never got that kind of vibe from the version of Tiana the animators eventually came up with. She felt very distant to me.
To be clear here, I am not saying all this to demean Tiana in any way, quite the opposite. Because even though have problems with the plot of the movie and was disappointed that they didn’t went in another direction with the character, I still think that Tiana is at the end of the day a well rounded heroine which deserves every bit of praise I will now heap on her. Even if I will have to point out a few narrative problems, remember that those are more related to the overall plot of the movie than the character.
Speaking of which, the most defining aspects of Tiana’s character are her ambitions, her love for cooking and her work ethics. The Princess and the Frog saw it fit to “clarify” the whole “wish upon a star” concept Disney is built on, emphasising that you still need to work towards your goals to eventually get a lucky break. It wasn’t really an explanation I needed, since I always interpreted the concept of wishing upon a star as holding onto hope and believing in yourself, but that doesn’t mean that I am opposed to a protagonist working towards a clearly defined goal. While I think that Tiana’s work/live balance is way, waaaaaay off, it is practically impossible not to admire her dedication towards fulfilling her dream, no matter the odds. Even if she blows off her friends once in a while to do so.
This is in a way a pretty common story: The career woman who needs to discover again what is truly important in life is one of the more annoying plot lines. Mostly because the narrative tend to be very different if the story features a male character. But I have to give Disney credit there: While the lesson Tiana has to learn is to see past her goals, there is never a demand that she should give up on them. In the end, she finds a partner ready to share her dream with her and supporting her along the way. Which is a beautiful story. Well, or it would be if I liked Naveen more.
As I mentioned beforehand, the movie has a few structural problems. Naveen is one of them. Once he falls under Facilier’s spell, his goal is to kiss a princess to become human again, and then (reluctantly) marry Lottie to get to her money. His big act of sacrifice towards the end is to kiss Lottie to become human again and marry her to get to her money, part of which Lottie is supposed to give to Tiana so that she can get her restaurant. See the problem there? There is no sacrifice on Naveen’s part, though, he now also sparing a thought for Tiana. But not Lottie. To be clear here: Naveen intending to use a woman for his own gain isn’t in any way less morally questionable because he is now using Lottie’s childish notions of marrying a prince, instead of trying to screw Tiana over by promising her money he doesn’t have.
And, to get the other big structural problem out of the way: Facilier is another one. Ideally the villain of a movie should in some way reflect the protagonist. But Facilier is more focussed on Naveen than Tiana. Thematically one could argue that Facilier is a dark reflection of Tiana’s ambition, since he is ready to do whatever possible to get what he wants, which Tiana has a sound moral compass and only gets punished for one moment of weakness. But it that was the intention of the writers, the theme gets lost in the overcomplicated plot of the movie. Plus Tiana’s moment of weakness is kind of, well, odd? I mean, yes, Tiana is tempted by the money she is offered, but it is not like there is something questionable about kissing a frog, or taking advantage of an opportunity. It’s not like the kiss would hurt anyone after all.
Speaking of the kiss, that is actually something which goes right against Disney lore. I mean, yes, they have subverted the notion of a true loves kiss pretty much since The Little Mermaid, but the way they do it here goes right against the “every girl can be a princess” philosophy. Apparently they can’t, unless the marry the right guy. And yes, I know that outside of Mulan and maybe Pocahontas all the other females in the Disney Princess line-up either are princesses or married to some sort of prince, but with none of them it boiled down to “if you aren’t marrying the right guy to become a princess you’ll spend the rest of your life as a frog”.
But structural problems aside, there is a lot about Tiana’s character which works. For starters her relationship with her parents. There is naturally her father who inspired her big dream, but I also like how Eudora is portrayed. I wish she had a bigger role in the movie, especially since Disney lacks healthie mother/daughter relationships overall, but the screentime she gets is spot on. Eudora feels real in that she not some additional hurdle for Tiana to overcome, nor does she fall into the other extreme of being some sort of relentless cheerleader of Tiana either. She cautions her daughter because she doesn’t want Tiana to hang her hopes too high, knowing that the disappointment will crush her even harder.
Tiana’s belief in her dream is easily the most relatable part of her character. Especially since her dream isn’t based on wanting fame or money, but on succeeding with a craft she enjoys and for which she has considerable talent. There is always something beautiful in seeing someone so dedicated to a specific craft, and something uplifting in seeing someone succeed in it against all odds. And there is a long list of things which work against Tiana: The fact that her parents are too poor to give her a “lift up” so to speak, the vaguely alluded to racism in the society she is living in and the fact that she is a woman. Small reminder: High Cuisine is to this day a field which is mainly dominated by men, and Tiana wanting to be a business owner back in a period in which woman still were supposed to seek out a favourable marriage goes completely against all social conventions.
Speaking of marriage, for all the problems I have with Naveen, there are a few aspects of their relationships I have to give Disney credit for – and a few I feel iffy about. Let’s examine the cutting mushrooms scene. I don’t really like it when it initially happens, because they play through the typical female/male dynamic of the male one acting incompetent and the female doing the work for him. I like it towards the end of the movie when they show Naveen having acquired the same skill-set eventually. Frankly, pretty much everything I like about the relationship between Tiana and Naveen happens in the last minutes of the movie. Because there he is shown as a partner ready to support Tiana in everything she does, while also having found a place in the world where he can shine with his particular skill-set.
In general, all the more traditional romantic moments in this movie don’t really work for me. I guess partly because I just can’t get over the fact that I see two frogs dancing over the screen under the light which is literally shining from someone’s butt, but mostly because those moments don’t really feel earned when they happen. What works though are the moments of Tiana talking about her dreams and Naveen developing admirations for her character. And it’s through his eyes that I finally was able to look past the barriers the character build around herself and truly see her passion and the love she puts into her craft. And maybe, those are the best kind of female characters, those which have edges and habits which make them hard to like, but who still win you over eventually. Those whose bravery is more about facing down mundane challenges than seeking adventures elsewhere (at least until they accidentally turn themselves into frogs).
Quote: “My Daddy never did get what he wanted. But he had what he needed. He had love. He never lost sight o’ what was really important. […] And neither will I.”
All in all I think everyone should watch The Princess and the Frog at least once. It is a flawed movie, but then, even a flawed Disney movie is usually worth a watch. If nothing else, the animation is energetic with it’s Voodoo flair and Tiana is certainly one of the better animated female leads. And should you really be into jazz music, you might like the soundtrack too.
And thus ends a year of pretty much not posting here. I am not sure how many articles I will manage to write the upcoming year, though I have still some ideas in my head I eventually want to hammer into my keyboard. If nothing else, I’ll tackle Snow White next December. Until then, I hope your Christmas was as nice as mine was, and that you’ll have a great start in the next year. Hopefully the world will finally change direction towards a more positive future.