This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.
Made in 2009, The Princess and the Frog marks the beginning of a new era. It is Disney’s first fairy tale to be set post-1900, the first to be set in America, and of course stars Disney’s first black princess. I was an adult when this one came out and only saw it once. Let’s see how it holds up to a rewatch.
The fairy tale: This movie is based on the fairy tale ‘The Frog Prince’ which I reviewed for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project alongside three other amphibian-themed stories. There are more of them than you might think.
The film: It begins in New Orleans, in a house that’s pretty much a palace, in a bedroom that is the frothy pink dream of six-year-olds everywhere. Two little girls perch side by side, watching a seamstress finishing off a matching frothy pink costume while telling the story of a princess who kissed a frog and ended up with a handsome prince. Girl No.1 is Lottie, the intended owner of the dress, who cannot contain her delight at the happy ending. Girl No.2 is the seamstress’s daughter Tiana, who thinks kissing frogs is revolting. A chase ensues when Lottie traps her poor pet cat inside a frog mask and tries to make Tiana kiss it, while Tiana valiantly resists. Tiana’s mother wins my heart by rescuing the cat. Seriously, Disney, bullying cats is not amusing.
Tiana and her mother leave the sprawling mansions behind, catching the tram home to their own cramped little house, where Tiana focuses her remarkable powers of concentration on making the perfect pot of gumbo. Her dad, a passionate cook himself, is so impressed that he shares their dinner with the whole neighborhood. Later, he shows Tiana a picture of a glamorous restaurant and tells her one day they’ll be running a place like that. To prove it, he writes ‘Tiana’s Place’ across the top. She remembers one of Lottie’s fairy tales and scrambles to the window to wish on the evening star. All she gets is a frog. The universe has a childish sense of humour.
As an adult, Tiana has not given up on her dream, but she’s not relying on stars any more. Though her father has been lost to war, she is determined to open that restaurant and is working all hours to get there. The city of New Orleans gets in her way at every turn, from wannabe flash dancer musicians parading across her path to the dismissive cook at the diner where she waitresses. Her customer service ethic, and self-restraint in not dropping a coffee pot on the cook’s head, are awe-inspiring.
In direct contrast, Prince Naveen of nowhere-you’ve-ever-heard-of arrives in New Orleans to escape a fight with his parents, posing his handsome self for the waiting media then sloping off with a banjo to check out the local music scene and chat up pretty girls. His valet/ manager/ general dogsbody Lawrence trots sullenly in pursuit with the luggage. Lottie, who has not given up on her dream of snagging a hot prince, bursts into Tiana’s diner to share the glad tidings. Tiana’s had her own run-in with royalty, though she doesn’t know it – it lasted the two seconds it took for Tiana to roll her eyes at him.
She’s honestly not having a great day, what with the zero sleep and her friends trying to bully her into a social life she doesn’t have time for, but Lottie’s exuberant glee is an unstoppable whirlwind. Her doting father has invited the prince to that night’s masquerade party and Lottie, struck by inspiration, throws a small fortune at Tiana as payment for last-minute extra catering. The windfall is precisely what Tiana needs. She finally has enough money to buy her restaurant.
Which is not to say she can afford prime real-estate – the building she settles on is sort of a wreck. When Tiana’s mother arrives to celebrate the moment, giving Tiana her father’s beloved gumbo pot, all she can see are the cobwebs and rotting beams. Like Tiana’s friends, she thinks her daughter is working too hard and should be going out more, maybe finding a man…Tiana, though, is no stranger to fixer-uppers and sees an art deco masterpiece in the making. She patiently brushes off her mother’s hints. True love can wait – she’s got work to do.
Naveen, meanwhile, has pretty much the same thoughts only his version of ‘work’ is ‘run off with a bunch of buskers’. He’s the same brand of charming feckless as Lottie, only without the funds to back it up because his parents got sick of it and tied up the purse strings. Nor is Lottie the only one with designs upon the prince. A tall, mysterious man in a really menacing hat has been stalking Naveen all over town and now pounces, offering to read his future. Naveen holds true to form and bounces off down a dodgy alleyway with puppy dog enthusiasm. Lawrence tries to dissuade him, without success. Then he stops trying, because Mr Tall, Dark and Sinister – otherwise known as Doctor Facilier – is playing a double game. Laying out cards that promise a a financial windfall for Naveen, he deals a second hand to Lawrence, showing a life of ease and wealth…for a price. Both men agree. But as the spirits rise up to answer the fortune teller’s spell, Naveen realises just how dreadful a mistake he’s made.
The masquerade ball begins with no sign of its much-anticipated guest. Tiana is dressed up as a medieval handmaiden, dishing out cakes, while Lottie wears a grown-up version of the pink froth and panics over Naveen’s no-show. Her solution: wish on that star REALLY, REALLY hard. Tiana starts to point out this may not be the most effective strategy ever when, because Lottie’s life works like this, Naveen appears from nowhere. Lottie whistles up a spotlight, tosses off some glitter and sashays off for her waltz. Tiana watches fondly, happy for her friend even if she doesn’t understand the dream at all.
Then her own dream is abruptly, brutally crushed by a pair of penny-pinching businessmen who calmly tell her that they’ve got a better offer for their property. She tries to chase after them, but gets knocked into her own cake stand instead. When Lottie dashes over to squee about Naveen, she sees her friend is splattered in icing and takes her upstairs, giving her a different dress. Too caught up in her own happiness to recognise Tiana’s misery, she then hurries back to the party. Tiana wanders onto the balcony, taking another look at that star. It’s got to be worth a try…
She gets a frog.
A talking, mildly lecherous frog. Reacting on behalf of all of us, she backs off and hurls Lottie’s old soft toys at it. Finally convincing her to stop, the frog explains himself – he is Prince Naveen, enchanted. If that’s so, Tiana wants to know who’s out there dancing with her best friend. Naveen doesn’t know – his priority is turning human again, and since he was also a fairy tale addict as a child, he has an answer. Tiana has to kiss him.
Tiana’s feelings on kissing frogs have not changed, especially not over-confident, pouty ones, but he’s a prince and she needs extra money to outbid her competitor so she screws up her nerve and goes for it. Poor Tiana. She has no idea, the movie’s only a third of the way through. Instead of turning Naveen human, the kiss turns her into a frog.
She is extremely not happy about this. The force of her rage sends both frogs spilling off the balcony, right into the middle of the party (and accidentally down Lottie’s dress). They escape on some balloons, and not a moment too soon, because the fake prince is none other than Lawrence and while he doesn’t particularly want Naveen dead, Doctor Facilier has no such compunctions. As long as Naveen’s blood marks the mask Lawrence wears around his neck, the enchantment will hold – but a free Naveen is a complication. And now, of course, Tiana is too.
Drifting around above a swamp, the prince and the waitress clear the air. He’s broke, she’s not a princess, they have absolutely no use for each other, and oh, while all that sniping is going on, the balloons have blown into a tree. A few seconds later, the frogs are face-first in the lagoon. This doesn’t improve their tempers. They try to continue the fight but everything wants to eat them and a grudging truce is in both their interests. They spend the night hiding in a hollow log, then in the morning Tiana builds a raft and Naveen makes himself another banjo from twigs.
His playing attracts the attention of an alligator. He does not want to eat anyone – he wants to fanboy over jazz. Naveen adopts him as an instant BFF, and expertly manipulates him into helping them find a more kindly disposed voodoo practitioner. After all, if a man can be turned into a frog, an alligator can be turned into a man, and then Louis can become the saxophonist he’s always dreamed of being. Tiana finds the pair of them very annoying. So do I. Naveen was sweet as a human being, but as a frog he’s a smarmy chauvinist with stupid pick-up lines. It almost makes Lawrence look good.
Except the power is draining from that mask and while Lottie is about as self-involved as they come, she does notice when her suitor’s ear pops out to twice its usual size. He distracts her by proposing marriage. Wouldn’t you know, it works. She shoves him off to revel in the moment, then dashes off to start planning her wedding. Lawrence reverts to his own form and Doctor Facilier broods over his failing plan. He’ll have to ask for help from his friends on the ‘Other Side’…
Back in the swamp, Naveen is enthusiastically experimenting with catching mosquitoes while Tiana’s frog tongue betrays her chef brain and follows suit. They go for the same insect, their tongues get all tangled up and a very chatty firefly called Ray comes to the rescue. Calling up a cloud of friends, he leads them down the river towards voodoo queen Mama Odie.
His spell failing, Doctor Facilier makes a bargain with the spirits: once Lawrence has married Lottie, Doctor Facilier will kill her father and claim control over New Orleans through his money, allowing the spirits to take as many souls as they choose. They send monstrous shadows to track Naveen down.
They’re not the only hunters looking for the unfortunate frogs – a trio of incompetents more or less accidentally ensnare Tiana. Naveen employs his natural superpower of being unbearably annoying to distract her captors. The flush of success inspires previously unheard-of levels of amicability. While Ray and Louis recover from their own encounters (Louis had a bad run-in with a thorn bush), Tiana puts her own superpower to use and whips up ‘swamp gumbo’ with Naveen as her unwilling kitchen hand. He’s never had to cook for himself before, let alone anything else, and now he’s cut off from his parents’ wealth he’s feeling his lack of education keenly. Tiana gets over her initial amusement and shows him how to mince a mushroom.
While they’re eating, Ray introduces them all to his girlfriend Evangeline – who is that highly unreliable evening star everyone’s been wishing at, and not a firefly at all. No one has the heart to tell him this. His happy clueless adoration wakes a warmth in Naveen too, who ignores Tiana’s protests and teaches her how to dance. There’s finally an advantage to amphibian living: they can waltz underwater! Even as a frog, Tiana is gorgeous and Naveen lets himself get swept away by the moment, but Tiana slips out from his attempted kiss. Lucky for her, because the spirit shadows have caught up to them. Seizing Naveen’s ankle, they haul him off into the woods.
And are promptly crisped by several well-aimed bolts of lightning from the promised Mama Odie, a little old lady with a big attitude who lives in a boat stuck in a tree. She’s cooking gumbo too, in a bathtub for some reason. Maybe she has a lot of neighbours. She can do all sorts of magic things but won’t, since she thinks ‘it doesn’t matter what you look like, doesn’t matter what you are’ – as long as you have love you’ll be FINE, is her attitude, and she all but shoves the two frogs together in a ‘now kiss’ gesture. Naveen gets what she means. Tiana doesn’t. Her eyes are still on the prize, her restaurant.
Mama Odie finally gets down to business. To be human again, they require one kiss of princess. It just so happens that Lottie’s dad has been chosen as King of the Mardi Gras Parade, which temporarily makes her a princess – just as she’s always wanted! – but only until midnight. Louis tries to bring up his own desire to be human, but Mama Odie tells him that’s not what he needs and shoves him unceremoniously out the door. I really don’t like her.
It’s fortunate they have Louis along, though, because he suggests they hitch a lift home on a steamer and while he’s aboard, he runs into a group of musicians who think he’s a really awesome saxophonist in a really awesome costume. He runs off to play with his new friends. Naveen, meanwhile, is fretting over his romantic feelings for Tiana. Showing an unexpected streak of creativity, he makes a ring out of wire and beads, manufactures a romantic table for two and plans a proposal. He doesn’t want to marry Lottie – probably wise, they’re way too much alike – but Tiana doesn’t realise he wants to marry her, distracted from the conversation as they pass the building she plans to be her restaurant. He sees that to make her happy, she needs that place – and to give it to her, he needs money. In short, he needs to marry Lottie after all.
Both women would have a thing or two to say about that thought process if they knew.
No sooner has he left Tiana alone than Naveen gets kidnapped by shadows again and brought to Lawrence, to feed the mask with his blood. Meanwhile, Ray spills the beans to Tiana, telling her about Naveen’s planned proposal. She shows a lot of enthusiasm for someone who could barely tolerate him twenty four hours ago and immediately assumes he’ll be on Lottie’s float, getting kissed human. Well, there is a prince there. Getting married to Lottie.
Tiana is heartbroken and when Ray tries to cheer her up, she lashes out, telling him Evangeline is only a star who can never love him back. He refuses to give up, going back to buzz in the fake Naveen’s ear – while the real Naveen, locked in a box at Lawrence’s feet, kicks up the biggest fuss he can. Just before the wedding vows are completed, Ray sets Naveen free and they trip Lawrence off the float. Naveen yanks off the mask; Ray flies away with it. Seeing the shadows pursuing his friend, Louis drops the sax and rushes to help.
Ray throws the mask into Tiana’s lap, triumphant. Telling her to take it and flee, he bounces wildly at the shadows, burning them with his light – but he is small, and Dr Facilier is not. Ray is swatted and stamped on. Louis finds his broken body. How is this G rated?
Running from the shadows isn’t working for Tiana, so she switches tactics and threatens to shatter the mask. Dr Facilier reacts by conjuring an illusion of her dream restaurant, promising she’ll have it if she hands over his talisman. He shows her father, who worked hard yet never got his dream…but for all that, Tiana’s father was loved. He was happy with his life. Also, it’s fundamentally immoral to enable identity theft.
Tiana tries to smash the mask, but a shadow intercepts it. Dr Facilier gloats. He’s stupid. She’s a frog; she has a tongue. Flicking it out, she recaptures the mask and this time breaks it into shards. D Facilier can no longer fulfill the bargain with his ‘friends from the Other Side’. He has no souls to give – so they take his.
The spell is broken. Lottie corners her groom to find him short, balding and more than twice her age. He runs before she has time to get angry, and gets arrested by her dad. Meanwhile, Naveen applies his winsome voice to explain the situation. Lottie whacks him with a book first, because she is Tiana’s best friend, but the magic word ‘prince’ catches her attention. She’s happy to deliver the kiss. Tiana gets there first, though; she understands why Naveen’s doing this, but while she wants her restaurant, she wants him there too. Far from getting upset about being excluded from the big romantic moment, Lottie gets all the feels and offers her congratulations. “I’ll kiss him,” she says. “For you, honey.” It’s so grown-up! Like, finding solutions and things!
Only they’ve left it too late. It’s past midnight – Lottie isn’t a princess any more, and they are still frogs.
Ray is dying. He gets to say his goodbyes, and dies with his eyes on Evangeline. His friends return him to the swamp, and to his family of fireflies. A new star flickers to life beside Evangeline. It would seem she loved him after all.
Later, Mama Odie performs a swamp wedding and the frog lovers kiss as husband and wife. More importantly, as prince and princess. That’s enough for the magic! They are transformed back into humans, in fancy wedding attire what’s more. They’re pretty casual about it, all things considered, more interested in getting back to the kissing. They have a second wedding for their human friends and family, attended by Naveen’s approving parents and a delighted media circus. Then, because this is Tiana’s wedding day, they go straight to work on fixing up her restaurant. Turns out she didn’t need extra money, she needed an alligator bestie to stand over the real estate men while they got over their sexist, racist uselessness and handed over the damn keys.
Once the restaurant is the big shiny palace Tiana always knew it would be, she puts Louis on centre stage to play for an admiring crowd, sets Naveen waiting tables (though she knows he’ll slope off to play ukelele with Louis) and saves tables for all her friends and family. Lottie finally gets to dance with a real prince, Naveen’s brother…who is six, but you can’t have everything! Tiana whirls off in Naveen’s arms, surrounded by a swirl of fireflies. You can take the frogs out of the swamp, but some friends are for life.
Spot the Difference: Basically everything.
I am not fond of ‘The Frog Prince’. It is a punishment fairy tale, a young girl’s ingratitude taken as cause to trample all over her right to say no. Her father makes her take a creepy talking frog into her bed. It needs a lot of adaptation for a modern audience! And Tiana is perfect for that, because she is the kind of heroine who generally stars in punishment fairy tales – sure of what she wants, not apologetic about it, no patience to spare for time wasters – the kind of heroine I want to hug and make tea for.
Which makes it doubly frustrating when the story keeps critiquing her for being that driven. I mean, love is wonderful and overwork certainly is not, but Tiana wants to start a very ambitious small business and she’s almost there. This is when she needs support from her friends and family, not loud pressure to go out and look for a boyfriend too. She shouldn’t have to justify herself! The best thing about her friendship with Lottie, to me, is that Lottie – darling narcissistic cupcake that she is – has zero judgement when it comes to any of her friend’s life choices. Tiana can relax and be herself in her company, in a way she can’t with anyone else.
As for Naveen…well, both he and Tiana are considerably more enjoyable characters as humans. The prince is introduced a footloose, boyishly naïve charmer. As a frog, he’s pushy, selfish and kind of lecherous. It’s not clear how much of his condescension stems from sexism and how much is classism, but you can hardly blame Lawrence for hating the boy if he’s like that all the time.
Don’t get me wrong, Naveen is not a terrible character. He makes sense in context and grows up over the course of the story, gaining a sense of responsibility without losing that happy-go-lucky charm. His friendship with Louis is particularly sweet, and both end up actively supporting Tiana’s restaurant dream. There’s a risk in portraying this type of character in children’s media, though. With sexist male protagonists omnipresent in popular culture, are children going to pick up on the nuances of what is and what isn’t okay about his behaviour? It’s surely pause for thought when the hero of the movie comes out with rhetoric quite similar to that of classic Disney villain Gaston.
That said, Tiana is not obliged to calmly accept his presence in her life the way the princess in the original fairy tale does. She challenges, mocks and expects better of him, and even judgmental Mama Odie can’t make her change her mind about her priorities. I want more heroines like her.