The Princess Diaries

The Baltimore Sun

The damsel cast an image of striking beauty: mocha-colored skin, captivating eyes, coiffed hair, posing in a feathery dress and see-through veil. For a character that won't be in an animated movie for another two years, her arrival has been the subject of discussion for years -- long before she was ever drawn.

Maddy, a 19-year-old heroine to be featured in the coming film The Frog Princess, will be Disney animation's first black leading lady. That makes her the Sole Sister among a group of cartoon icons that brings out the inner princess in preteen girls worldwide -- characters like Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel and Mulan.

Some say Maddy's debut is long overdue. Disney's characters have become firmly etched in American lore ever since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the studio's first animated feature, in 1937.

In 1992, the animated version of Aladdin featured its first princess of color, Jasmine, of Arabian descent. Since then, Disney has had animated film hits featuring a Native American princess, Pocahontas, in 1995 and an Asian heroine, Mulan, in 1998. But even as real-life black actresses and actors have won major awards and helped dissolve barriers in the film industry in recent years, a divide remained for cartoon princesses on the big screen.

Black families have clamored for a Disney character crafted in their image, even circulating petitions. If that seems overly anxious about a cartoon, it also underscores the power of fictional princesses to become role models for little girls.

"It's always good to have positive stories and positive images where the main character is of your background," said John Powell of Salisbury, shopping with his wife and daughter near The Disney Store at White Marsh Mall. "It lets you know that you have no limitations."

Like other Disney features, The Frog Princess is bound to resonate not only with black Americans, but with children of all backgrounds. Eight other so-called "Disney Princess" characters generated more than $3 billion in retail sales last year. Five Disney Princess films rank among the entertainment conglomerate's top six video releases of all time.

"It seems as if Disney is reaching into" the psyche of young girls "and feeding into it, but girls are responding to it," said Angela M. Nelson, chair of the popular culture department at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Like other parents, she often chooses princess themes when planning parties for her two daughters, ages 7 and 13.

"It could be that what Disney is showing, to a certain extent, is the possibility of femininity: the makeup, the hairstyle, the dress and even the attitude," Nelson said.

Disney unveiled Maddy at its annual shareholders' meeting last month, even summoning Randy Newman's Dirty Dozen Brass Band for a performance. The award-winning Newman will write the music for the movie, which will be set in 1920s New Orleans and be hand-drawn rather than computer-generated.

But the announcement of Princess Maddy hasn't settled the issue. Information about The Frog Princess, including a list of characters put forth in a voice-actor casting call, spread across the Internet. It appears that the prince in the story is not black, which has raised dissatisfaction. There are also people criticizing the creation of yet another cartoon princess whose story, they contend, undermines a modern message of individual empowerment.

Disney risks having well-intended attempts backfire if the story doesn't resonate with, or offends, certain viewers. It's a problem the company has run into with previous films featuring characters of color.

Disney officials have declined to comment on aspects of the film beyond the news release they issued last month when they announced the film at their meeting in New Orleans.

"We're very proud and excited about this," John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios and director of Toy Story and Cars, said at the time. "This is a fantastic story. This movie is going to be classic Disney, yet you've never seen one like it before."

Progressive Disney

To its credit, Disney has a reputation for being progressive in offering characters that appeal to people of all backgrounds, particularly on television. It created popular cartoon characters of color in such shows as The Proud Family (which began on Nickelodeon) and Lilo and Stitch, which features Hawaiian characters. Disney's comedies, including That's So Raven and the made-for-television film High School Musical, feature diverse teens.

"Disney, beginning with Walt himself, was way ahead of all other Hollywood filmmakers in terms of offering a highly progressive and nonstereotypical view of minorities," said Douglas Brode, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University and author of Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment.

Brode points to the 1950s Disney television shows Texas John Slaughter and the Swamp Fox series. They cast blacks in nonstereotypical roles and as equals to whites at a time when other shows, such as Amos 'n Andy, portrayed blacks "to look ridiculous for white viewers," he said.

However, on the big screen, Disney's depictions of people of color have occasionally raised objections. Even as Disney was introducing Maddy, it faced concerns over plans for the DVD release of its 1946 film Song of the South, which has been criticized for its depiction of Southern plantation blacks.

Brode believes that Disney hesitated to release an animated film featuring a black princess because of mixed reviews it received for Pocahontas a decade ago. "There were complaints that while her skin suggested that the title character was a woman of color, she was in all other respects a traditional glamour girl," he said.

And while Princess Jasmine got a favorable response from moviegoers, the film Aladdin was criticized as anti-Arab. Entertainment Weekly ranked Aladdin 25th among its "25 Most Controversial Movies Ever," noting the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's protest over the lyrics in the film's first song, "Arabian Nights": "They cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home." Disney changed the lyrics for the video release.

Nelson suspects Disney will encounter some objection to The Frog Princess. The movie's presumed interracial starring couple illustrates "historically what film makers have always felt they needed to do" to reach a broad audience, she said. "If you make it a black couple, their white audience, which is their niche, may not turn out for that."

Nelson added that though she applauds heroines of all races on film, their impact on children pales in comparison to the messages youngsters receive from parents and other adults in their lives. Still, no one's doubting that Maddy will be a huge influence on girls. After all, she's a princess.

"Everybody needs that, no matter what your ethnic background is," said Leanna Owens of Cumberland outside The Disney Store at Tyson's Corner Center in Virginia.

Having grown up with seven brothers, she herself never experienced the princess phase, but her daughter Katherine is going through it full tilt, she said, in part because Owens' mother loves Snow White. "A princess is an unattainable goal, but as a little girl you don't know you can't be a princess. You think that's possible," she said.

"I would take my daughter to see it because I'm curious about it as well," said Maha Martin of Annandale, Va., mother of 13-month-old Hadiyah. But her daughter will know "that you don't need anyone to save you. She can do that herself. And you also don't have to look to someone of a different race to save you."

The online voice casting for The Frog Princess describes the prince in the film as "a gregarious fun-loving European prince, in his early twenties. A young Cary Grant."

Many of the voice-casting announcements list as the film's casting director Jen Rudin Pearson, head of casting for Walt Disney Feature Animation. When asked via telephone to verify both the casting call and character descriptions, Pearson referred Frog Princess inquiries to Disney director of animation marketing Jay Carducci. He said Disney would not release any additional information about the film at this time.

Differing opinions

How significant is the ethnicity of the prince in The Frog Princess?

Washington-area psychologist Dr. Tamara D. Jackson, who works with young adults, said it's not as significant as it would have been years ago, in part because today's younger generation doesn't have the same qualms about interracial relationships as its parents.

Yet Syracuse University pop culture professor Robert Thompson likened it to television shows such as Diff'rent Strokes and Webster, where "the only chance these kids had was to be rescued by a white family."

And discussions with parents revealed that a cartoon princess isn't mere child's play.

At White Marsh Mall, John Powell said he saw no problem in a white prince. Yet his wife, Tanisha, who stood beside him with their 3-year-old daughter, Kendyll, flatly objected.

"It doesn't bother me at all," John Powell said. "Times are changing."

"Well, I wish he was black," Tanisha Powell said. "They wouldn't have a European woman with a black man."

"But they're breaking barriers right now with these cartoons," John Powell interjected. "The way I see it is that they're trying to break different boundaries at one time."

"I just find it hard that black people always have to add Europeans to make the show good, but they don't have to do that for us," Tanisha Powell replied. "Don't get me started."

Disney's princesses

Disney has designated eight characters in its animated films as princesses, but not all of them come from royalty or live a life of enchantment. A ninth princess, Maddy of The Frog Princess, will join them in 2009. Here's some background on the first eight:

Snow White: Debuted in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, the first animated feature film, as the daughter of a deceased king who is nearly poisoned to death by her stepmother. She is rescued from a deep sleep by the kiss of a prince.

Cinderella: Debuted in Cinderella in 1950 as a girl who escapes the abuse of her stepmother and stepsisters after being made a princess by a fairy godmother and ultimately going on to live with a prince.

Aurora: Debuted in Sleeping Beauty in 1959 as a princess who is put into a deep sleep by a villainess' curse, only to be awakened by the kiss of a prince.

Ariel: Debuted in The Little Mermaid in 1989 as the beautiful but headstrong mermaid who gives up sea life to become a human and live with the man of her dreams -- then risks her life to save his.

Belle: Debuted in Beauty and the Beast in 1991 as the beautiful French girl held captive by a prince turned monster. The beast regains his human form after Belle's love for him shatters the curse put upon him.

Jasmine: Debuted in Aladdin in 1992 as Disney's first non-European princess. Jasmine is an independent daughter of a sultan. She seeks a life of adventure away from the palace and finds it in a free-spirit who ultimately wins her affection.

Pocahontas: Debuted in Pocahontas in 1995 as the Native American girl, based on a historical figure, who befriends an English sailor, falls in love with him and saves him from being killed by her disapproving father.

Mulan: Debuted in Mulan in 1998 as a maiden who secretly takes the place of her father in the Chinese army and becomes a much-revered hero. The film is based on a 2,000-year-old Chinese folk tale.

[Joe Burris]

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