Someone once asked why Princess and the Frog didn’t do as well as say Tangled or Frozen when it comes to popularity. I thought this was an interesting question due to the wide variety of reasons that seem to entangle themselves into this question. While I believe part of the lack of popularity may come from an obvious reason, I want to dig a little deeper and do some critical thinking on this topic. Perhaps my perspective as a Disney lover and a female will bring us to another side of the argument. Before I begin, let me just say that I don’t think there is one clear-cut answer and, by all means, I don’t propose that my theory is better than others. This is just to make you think about this issue from another point of view.
Let’s start with some background to the time period that surrounded the world at the time that this movie premiered. The country had just been through a period where everyone was suspicious of one another, travel was a nightmare, and financials were a mess. The country also made a decision to back change and a positive attitude (mostly) though there were some dissenting voices. Overall, 2009 had more of a positive feel than many years previously. Despite that, and I believe the most recent time can attest to the heart of the people, there is that underlying issue that may have played a part in why people didn’t run to the theater for this movie. Yet, looking at numbers, this film didn’t do so terribly. It was the 5th highest grossing animated movie in 2009 (keeping in mind this year also brought us Up, Coraline, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, A Christmas Carol, The Secret of Kells, and Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs-besides the many smaller animated and direct to video releases). It grossed $104 million in the US and Canada, but earned $267 million worldwide. It was nominated for 3 Academy Awards, but lost to Up and Crazy Heart, which are wonderful movies in their own right.
The thing about Princess and the Frog is what it did more for Disney animation than anything else. This was the first traditionally animated film since Home on the Range, one I have not seen yet, and was the first “princess” movie since Pocahontas and Mulan (which may be argued wasn’t a “princess” movie at all). The animation department at Disney had not been firing on all cylinders with putting out stories that did not hit with the masses as Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast once had. This was also the first film to bring back the Broadway-style music that captured the attention of audiences like those films in the 1990s. With all these firsts, it would seem someone finally realized people wanted more than just bland animated stories quickly pumped out on the computer, and it’s clear that Disney forgot that one of the main factors in its major films is the music. Bringing all these factors together really makes this film hit for me, as so many others who gave it a whirl.
So, why the disconnect? Where did this movie lose people. Many purport that it’s a race thing, which may be accurate. To put some numbers in perspective, Pocahontas made $346 million worldwide ($141 million by Jan 1996) and Mulan brought in $304 worldwide ($120 million in the US and Canada). Could these numbers be because of the previous films that were already tops, so another Disney film just brought people to the theater? Maybe. Could it be people were more willing to watch a movie set farther back in history than say the 1920s? That may also be a thing. Could it be the internet wasn’t such a big thing and the only way to get a review of a movie was to either read a critic’s write up or just go and hope for the best? Definitely something to consider. Or is the fact that Tiana was loudly and proudly proclaimed as the first African American princess and hyped up long before the release of the movie, with the election of our first African American President rubbing some people the wrong way, causing many people to do what has now become the “thing” to do and hate something just for the sake of hating it? Super possible.
What other perspective is there that I could possibly show that would make that last option not the main one to go with? Well, the fact may lie in the history of other Disney princesses. As we know, many of the typical Disney stories were fairy tales taken from very early times and set long before the 1800s. That being the case, many of the roles we once held as “typical” princess/female lead were no longer being portrayed in a story from the 1920s. We sort of saw this change with the character of Princess Ariel, who rebelled against her father and tried to do her own thing; Princess Jasmine, who, while wanting to rebel, didn’t really go that far as she got married anyway and she had a much kinder father than Ariel; and even Belle and Pocahontas who were far more stronger female leads than say Snow White or Aurora, but were still motivated mostly by love/romance. Yet, the idea of a woman, no matter her skin color, wanting to do something such as own her own business and be independent is not something that, even today, is very popular. There are many places and careers that hinder the escalation of women into top roles and some even actively prevent a woman from truly being at the top- even in the 21st century! So setting this movie in a time when women were not very independent, and adding on top of that the traditional Disney princess mold being broken, it makes the traditionalist in many give it pause.
Now, what do I mean by the traditional Disney princess mold- it’s not her race if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s the fact that many of the “traditional” princesses were modeled after the meek woman whose only real drive in life is to find that one true love and get married. Tiana doesn’t need any of that. She wants to do her own thing since this is where her true happiness is found. At the end, she realizes that having others around her also can make her happy, she isn’t defined by her significant other or the role she plays in his life. In fact, he is the one that seems to have lost everything and is only made better through his association with her. It’s not typical for the woman to be the one that completes the relationship- it was typically the strong, handsome man that “fixed” all the girl’s problems. This is a bold stance for the story to take, and one that was seemingly repeated, though a little softer in Tangled. While Flynn is the one that gets her out of the tower and shows her the city, Rapunzel was seemingly on her way there- she just needed a push. And Flynn’s redemption comes via his sacrifice for Rapunzel rather than her making the decision to cut her own hair to spite Mother Gothel’s plan. Rapunzel leaned a bit more to this traditional princess idea of sacrificing for the guy and finding her happiness in him (as well as reuniting with her family). But the fact that there was a short put out not long after that film about their wedding just goes to prove that people want that “happily ever after” ending. It wasn’t until Frozen that the typical mold was truly broken and everyone could see that a princess (or queen) didn’t need a man to find her true love and her self worth wasn’t dependent on a man’s acceptance of her. And word of mouth was really where Frozen shone, so if people aren’t recommending Princess and the Frog, this gem remains somewhat undiscovered.
Tiana was the first to really test that traditional mold and fight back against the idea of a woman needing a man to complete her story- she completed his in fact. However, another issue with this movie comes up when we discuss the word of mouth scenario. We have mentioned many times that marketing for movies has not been a strong point lately for Disney, particularly in regards to their animated movies. I thought Frozen was going to be a buddy-cop type movie with a snowman and reindeer; Zootopia was just talking animals one of which was snarky and one was a goody-two-shoes. So, while there was a lot of talk before Princess and the Frog regarding the first African American Disney princess, talk of the movie and proper promotion was somewhat lacking. Most egregious, though, must be the lack of park presence. While Tiana’s Showboat Jubilee was a delightful surprise in the parks, this only ran from October 2009 through January 2010 in Walt Disney World and from November 2009 through January 2010 in Disneyland. In Disneyland, this movie got more love from 2011 through 2013 when Tiana’s Mardi Gras Celebration, which initially ran from January through October 2010, again ran for the “Limited Time Magic” promotion. Yet, considering that the Move It, Shake It parade is still floating down Main Street, I find the lack of park presence to be aggravating at best, particularly with New Orleans Square in Disneyland and the riverboat in Walt Disney World as the perfect settings for these characters (probably more so in Disneyland, hence the extended Mardi Gras celebration). Though, it does seem some justice is being done with the incorporation of Dr. Facilier in the Halloween party and Tiana is finally representing up on the stage show at Magic Kingdom in Mickey’s Friendship Faire. But, as someone who has been to the parks since age 3, and who has many friends taking young children, I feel that additional park presence would allow for additional exposure to these characters and perhaps a new found favorite for those children not typically exposed to these movies at home. The music is surely catchy enough to warrant repeated plays in the car and the colors of the movie are truly captivating. Plus, there’s a talking alligator who loves to play the trumpet and a cajun firefly- I mean honestly now!
So, while the very easy answer to the question of the obscurity of this movie may be to blame it on racism, I truly feel there’s more at work here. I do feel the non-traditional woman role is interesting to tackle, but also the seeming lack of faith parks and resorts have in hiding these characters from park guests. What do you think? Could the answer be so basic or is there something more at work here? Do you love this movie- make sure to recommend it to your friends and get them to recommend it also! The more love we can garner the better!