As one who grew up right across the state line from New Orleans and spent most of my young life romping through its streets and marshes, I took my family to see Disney’s latest animated film “The Princess and the Frog,” set in the Crescent City and the bayous around it.
Since then several have asked whether it’s a thumbs-up or a thumbs down. I’ve got mixed feelings.
Here’s the upside:
1.) It’s in many ways a typical Disney film, with all that means.The visuals are good, and the storyline is entertaining.
2.) This is the first Disney animated film with an African-American protagonist, and that’s a long time coming.
The film introduced some of the racial and class tensions that have existed historically in the crescent city (and all around the country) with a clear sense of the “arc of history bending toward justice.”
3.) It’s good to see New Orleans as the setting, especially now nearly five years after the catastrophe of Katrina. Yes, it’s set in the past, but much of what is gloried in here is strikingly present (and future).
Those who predicted the death of New Orleans after Katrina (and I heard many such prognostications) know nothing of New Orleans.
4.) The film recognized the dark side of the demonic. The voodoo villain “The Shadowman” uses his “friends on the other side,” channeling their power. Ultimately, as is always the case, he is their prey (see King Saul of old).
Flannery O’Connor once said of New Orleans: “If I had to live in a city I think I would prefer New Orleans to any other—both Southern and Catholic and with indications that the Devil’s existence is freely recognized.” I rarely argue with Ms. O’Connor, and certainly won’t on that point.
The film also recognizes (if shallowly, of course) that voodoo is a complex issue, with many practitioners seeing both a “light” and a “dark” side to it (I don’t accept any good aspect, but that’s how some, especially in some Haitian communities, have seen it).
5.) The movie offered a hat-tip to the dizzying array of New Orleans musical styles (jazz, gospel, zydeco, etc.). It was a Disneyfied version, to be sure, but if it gets some moviegoers to discover the real stuff, I’m all for that.
But here’s what I hated:
1.) It’s in many ways a typical Disney film, with all that means. The template is there. Jiminy Cricket is a lightning bug this time; the “Jungle Book” bears and wolves are alligators, etc.
2.) Whatever committee was in charge of accent development clearly never went to New Orleans in their lives, or, if so, simply overheard tourists in the French Quarter and went home. Instead of New Orleans, Cajun, and Creole (and there is a difference) accents (and there are many), the film substituted the kind of ridiculous faux accent we saw with Jude Law in “Cold Mountain.”
3.) Disney is embarrassed (and rightly so) now by the racial stereotypes present in at least one of their earlier movies. No one now would market crude ethnic caricatures in an animated film, and that’s a good thing. Why then is it okay to use the most derogatory and cardboard stereotypes of rural working southern people? The cajuns in the bayou are presented as characters from “Deliverance.”
Wendell Berry rightly warned us against the “acceptable” bigotry against “provincial” country people (whether white, black, or what have you) who are presented as backward, despised, and even scary simply because they seem “other” in our monotonously pseudo-cosmopolitan televised American culture. The filmmakers here would have done well to have heard him.
4.) I noted before that the film includes Disneyfied samples of various forms of New Orleans music, including gospel. This is only right. Perhaps one of the greatest singers in American history was New Orleans’ own Mahalia Jackson who could sing “There Is Power in the Blood” and “We Shall Overcome” like no one else. She was in a long tradition of those in African-American Christian churches who sang of Christ Jesus and his good news.
I don’t expect Disney to give us gospel in our gospel music. But do they have to insult the genre by putting it in the context of a voodoo witch who makes everything alright by encouraging the characters to “dig a little deeper” inside of themselves to find the hidden potential therein?