Disney’s Lump of Coal

After Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent FEMA-Bush administration debacle, I didn’t think anything else could do more damage to New Orleans. I was wrong. Whatever they didn’t finish tearing up, Disney’s The Princess and the Frog just did. I have never been so angry in my life upon leaving a movie—even the $2.50 I paid for the bargain matinee was too damn much.

Unlike other critics of the movie who will complain that the princess was a frog for the entire movie, and that Disney stinted on the black princess, I’m going to go all out and say that the entire movie is a wholesale desecration of New Orleans, Creole culture, Cajun Culture, religion, zydeco music, the Evangeline story, and Louis Armstrong (I’ll get to that in a minute.) Rolled up, Disney hates the South, period.

Yes, I am hard, but cher (you’d have to see the movie) I have the bonafides. My mother is from Acadiana country, St. Martinsville La., and I grew up going to the Evangeline Oak during my long summers at my grandmother’s house. I know Creoles and Cajun life pretty well. So Disney’s take on life in New Orleans and the bayou is at best a cheap commercial ploy, and at worst, a revisionist religious and racist nightmare. Yes, I know, it’s just fantasy, right?

But your kids are going to be in my classroom later, and I am going to have to deconstruct this mess.

Note: spoilers ahead. If you want to see the mess, stop here.

The New Orleans and the Louisiana Bayou that Disney’s writers have concocted for viewer pleasure (and my ultimate displeasure) surrounds the story of Tiana, a hardworking African American young woman, and Prince Naveen, a handsome ne’er-do-well prince searching for a sugar momma to marry. Through his interaction with a voodoo priest, Dr. Facilier (character traits: sly and dastardly), Prince Naveen is turned into a frog and, unfortunately, turns Tiana into a frog too by asking her for a kiss to break the spell.

No surprises here. The surprises come when staples of New Orleans life are used in ways that are either ridiculous or just plain wrong. Let’s start with the people. Why does the first black Disney princess have to be the hardest working woman around? Much like many of the black citizens of New Orleans before and after Katrina, Tiana has to work a couple of jobs to make ends meet to see her dream of a restaurant come true. From slinging hash to being the friend of the annoying Southern Belle, Charlotte La Bouff (more about her in a moment), Tiana can’t even enjoy a moment wearing Charlotte’s dress before turning into a frog from the kiss of the trifling, preening Prince Naveen—Naveen, he of uncertain racial heritage who just wants to sing and dance. Seriously, Disney, is it too much to ask for a black prince too? With all that dancing and singing Naveen did, I thought for a moment I was watching a character in Disney’s infamous Song of the South.

Miss La Bouff, Tiana’s employer, is an annoying Southern belle who wraps “Big Daddy” around her little finger constantly throwing tantrums. (Note: folks around the bayou and such spell it Leboeuf). The Cajuns in the bayou hunting Tiana and Prince Naveen in search of frog legs are depicted with no teeth, barefoot, and dumb. Way to go Disney, you just basically called every Cajun a coonass without saying it.

The animals and insects don’t fare much better. Louis is a trumpet-playing alligator who just wants to be human. Really, Disney, Louis? Really? Surely you could have given him another name besides the name of the famous New Orleans trumpet player Louis Armstrong.

Ray is a big bottomed, snaggle-tooth Cajun firefly who says cher all the time. For the uninitiated, cher is short for cherie, or darling, in French. The accent of Ray is remarked upon as “funny” but the reality is, it is a French patois that came into use in Louisiana during the migration/expulsion of the French from Canada. Lebouef, the real name of Charlotte, is one of the original families that migrated from French Canada. The worst is, the legendary Evangeline is reduced from a beautiful poem by Longfellow, (which may have antecedents in a historical love story) to a star that Ray thinks is an alluring but standoffish firefly, far out of his reach but not his love.

Having grown up every summer of my youth visiting the “Evangeline Oak” in St. Martinsville, you best believe I spit out my goobers on that one. I suppose this was Disney’s way of being clever and trying to keep alive the memory of the legend, but it obscures what the real story has to offer.

Places and things also get short shrift as a rule, but the bayou, depicted as a place of danger and wonder, may be the best the film has to offer. New Orleans has some of its charm, but the real disappointment comes at the end of the movie where St. Louis Cathedral plays a big role in two important senses. No mention of the cathedral’s name is given, and even worse, anything “Catholic” about New Orleans is absent from the scene. It’s as though the only “religion” that exists is the reference to “bad” v. good magic or voodoo, which Michelle Gonzalez Maldanado writes about in her companion piece.

Mardi Gras is depicted as a lively yet tame affair—but who would get married on top of a Mardi Gras float? It’s a bacchanal, a last hurrah for fun and games before the repentance of Ash Wednesday. Oh, and Disney, no funerals on Ash Wednesday unless you get a dispensation. So that funeral for the firefly Ray… liturgically incorrect. (Yes, I am a stickler.) The music, especially the so-called Zydeco music—bland. And those beignets that Tiana makes so that Charlotte can look like she’s a wonderful cook? They would have been stale. Café Du Monde’s wonderful beignets and café au lait is best served freshly fried and heavily sugared, preferably at 5 am watching the sun creep up in the sky over the mighty Mississippi. Oh, and that reminds me, no reference to the mighty river that the riverboats ran on either. Sigh.

I know it’s only a movie, but movies shape how people, especially children, view the world. In the case of New Orleans and the myriad of cultures it holds, to stint on all of the facets that make New Orleans and Louisiana the wonderful, complex, and sometimes exasperating place that it is is a crime. Disney’s princesses, once again, may have big beautiful eyes, but while kids are enjoying the view, Disney’s hack job of deconstructing history by making it “cute” is just as destructive as a category 5 hurricane. Fun and truth do not have to be mutually exclusive to sell a movie, unless of course you’re just bankrupt of ideas.

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