Someday My Princess Will Come
The depiction of Princess Tianna is a landmark decision for The Mouse. There have been white, Asian, Native American and Arab heroines, so it seems the time for an African-American princess is long overdue. "[Princess Tianna] delivers affirmation to little girls who look like this girl," says Anika Noni Rose, who voices the barrier-breaking princess. "She delivers a sense of partnership between other little girls who have friends and family members who look like Tianna. I think in the world of fantasy, and I'm not just talking about Disney, the dark character has always been associated with evil—the black hat is the bad cowboy—and this is the flip. It's wonderful to see something different, and it will be effective on many fronts to many children, and consequently to many adults years from now."
"I understand that people are frightened because history hasn't been kind to black Americans in the land of animation," Rose says, likely referring to "Jim Crow" and his flock in Dumbo, and the Jungle Book monkeys who are dying to become "real people" and talk in jive while the other characters have British accents. "But this is something that Disney has been wanting to do for a long time. They certainly don't want to offend anyone, least of all me. I'm in the studio! So there's been a lot of care put into this project. I know there's deep-seeded pain within the culture about the way we've been portrayed onscreen throughout the years, but I think this is made only in love and with the desire to kick off the shroud that has been sitting over Disney for so long."
Plus, Rose points out, this movie is for kids. Though it shouldn't ridicule, it should make us laugh. "The firefly is funny," she says. "It's not in ugly jest. He's Cajun and he makes fun of himself, and there are lots of different portrayals in the movie. I am not one to sit up here and boost buffoonery. You really have to see it in context. It's not something that's meant to denigrate in the least."
The look of Princess Tianna isn't the only change worth noting in The Princess and the Frog. After a long run of CGI, Disney is returning to its original art form, and Rose says New Orleans is just the subject to help them show off the medium they pioneered. "They've captured the heat of that city in their drawing," she says. "It's palpable. There's a haze in it." But why take the step backward? "There's a romanticism with hand-drawn animation that you lose when you move into CGI. When you're talking about a fairy tale, I think there's a softness around the edges that you can't get with a computer," she says. "I'm not an artist—some people might argue: 'Yes, you can! You just hit Control-F3!' But I think there's no one who does hand-drawn animation like Disney. Even their color palette is so distinct."
Rose says The Incredibles and Monsters, Inc. are two of her favorite movies, but that hand-drawn animation as an art form must be preserved before it's lost altogether. "I think it's worth keeping some of the classic things we do in life," she says. "Which doesn't mean that we shouldn't step forward, but you don't have to throw something away to use something else."
Known mostly for her theater work and her role in Dreamgirls, Rose says doing an animated film was an entirely different beast. "It's like accessing your inner child. You're creating every moment there is—if you are jumping on the trampoline in the movie, there's no trampoline in the studio, you're jumping up and down. If there's a dragon breathing down your neck and you have fire in your ear, nobody's lighting a match behind you," she says. "You really have to let go of what is considered acceptable and normal in society and just go further than your friend would think was okay if you were driving down the street together. You know, if you were in the mall with one of your friends and you did some of this stuff, they might call 911. They might get you a real snug jacket."
So despite early criticism, for now Rose is simply asking fans and critics alike to reserve judgment on The Princess and the Frog until the movie's December 11 release. "I love the movie," she says. "I would love for people to see the movie. It's very difficult to base thoughts on something that hasn't been seen yet."