July 24, 2008

Detroit Free Press Rochelle Riley Column

By Rochelle Riley, Detroit Free Press

Jul. 24--Now that "The Dark Knight" has set box-office records this year, we can forecast next year's big films.

And none will be bigger than one about a frog princess who makes history.

In case you haven't heard, a new face will go onto the Disney Princess wall, a new face alongside the Little Mermaid, Mulan, Cinderella, Snow White, Jasmine, Aurora, Belle and Pocahontas.

For more than a year now, the Walt Disney Co. has been trying to complete that rainbow of faces, creating and developing a new animated feature starring Disney's first black princess. And for more than a year, critics have thrown harpoons at the company as it struggles to make its usual magic while not being racially insensitive.

Politically correct cartoons

Originally called "The Frog Princess" -- OK, they should have seen that one coming -- the musical fairy tale once was rumored to be a story about a chambermaid (a la Cinderella). Critics railed against the possibility that Disney's first black princess would be a servant and cried out for someone more regal.

The story now is about Princess Tiana, an entrepreneurial young woman living in the fabled French quarter. Disney, wisely, is playing its cards close to its chest, but word is the musical adventure stars Anika Noni Rose ("Dreamgirls") and features a singing alligator.

The film, now called "The Princess and the Frog" and set to be released in December 2009, will be the first full-length, animated film from the studio since "Home on the Range" in 2004 -- and the first new Disney princess since Mulan, the Japanese warrior, crowned herself 10 years ago.

I understand the need to rail against stereotypes and push Disney to be fair. But listen, Cinderella swept fireplaces and Snow White cleaned up after seven men.

Overcoming obstacles

But here's the thing: Disney, the most powerful juggernaut in child and teen entertainment, didn't have to go there. Remember, Snow White is 81 years old, so Disney has been doing this for a long time without paying homage to black characters.

I'm not advocating against criticism. Some of it is valid and necessary because strong words may be the only thing that stand between a good film and "Song of the South," the 1946 film that embraced racist stereotypes.

But I differ from critics pushing for Disney to create perfection. I want the writers to be careful, but I also want little girls to know that girls other than those born to royalty find true love and their dreams.

And I hope that this Disney movie is as true to a winning formula as its past princess movies have been: A heroine in dire circumstances, aided by someone -- a genie, a fairy godmother, dwarves -- finds true love. I want Tiana to be revered for the same reason that other Disney girls were: They overcame obstacles.

Yes, there are black queens of film and culture and education and industry who deserve their own films. But for the Disney princess wall, I want little girls to see someone who came from little to be a lot -- a woman empowered, a woman fulfilled, a woman living her dream.

Join the conversation about this column at www.freep.com/rochelleriley. http://disney.go.com/princess/html/main_iframe.html


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