“Voodoo is bad magic.” My four-year-old proclaimed to me earnestly. “MM-hmm,” my two year-old agreed. We had just walked out of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, and as I contemplated their comments I questioned my decision to combine mommy-time and research and the implications for my sons’ impressions of Vodou.
Many commentaries will come out in the next few weeks centering on race given that Tiana is Disney’s first black princess. Yet I want to focus on the film’s depiction of Voodoo. Set in New Orleans, the film is a twist on the classic tale of the Princess and the Frog, with Voodoo supplying the magic.
Bewitching Prince Naveen (who’s in town to search for a wife), the Voodoo priest, Dr. Facilier (which, hmm, kind of sounds like Duvalier), draws his blood, turns him into a frog, and tricks his disgruntled servant into posing as the prince. Dr. Facilier’s plan is to then double-cross the servant and assume the prince’s body himself. Is this power all for him? Of course not, he tells the Voodoo loas, who are never addressed by name but are represented by colorful, menacing masks and dark roaring spirits. Ultimately, Dr. Facilier promises, this power will lead to the Voodoo spirits’ control of the city.
I do not know where to begin my comments on how this film perpetuates offensive stereotypes about Voodoo. The loas are represented as evil spirits full of greed and anger. The masks themselves are vengeful, and end up killing Dr. Facilier when, in inevitable Disney fashion, his evil plan fails. This climax occurs, of course, in a graveyard, reaffirming the film’s association of Voodoo with death.
The African style of the masks connects their sinister nature with African religion. Dr. Facilier is often presented with his shadow, who moves independently and manipulates human actions. His big song, “Friends on the Other Side,” emphasizes his connection to the spirits. The “fairy godmother” is Mama Odie, a “good” Voodoo priestess who makes two brief appearances and is not in any way associated with spirits or masks. Both the good and evil sorcerers are associated with snakes. Two snakes wrap around Prince Naveen in order to turn him into a frog and Madame Odie has a snake as her mascot. The use of blood is prominent in the film. Dr. Facilier needs the prince’s blood and keeps it in a smaller African mask. This is hung around the servant’s neck in order for him to maintain the physical appearance of the prince.
The terms Voodoo, Hoodoo, and conjuring are used interchangeably throughout. In the end one is presented with an evil religion that will ultimately fail.
I did not expect critical race analysis or a sophisticated presentation of Voodoo when I walked into the theater. It is, after all, Disney. I did not expect such a blatant, racist, and misinformed presentation of Voodoo, however. The reduction of religion to magic is also reaffirmed in the curious absence of Catholicism in the film. My son is correct, Disney Voodoo is bad magic; it just doesn’t have anything to do with the authentic African Diaspora religion.