Disney princesses are possibly some of the best-known characters worldwide, and part of their appeal lies in their oldey-timey-ness. Each one is certainly a product of the period in which the movie was made, but they are also almost always set in a fantasy historical setting … and thus, their costumes are fantasy historical as well. In this series, we’re going to analyze each of the Disney princesses to discuss the historical influences in their costumes. Previously, we analyzed Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950) in two parts, Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Little Mermaid (1989).
Since I got Disney+ for Hamilton, I looked around to see if there was anything else I might watch for the month before I canceled it. And I noticed The Princess and the Frog (2009), which I’d missed back in the day. I found it’s an enjoyable addition to the Disney princess canon, plus the flick has a delightful take on 1920s New Orleans style. So I’m taking editorial privilege, and I’m jumping into Kendra’s Disney princess series, hah!
I’m also picking up where Sarah left off with her version of Historically Accurate Disney Princesses. She gave an option for what Tiana, this movie’s “princess,” could look like in real life.
But this is only the “princessy” dress Tiana wears at the very end of the movie, which, sure, that’s the main image of her on all the marketing and if you were able to go to the theme parks. But she’s only shown this way for a hot second in a 97 minute movie! And yeah, I totally get the complaints that here’s the first Black Disney princess who actually spends most of her movie as a frog, not even as a human being. Weird and offensive, but weird and offensive in that Disney way since they built their empire on singing animal stories. Let’s at least look at the time Tiana does spend as a human, and not just the tiny bit as a princess. Because she’s damn interesting and probably the most realistic person of all the Disney princesses!
The movie’s co-directors Ron Clements and Jon Musker were inspired by a real person when creating the character of Tiana. They told SlashFilm about meeting the “Queen of Creole Cuisine” Leah Chase in New Orelans. Musker said:
“She talked about how food brings people together, and it’s this social lubricant, a way of bringing people together from different walks of life. … Up on the wall was a picture. She has a lot of art work on the walls of the restaurant that she’s picked up, but there’s also a photo up there. It was George Patton. I asked about it. She was like, ‘I admire Patton.’ She’s in her 80s. She was seeing Patton on the newsreels in the ’40s and everything. She goes, ‘That was a man that I admired.’ It was just a great thing to see this warm and nurturing thing, but she has this flinty side, too, where she can be both. That’s what we tried to get with Tiana, that she’s very warm and vulnerable but she has a passion, spine, and a backbone, and she’s really trying to get something done and doesn’t give in easily to things.”
Tiana is the first Disney princess with career goals, and she doesn’t really want to let a man get in the way of her pursuing that. Right on, sister! Of course, this being Disney, there are obstacles in her way, more of them magical than realistic.
The story opens in 1912 New Orleans, in the very pink and princessy bedroom of little Charlotte “Lottie” La Bouff, a spoiled rich blonde girl who is literally dressed as a poufy pink princess.
She has her own seamstress who apparently does nothing but sew endless pink princess costumes for her (OK, sure, I’d have loved that as a kid, and it does seem like a decent gig for the seamstress).
Lottie pals around with her seamstress’s daughter, Tiana. The internet says Tiana is 19 during the later part of the movie, so she’d have to be 5 here, which I don’t see. Maybe it’s that super-precocious Disney 5-year-old thing? Bleh.
Nobody seems bothered by the dynamics of Tiana’s Black mom, Eudora (voiced by none-the-less than Oprah Winfrey), working for Lottie’s white dad, and the girls are just happy and perfectly at ease in their interracial, BFF-ness across socio-economic classes. Because everything always works out that nicely in Disney World, remember? Moving on.
Tiana’s family is poor, but they have love and good gumbo. Dad dreams of opening his own restaurant, but he’d call it Tiana’s Place. So when he dies in World War I, his daughter takes up the dream and works two jobs waitressing to save up the money to build up her own restaurant.
Meanwhile, a philandering, spendthrift but legit prince comes to town and makes all the girls go crazy. Except Tiana, of course.
Lottie & her daddy come visit Tiana at her second job — which they seem to do frequently, since Big Daddy is fond of the beignets. And still, after 14 years, the racial, class, and economic differences between the gals are NBD, they’re still buddies in this Disney fantasy version of the 1920s. Cool.
Since Big Daddy is having a masquerade party to celebrate Prince Naveen’s arrival, Lottie decides to hire Tiana to make beignets at the party. That money is just what Tiana needs to finally buy her restaurant.
Next, Tiana’s sings “Almost There” in a fabulous fantasy where she tells her mom all about how her restaurant will be. This part is the best thing about the whole movie to me for a couple reasons. Tiana’s appearance is referencing iconic Josephine Baker looks, with a slinky white gown, but she’s doing it while cooking and running the restaurant — reinforcing the idea that she’s in charge, she’s not just a pretty face.
All this part is animated in a gorgeous Art Deco Harlem Renaissance style, unlike the rest of the movie. The gold and brown colors are significant and beautiful, and every line reinforces the modern, deco feel. This is not your old-fashioned Disney fantasyland scene! The sequence was strongly inspired by the work of African-American painter and illustrator Aaron Douglas, further rooting Tiana in her Black heritage and the 1920s time and place.
Back in the real cartoon world, Prince Naveen and his stupid valet are tricked by the voodoo witch doctor Dr. Facilier. This ends with the Prince being turned into a frog, hence the action of the movie.
At the party that night, everyone’s wearing costumes, so not particularly historical, though slightly hysterical.
Lottie may be a ditzy blonde, but she’s well-intentioned. When Tiana’s crappy costume gets even crappier, Lottie pulls out a spare princess gown for T.
Then Disney magic intervenes, and Tiana is turned into a frog just like Naveen. They go off to the swamp and have adventures with singing animals, but there’s no costuming so I’m going to skip that.
Meanwhile, the bad guys continue scheming, which involves hoodwinking Lottie.
Eventually, Tiana and Naveen make their way back to town to try and break the spell that turned them into frogs. Tiana encounters evil Dr. Facilier, who tempts her with the idea of her dream restaurant coming true.
They think they can break the spell with Lottie’s help.
But newp, they’re still frogs.
Until, y’know, twu wuv’s kiss…
For some reason, their magical frog wedding isn’t legit enough, so they have a church wedding as humans and wearing different outfits.
Now that she’s married to a prince — and more importantly, that prince isn’t disinherited because he’s settled down with a sensible partner — she can open her restaurant.
What do you think of The Princess and the Frog?
This was a fantastic and insightful read of The Princess and the Frog! The screenshots from the film paired with the historical fashion photos were fun and effective. Disney definitely missed some opportunities to be more historically accurate. The 20s was such a great time in fashion.
I will say that my daughter and I do give this film some hard side eye, because:
1) Tiana is a frog for most of it (thanks for touching on this).
2) Naveen, though good-looking, is just so, very trifling. Tiana deserved better.
3) We appreciate that Tiana is smart, resourceful, ambitious, and hardworking, but, as Black women, we did want her to have that princess fantasy of of being swept off her feet.
4) I, too, thought her final dress was a bit unfortunate. There were so many fabulous directions they could have went with it!
Disney gets an “E” for effort, but yeah, they’ve got a ways to go in terms of character, representation, & fashion :D
A Disney princess with a live mom? It’s a miracle.
Sacrificial dad this time, heh.
Ahhhh, I love this movie! Yeah, it’s got a few issues re: representation and accuracy, but at the end of the day I still love it and love the music in it. So glad you did this one!
Watching it the first time as an adult, it stands up better than a lot of other Disney stuff (which slides by on nostalgia).
I don’t think I’ve seen the whole one, but maybe I should also explore my Disney plus more. I saw the latter part, and liked Tiana’s pluck, but I see what you mean on both costume and plot. The church looks quite a bit like St. Louis Cathedral, right on Jackson Square. If the vows are done in that era the priest may well have exited to the side–although I doubt Disney was researching pre-conciliar Catholicism.
I agree, I think it’s supposed to be St. Louis Cathedral.