“The Princess and the Frog” was tops at the box office as families flocked to theaters during opening weekend to see Disney’s animated musical comedy featuring the first African-American princess.
Set in New Orleans, a girl named Tiana with big dreams shares a kiss with a frog prince — setting the stage for a wild adventure through the Louisiana bayou. Even before the movie hit theaters, Tiana, voiced by Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose, was a hit with young girls and their moms, who scooped up Tiana merchandise as it began arriving in stores. But for some, the long road to a black Disney princess has not been without controversy.
Critics have wondered why Tiana’s love interest, Prince Naveen from the fictitious Maldonia, wasn’t black. They questioned why Ray the firefly was so stereotypically Southern and expressed concern that Tiana spent a good part of the movie as a frog instead of a princess.
Rose, who has been acting since age 14 when her portrayal of Coco in a high school production of “Fame” left the auditorium silent and her own mother in a state of shock, took a moment to chat with us about being part of history and why people should be a bit more open-minded.
Q: As an actress, what drew you to the role of Tiana?
A: I love who she is. I love her sense of strength and her ability to dream wide, but her determination to work hard and to create her own path to achieve her dream. I understand her. It is a journey very similar to my own. She feels very personal to me. It was very important to me that she be accessible and that she be understandable and that she be somebody that children felt like they could relate to.
Q: People have criticized everything from Prince Naveen not being black to Ray the firefly being too Southern? What do you think of those criticisms?
A: I think that people need to see the movie. I think it is a beautiful movie. The characters are gorgeously rendered both by the artists and the vocal artists behind them. It is a very respectful story told with a lot of love and a lot of care. It is 2009. It will be 2010 … and love is love. It is a very beautiful and lovingly told story. … I hope that people can see it openly and allow themselves to take the journey.
Q: What has been most gratifying about being the first black Disney princess?
A: There are a lot of things that are wonderful about it. It is personal and poignant to us as brown people, but to the children who are coming to see the movie, it is just their princess. They feel like she is theirs and they aren’t worried about what she looks like. I’ve seen so many children in Tiana gowns from so many different backgrounds that I have been filled up to the brim. It is a tribute to where we are in the world, because we are in such an integrated world right now. Not just in our schools, but in our families. There are children who are not brown who may have a brown sister or cousin or mommy or neighbor. It is a beautiful thing for them to be able to connect to Tiana.
Q: What message or lesson do you hope young girls (and maybe some women) take from “The Princess and the Frog”?
A: That would be from my grandmother: If it is to be, it is up to me. There is no defeat until you concede. If there is something that we want to do in life, do it because you can. You put your mind into it and you put your heart into it and make it happen. An important thing in the movie for women because we are taught to work so hard, is to recognize the beauty around you. To take a break and don’t forget to enjoy life.
I also just want to stress that the movie is very boy- friendly. There are a lot of male characters. There is a lot of fantastic music and there are messages for them as well about being responsible and being worthy of having a princess and finding your way to be a prince in someone’s life. It’s not about money or having a crown but finding your inner strength.