The Progression of the Disney Princesses to The Princess and the Frog’s Modern Heroine: Tiana
Disney started out as a small cartoon studio in the 1920’s and eventually worked its way up to the huge global corporation that it is today. Now, the world recognizes Disney as a family entertainment powerhouse and the undisputed creator of some of the best animated childhood classics. Who doesn’t know the stories of Cinderella, Bambi, Pinocchio, Pocahontas, and Peter Pan? But the one to start it all was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937, the first animated feature in movie history and also the first of a long line of Disney princess movies that would prove to successfully entertain and enchant children, especially young girls, with tales of true love and happily ever after. According to the Disney website, the official Disney Princess roster consists of a total of ten heroines at the moment: Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959), Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1989), Belle from Beauty and the Beast (1991), Jasmine from Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas, Mulan, and the two most recent additions: Tiana from The Princess and the Frog (2009), and Rapunzel from Tangled (2010). Although, to get technical not all of these movie characters truly fall under the category of royalty. The princess title can be questioned when considering the characters of Pocahontas and Mulan neither of whom actually hold the title of princess through either a bloodline or an eventual marriage to a prince. Nonetheless, those are the heroines that Disney has deemed worthy of their official princess christening and are the characters that inspire their own line of merchandise, from bed sheets to Halloween costumes and of course a limitless number of toys and dolls for little girls to desire to their hearts content.
The earlier Disney princess movies generally consisted of the heroines being introduced, eventually stumbling into trouble of some sort, and then being rescued by the heroic Prince Charming character. The happy couple was then married and they of course lived happily ever after until the end of their days. This is seen in the movies featuring Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, and somewhat with Ariel that were released between 1937 and 1989. These princesses, especially the first three, are for the most part depicted as very helpless characters who just allow deeds to be done around them that affect their futures. As time goes on, however, there is a definite progression seen in the Disney Princesses. Belle was the first princess to show up in the 90’s with Beauty and the Beast and she was the first princess character to really stand out as more of a modern female character. She is intelligent, inquisitive, and adventurous. She longs for more in her life and has her own dreams that don’t stem from wanting to find the perfect guy, although in the end that is essentially what happens. Aladdin was the next Disney movie featuring a princess to come along that next year, but Jasmine was a far cry from the Belle character. Jasmine doesn’t really do much, and is mostly seen as the object of Aladdin’s desire and a step up on the social ladder. Next, came Pocahontas, whose character is along the same vein as Belle’s, and is also the first of the princess figures who does not get a happily ever after ending with her love interest, John Smith. Mulan came out in 1998 and further complicated the image of the Disney princess figure, as the heroine disguises herself as a man and rides to war to save her father, although she too does end up with a type of assumed happily ever after ending, and most of the power in the movie is attributed to men and a patriarchal society. Then there was a pause in the production of princess movies until 2009 when The Princess and the Frog was released, marking a comeback of the Disney princess stories that would shortly be followed up by Tangled the very next year.
The Princess and the Frog was a return to classic Disney in more ways than one, and marked a first in several ways as well. This film was the first Disney princess movie to be released in eleven years and according to the Internet Movie Database also marked the comeback of Disney’s hand drawn animation since Home on the Range (2004). Tiana was the first African American princess, and was also the first princess to live in an American setting from a not so distant past, as her home is New Orleans, Louisiana in the 1920’s. Previously, Pocahontas was the only other American princess, and she was from a much earlier century. This makes Tiana the most modern princess to date. But not only in time period is she modern, as Tiana’s character is very different from any of the princess heroines from past movies, as is her relationship with her love interest and “prince charming” character of Prince Naveen.
Tiana, voiced by Anika Noni Rose, is a determined, no-nonsense young woman who works two waitressing jobs with the goal of opening her own restaurant someday, a dream she shared with her late father. Tiana is the first Disney princess to actually have a job at all and also the only one to have a specifically defined goal for herself that does not really include the desire for a man’s love or marriage as seen in the song “Almost There” when Tiana sings “Mama! I don’t have time for dancing/That’s just gonna have to wait a while/Ain’t got time for messing around/And it’s not my style” in response to her Mother’s statement of “That’s all I want for you sweetheart, to meet your Prince Charming and dance off into your happily ever after.” Tiana doesn’t want to just settle down and have a “happily ever after,” she wants to achieve her dream and refuses to let anything stop her. She believes in hard work and getting yourself where you want to be on your own merit. This is evidenced on numerous occasions throughout the film as Tiana is seen to say things like “You can’t just wish on a star and expect things,” or “The only way to get what you want in this world is through hard work,” and “Just because you wish for something doesn’t make it true.”
Tiana is juxtaposed with the character of her best friend, Charlotte La Bouff (voiced by Jennifer Cody), daughter of a wealthy sugar baron. Charlotte, unlike Tiana, is a firm believer in fairy tales coming true and attaining happily ever after status by marrying a prince. In the very beginning of the film, during a scene in which Tiana and Charlotte are children having the fairy tale of the frog prince read to them by Tiana’s mother, Charlotte states “I would do it. I would kiss a frog. I would kiss a hundred frogs if I could marry a prince and be a princess,” after Tiana has vehemently voiced her own disgust for smooching any amphibians for any reason whatsoever. Charlotte, by contrast, is the typical image of the rather shallow, spoiled, silly girl who will sit around waiting for a happily ever after, much like some of the earlier Disney princesses. Even this rather vapid seeming character has a few redeeming points though. When Prince Naveen, voiced by Bruno Campos, apparently arrives and is dancing with Charlotte at the ball, Charlotte chooses to leave the prince (her lifelong dream guy) to assist Tiana, when she is in distress and has suffered an unfortunate accident to her wardrobe. At the end of the movie, Charlotte is also willing to give up all claims to Naveen when she realizes that her friend is in love with him, and she is still willing to lend them whatever assistance she can for nothing in return. Charlotte is also shown to have some power and strength for such a shallow character. She easily manipulates her father, who it seems runs much of the town, and is also determined to get whatever she wants. Unlike Tiana though, Charlotte just wants to marry a prince and be a princess in order to live out her idea of a fairy tale. She is, however very active in pursuing this goal. These character traits are indicative of how much Disney’s female characters have progressed, especially considering that Charlotte is supposed to represent the more traditional type of princess role in the movie.
The biggest change in Disney character roles since the older Disney princess movies, however, is probably seen in the interaction between the characters of Tiana, and Prince Naveen. This relationship does not illustrate the typical damsel in distress that must be rescued by the prince figure and carried into the sunset on a noble steed. In fact there is almost a complete role reversal, as Naveen is the one in need of rescuing in the movie, since he has been turned into a frog and requires Tiana’s aid to return to his normal human state. He first mistakes her for a princess and thinks that just her kiss will restore him, but they both find out to their own horror, that only the kiss of a true princess will do the trick, which Tiana is not. Instead, Tiana’s kiss not only leaves Naveen in his frog form, but it also transforms Tiana into that same shape as well. Then the two are forced to flee the town and end up lost in the bayou, being threatened by crocodiles, human hunters, and shadow minions sent by the evil Dr. Facilier, voiced by Keith David, a voodoo witch doctor, who was the person guilty of turning Naveen into a frog in the first place. In most of these scenarios it is Tiana who is the one to get them out of trouble. Even as a frog, she is a strong and powerful character who doesn’t hesitate to take charge, or let her opinion of the spoiled Prince Naveen be known. In the song “When We’re Human” which Naveen and Tiana sing along with their friendly alligator guide, Louis, as they travel through the bayou, Tiana says to Naveen after he refuses to help her paddle the raft she has crafted: “You’re modesty becomes you/and you sense of responsibility/I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve got/and that’s the way it’s supposed to be/When I’m a human being/at least I’ll act like one/If you do your best each and every day/good things are sure to come your way.” She also tells Naveen directly “You’re a no account, philandering, lazy bump on a log.” Naveen’s response to these accusations is to just shrug and agree that he did indeed lead a charmed life, as he follows along behind Tiana as she clears a path through the weeds that hinder their path, steers a course for them through the bayou on her raft, and generally handles any of the hard work that comes their way.
As the two make their way towards the house of Mama Odie, voiced by Jenifer Lewis, the voodoo queen of the bayou, who will presumably turn them back into their human forms, they learn to work together and begin to fall in love, as usually happens in Disney movies of this sort. Upon meeting Mama Odie, they learn that if Charlotte La Bouff, who is deemed a princess on the day of Mardi Gras due to her father being voted the Mardi Gras king, kisses Naveen before midnight, both he and Tiana will be transformed back into humans. So, they begin their race back to New Orleans. Now, however, Naveen is in love with Tiana and determined to help her achieve her dream of getting her restaurant, even if that means having to sacrifice himself on the altar of marriage to Charlotte, so she will give Tiana the money she needs. This presents Naveen as an instrument of assistance to achieving Tiana, the heroine’s, goal, when in past Disney movies it has been the other way around, such as with Beauty and the Beast. Belle was the ultimate device needed for the Beast’s transformation. Also in Aladdin, Jasmine only really functioned as the object of Aladdin’s desire and an avenue for him to escape his life on the streets.
Another interesting role reversal between the prince and princess figure is that after Tiana and Naveen have confessed their love for each other and decided that they can be happy as frogs as long as they have each other, they marry, and share a first kiss as a married couple, which is able to transform them both back into humans, since when Tiana married Naveen, she became a princess and the spell was broken. So then they go and make Tiana’s restaurant dream come true. Prince Naveen also relocates to the realm of the princess, which in this case is New Orleans, which is a contrast to other princess movies when the prince rides away with his newly claimed love. That happened in Snow White, Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. For the most part it is always the woman who must leave her home or setting to live with the prince and adapt to a new way of life. But not in the case of The Princess and the Frog, in this movie, not only does Naveen choose to stay in Tiana’s country and forgo his native land, but he socially downgrades from a privileged royal living situation into a life working in the service industry. He basically goes through a minor character overhaul just for Tiana’s sake, to please her and help her achieve her dream.
So, through the years the Disney princesses have gone through a lot of changes and have shown definite signs of modernization. The movies that began with a princess working away in the home and just waiting for her prince to come with Snow White, were able to eventually work up to a movie featuring a princess who favors using hard work to achieve her own personal dreams, and is arguably even stronger and more dominant than her ‘prince charming’ figure. And while Disney princess will always be Disney princesses with the typical happily ever after ending, generally alongside their true love, it is true that from Snow White to Tiana the Disney princesses have definitely had a long road of development towards representing a more modern idea of what a princess can be.
“Company History.” The Walt Disney Company. Disney.com. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.
Disney Princess: The Official Princess Website. Disney.com. Web. 13 Nov. 2011
The Princess and the Frog. Dir. Ron Clements and John Musker. Disney, 2009. DVD.
“The Princess and the Frog.” Internet Movie Database. IMDb.com, Inc., 2009. Web. 13 Nov. 2011.