'Princess and the Frog' Hits Right Notes

When Disney set out to make history by creating the first black animated princess in "The Princess and the Frog," there were plenty of early critics and naysayers who questioned whether the studio would get it right.

Now that the film is out -- reaching No. 1 in its opening weekend -- the naysayers have been all but silent.

"The reason for the critical silence is the film doesn't fall into the trap that people expected," Mia Mask, the film department chair at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., told ABCNews.com. "Because the film was in production so long, people were expecting (Disney) to mess it up and reproduce stereotypes in some way. But the folks working on this really had a clue and managed to avoid the pitfalls that people expected they might fall into."

"(Disney) did a good job in not being controversial," Michael Baran, a Harvard University cultural anthropologist, told ABCNews.com. "With this one, they had to be a lot more careful."

"It certainly was important to make sure we were creating the next Disney princess who could stand with all the other Disney princesses," Peter del Vecho, the film's producer, told ABCNews.com.

After deciding to set the movie in New Orleans and make the main characters black, the filmmakers solicited feedback from prominent African Americans along the way.

"We wanted to make sure we got it right," said del Vecho, adding that the film was never delayed and the release date was even moved up by a month.

But while the film was in production, rumors and criticism threatened to tarnish Disney's first black princess even before she made it to the screen.

After "early speculation," del Vecho said the filmmakers were confident that "once people saw the movie they would be very pleased and embrace Tiana."

Teresa Wiltz, senior culture writer for TheRoot.com, said she understands the reason for all the early speculation.

"There are still so few images of black people in the media that we come armed to the multiplex with all these expectations," Wiltz told ABCNews.com. "It's a very high, high bar."

Wiltz said she thinks Disney met the challenge. (Disney is the parent company of ABC News.)

"I thought it was lovely," she said, "beautifully done."

Baran agreed. "Any issues one can find with representations are not really blatant," he said. "They were careful to portray African Americans. More than anything else they make the white folk look ridiculous."

Time magazine voted the film one of the best of the year.

Twist on an Old Story

The film, set in the 1920s, centers on Princess Tiana -- played by Tony-winning actress Anika Noni Rose -- a waitress and budding chef who dreams of owning a restaurant. She is persuaded to kiss a frog who is really a prince -- but the kiss, instead of making him human, turns her into a frog. Accompanied by a Cajun firefly and a trumpet-playing alligator, the amphibian couple set out to find a cure.

Months before the movie opened, some African-American bloggers and others asked why, after taking so long to bring the first black princess to the big screen, Disney would turn her into a frog for most of the film.

'The Princess and the Frog'

Concerns were also raised about Prince Naveen's light skin color. He hails from the fictional land of Maldonia and is voiced by a Brazilian actor.

"Even though there is a real-life black man in the highest office in the land with a black wife, Disney obviously doesn't think a black man is worthy of the title of prince," Angela Bronner Helm wrote on the Black Voices Web site.

"He's in Jim Crow's era New Orleans," Wiltz said in answer to Naveen's critics. "How else are you going to work that?"

Mask, who says she was impressed by the film, said there is another way to look at the prince's light skin: Here is someone going against the grain by choosing a woman darker than he.

"In many cases in popular culture, the woman is more light-skinned than the man," said Mask, author of "Divas on Screen," "whether it's a white woman and a tanned white man or Jay-Z and Beyonce."

Wiltz said she was also disappointed when the brown-skinned princess turned into a frog a third of the way through the film, but in the end, she said, the plotline works well in the tradition of other classic Disney fairy tales.

"She has to have some sort of obstacle to overcome," Wiltz said. "Being a frog in a swamp is a big obstacle."

Mask said turning Tiana into a frog works in the same vein as other animated films like "Shrek," which turn the whole princess image on its head.

"It's about the values they are trying to communicate to children: It's about who you are, not what you look like," she said.

Baran said the film isn't perfect. He's troubled by the way voodoo is portrayed as evil, with dancing African masks. "It's associating African-ness with evil," he said.

Mask agreed that the portrayal of voodoo was probably the most problematic aspect of the film.

Del Vecho said the filmmakers took care to balance the bad voodoo with the good voodoo, practiced by the Mama Odie character, which is voiced by Jenifer Lewis.

"We wanted to create a villain," del Vecho said. "Ultimately the villain gets his comeuppance."

But from his perspective as an anthropologist and diversity consultant concerned with how children learn about race, Baran said the film offers plenty of opportunities for parents to open a dialogue with their children about race, class, gender and religion.

Princess and Frog: Race and Class

"I actually thought it was surprisingly sophisticated and subtle in the way it handled class and racial issues without saying it," Wiltz said. "For example, when Tiana and her mother get on the trolley car, they go to the back. Her mother is working in a mansion for 'Big Daddy,' and she goes home to her shotgun house. They had a very fine line to tread."

Meanwhile, "Precious," another film currently in theaters that depicts a black family, is getting vocal criticism from some prominent blacks.

"I thought that was an incredible piece of art," Wiltz said. "I was a little caught off guard that the backlash was so vehement. We are so starved (of our own image) that a film has to be representative of everything. I think that's unfortunate."

"Princess and the Frog" is not under the same scrutiny, Wiltz said, because, "ultimately, it is a very positive depiction of black life. Tiana comes from a two-parent family and she has a very loving father who is clearly a major presence. It's about hard work and having a work ethic."

Tiana's class struggles are common to the African-American experience, but they're also universal to people of every race, Mask said, which will make this film popular to all audiences in the way other Disney films with heroes of color, like Pocahontas, Aladdin and Mulan, were.

But where those previous Disney films drew criticism for some stereotypes they portrayed, like the line from an "Aladdin" song that said, "It's barbaric ... but it's home," Mask said Disney took care to get "Princess and the Frog" right.

"It makes me wonder if this film took so long in production because it was maybe a result of them trying to work out these issues," she said.

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