Monday, February 11, 2013

Causing Trouble With Odienator: Broke-Ass Princess Seeks Frog

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

I’m just going to come right out and say this:

The Princess and the Frog has a broke ass princess in it.

Don’t get me wrong: I really liked the movie. But something nagged at me--something ghetto. Usually, I’m down with all things ghetto, but this kind of bugged me. When all those pretty White girls married princes in Disney cartoons, they rode off into a very rich Happily Ever After. To wit: Cinderella was a maid the entire cartoon, and she rightfully got swept off to a life of leisure. Sleeping Beauty was roofied because her parents didn’t invite some witch to a party; she ran off with the rich dude too. Hell, even the Little Mermaid was probably going to get that Rasta crab to be her servant, a clear step up from her original fate in the Hans Christian Andersen story. Hans killed her ass!

But when Tiana finally gets her prince, after indirectly being turned into a frog by voodoo, dealing with a crazy blind woman named after me and working her fingers to the bone doing two jobs, she gets to live her dream. And what is her dream?

Busting her ass in her own restaurant. 

I’m all for people living their dreams, and Tiana’s restaurant looked spectacular, an elegant, sepia-toned throwback to the Jazz Age. But as I walked to my car, I asked myself: “If you were a little Black girl, would you want to play with a broke-ass princess doll who has to cook for a living?” I sweetened the deal by having the Tiana doll come with an Easy Bake Oven. My answer was the same: HELL NO!

“Maybe if she’d bypassed marrying a prince and just married Prince,” I thought, but that would NOT fly in a G-rated movie. Plus, he’d probably make her cook, too.

Go on, say it: Odie, you a gold digger!

Stop writing that angry comment at the bottom of this post! I’m only half-kidding. I’m not a little Black girl, so I cannot speak for what one would do. And I loved the Easy Bake Oven as a kid! Let me tell you about the movie instead.

The road to The Princess and the Frog hit a few somewhat controversial bumps: Rumor had it she was originally going to be a maid named Maddy. This caused all manner of uproar, but not for me. Cinderella was a maid, why not Maddy? It would make her Happily Ever After even richer. How many fairy tales started with the downtrodden and ended with that great American lie that “you too can be rich?” And where were these upset people when that lady was writing The Help? Couldn’t those pitchforks and torches be better used by going to her house?

No matter. They hired a Black screenwriter to co-write the film, and made some changes. Maddy the maid became Tiana…the waitress. She works two jobs in 1920’s New Orleans to save for the restaurant her Daddy always wanted. The opening credits show her working like a dog, with barely enough time to sleep. We see her dumping her tips into coffee cans (a ghetto touch I loved) before running off to her next gig. Tiana is a preternaturally gifted waitress and a customer favorite, but her spirit and spark are overshadowed by her tenacious, workaholic nature. When she was little, and wished upon a star like Jiminy Cricket advises, her Pa Terrence Howard tells her that the star can only help if she does her part to make her dreams come true. In other words, “that star wishing only works for White girls. Your Black ass needs to work.

And work she does. She never goes out, never socializes, barely has time to breathe, all in pursuit of Tiana’s Place. It’s the shred of her dearly departed Daddy that she clings to in order to keep him with her. As voiced by the wonderful, Tony-award winning Anika Noni Rose, Tiana is immediately endearing and emotionally bound to us. Rose speaks with such passion—and sings with even more—about her hopes and dreams. I rooted for her to hit the Lotto and blow Sylvia’s Restaurant out of the water.

Tiana’s Mama, played by the richest Black woman in America, is a seamstress for Big Daddy (John Goodman—perfect casting) and his princess-crazy daughter, Charlotte Le Bouff. Charlotte and Tiana are BFF’s despite their financial differences, though Charlotte comes off as an amusingly clueless example of that “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls” viral video. Charlotte’s goal in life is to marry a prince, and as luck would have it, Big Daddy is about to host a visiting prince at his mansion! It looks as if the same star she and Tiana wished on is going to deliver for Charlotte without her lifting a finger. See! Told you that wishing star was like blonde hair—it only works for White girls!

The prince in question, Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos), is a ho. He likes to party, spend his family’s dough, and sleep with as many women as possible. This is all shielded from the kiddies by the G-rating, mind you, but it’s there. The women in New Orleans lose their damn minds over Naveen, and why wouldn’t they? He’s hot, he’s fun, he’s got musical talent! And he’s of Indeterminate Brownness™

"Do I violate the One Drop Rule?"

 Who wouldn’t like this party animal? I’ll tell you who: His abused, put-upon manservant, a poor schlub whose entire life has been one travesty of justice after another. Taking notes on all this, from the shadows, is Dr. Facilier, aka The Shadow Man. Dr. Facilier is gifted with both voodoo and the voice of Keith David, whose lower register alone should be certified a national treasure.

The prince is in town for shady reasons: He needs to marry money so he can continue his Himbo ways. Charlotte is the likely target, but before he can even get to her mansion, he’s intercepted by Dr. Facilier. Naveen’s manservant sees right through the good Doctor, but Naveen is hypnotized by Facilier’s charms. Naveen agrees to having his cards read in a dark alley, his manservant reluctantly in tow and completely unaware of how his luck and the prince’s are about to reverse.

Notice how Keith David's trademark is lovingly drawn on Papa Shango Jr.

Meanwhile, Tiana, who has become well known for her beignets, is hired by Charlotte to bake 500 of them for her “Welcome, Future Husband” costume party. The money Charlotte throws at Tiana is just the amount she needs for the downpayment on the sugar mill she’s been eyeing as the site of the future Tiana’s Place.  Armed with her coffee cans, she heads to the realtor and obtains the lease from two suspicious looking dudes. These realtors will, as subtly as Disney will allow, represent racism later. For now, Tiana takes her Mom to the sugar mill to show her what her hard work hath wrought and hath bought.

Oprah looks at her daughter with her patented “Chile, you crazy” look, but Tiana, Randy Newman, and the Disney animators make her see the light. As Tiana sings about how her dreams are “Almost There,” the animators bring Tiana’s Place to life. It’s a gorgeous, glamorous, Black fantasy, a Cotton Club where the Black folks get to eat and watch the show.

"Mom, lemme show you what I'm gonna do with this place."

This may be my favorite shot in the movie.

I was so wrapped up in that world that when Tiana’s Place returns to its reality as a decrepit sugar mill, I felt sad. “There’s no way in hell she can afford to make this place look like that!” I thought. “Maybe she should get summa dat voodoo from Keith David…”

The movie read my mind and showed me why Tiana needed to bribe that star in the sky instead. Dr. Facilier, who is this film’s witch equivalent, sings to Prince Naveen about having “Friends on the Other Side,” folks who can get Prince Naveen the money he needs at a very small, non-monetary price. Keith David’s vocal performance in this scene is superb, seductive and scary. I could forgive all the stereotypically hoodoo visuals because David’s singing voice made me believe he had this incredible power. He flim-flams both Naveen and his manservant, using their greed to light the fuse of his dynamite. “Would ya shake a poor sinner’s hand?” he asks them at the height of his seduction. They do.

Check your fingers, boys. You might not have them all.

Prince Naveen turns into the frog in the title. His manservant turns into Prince Naveen, which means he’s about to get all the ass and the attention he only bore witness to prior to this turn of events. Blood in a sinister looking locket keeps the spell going. Afterwards, Dr. Facilier reveals to us his ulterior motive for grabbing the prince: Once fake Prince Naveen marries Charlotte, Dr. Facilier will kill the richest White man in New Orleans with a voodoo doll, take Charlotte’s inheritance money and allow his “Friends on the Other Side” to run rampant in town. Sounds like some serious reparations for slavery to me!

At Charlotte’s costume party, Tiana is working the beignet stand when she meets the realtors who sold her the mill. They kill her dream by telling her she must pay  the entire price of the property rather than just the downpayment. In a fairer world, Tiana could call Johnnie Cochran and sue the shit out of Century 21. But this is 1920’s New Orleans. The two realtors, one of whom is conveniently dressed as the business end of a horse, exit after making some racially tinged, sexist comments to Tiana. This makes her upset enough to violate Papa’s words and talk to that wishing star again. After her wish, she encounters the frog version of Prince Naveen (the fake version has finally arrived as well), who convinces her that if she kisses him, he’ll return to human form and pay off the realtors. Figuring she has nothing to lose, Tiana kisses the frog Naveen, and catches his nasty little STD. She too is turned into a frog.

You'll get more than warts from this frog, girlfriend!

The rest of The Princess and the Frog details Naveen and Tiana’s quest to become human again before Dr. Facilier’s plan can be executed. We spend more time with Tiana as a frog than as a pretty cocoa skinned Black girl, but I found that didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Along the way, the duo meet a trumpet playing alligator with the voice of Michael-Leon Wooley, the name of a famous trumpet player and musical skill of Terrence Blanchard. They also meet one of the ugliest creatures Disney has ever put onscreen, an almost toothless lightning bug named Raymond.

You Sho' Is Ugly, says Shug Avery.

Raymond is the film’s tragic, romantic figure, a literally star-crossed lover in thrall to the same wishing star to which Tiana and Charlotte directed their wishes. He calls it Evangeline and longs for the moment when he can join her in the sky. The other characters think he’s nuts, but I bought into this romantic longing. Ray’s sweetness makes up for his appearance, and as voiced by Jim Cummings in a suspect though charming Cajun accent, Ray sings the film’s most beautiful song, a short, sweet waltz called "Ma Belle Evangeline."

Naveen and Tiana’s journey also leads them to Disney’s attempt to wrestle my name from the claws of Garfield comics. Jenifer Lewis, former Harlette and all-around diva, voices Mama Odie, a blind voodoo priestless who “lives in a boat in a tree in the bayou.” Leave it to Disney to completely screw up my big-screen debut—I’m only half-blind and certainly not a woman. At least they got the voodoo part right, as well as Mama Odie having a big snake and a penchant for singing gospel numbers. Said number, “Dig a Little Deeper,” is the film’s showstopper, with its huge gospel choir background vocals, Busby Berkeley cartoon flamingo choreography and Mama Odie’s comic dancing. As colorful as Mama Odie is, by film’s end you’ll realize this fairy godmother stand-in was actually useless. Nonetheless, she’s fun, and I now want a Mama Odie doll to go next to my stuffed Odie dog.

Also by film’s end, you’ll know what happened to Dr. Facilier (it ain’t pretty), whether Tiana and Naveen hook up and if they become human again, and just who Tiana hired to scare the shit out of those realtors and make them accept her downpayment. (Hint: he has teeth and a trumpet.) I’ve seen this film three times, and I’m still most affected by what happens to poor Ray. As sad as his fate is, I still think he gets the movie’s true Happily Ever After.

The Princess and the Frog was upstaged at the Oscars, and rightly so, by Pixar’s Up. But there are so many things I enjoyed about this film. Randy Newman’s song score is his best in years, with a variety of songs, all of which are better than the two for which he won his Oscars. His performers, Rose, Cummings, Wooley, Campos, David and Lewis contribute excellent renditions of the songs. The hand-drawn animation is breathtaking at times (Ray’s firefly brethren lighting up the sky, Tiana’s Place, and the bayou itself are all standouts.) And the characters are visually and emotionally memorable. So much for me to enjoy, which leads me back to what bugged me about it. Tiana’s Happily Ever After involves her continuing to work. I suppose this is the perfect ending for a workaholic, but I dunno. I always equated Happily Ever After with being rich.

Broke or not, Princess Tiana is Disney’s first Black princess, meaning that as long as there’s a Disney World and a Disneyland, little brown skinned girls will be able to walk through Main Street and find someone the same complexion as they are--besides those crows from Dumbo and Br’er Rabbit. I’m certainly not going to complain; there are some fly honeys playing Tiana at Magic Kingdom AND they have to be nice to me, which violates Sistah Code Law 2.01. It’s a win-win for little brown-skinned girls and big brown-skinned Odies. This is very important, because for every “post-racial America” person who says we’re all alike, I have a mirror that calls you a liar.

This isn’t to say that Black kids can’t identify with White characters (and vice versa). It’s just nice to have a visual representation of yourself onscreen (and at Disney Parks). It’s just too bad that, compared to other princesses, Tiana is in the 99%, not the 1%.

OK! I’ll stop!

"Boy, don't make me put this club on yo' ass! How dare you shame the Odie name!"

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