Disney, Fairytales, and Women, Part 5: The Princess and the Frog

There is no way in this whole wide world I would ever, ever, ever, I mean never kiss a frog.

Disney's The Princess and the Frog is loosely based, foremost, on E.D. Baker's The Frog Princess, which in turn is based on the Grimms' story "The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich," known more recently as "The Frog Prince." (For those playing at home, the German title is "Der Froschk√∂nig oder der eiserne Heinrich," which I include because it is really fun to say and I would not keep that from you.) Though the movie is a few steps removed from the Grimms' tale, there are still elements present in the movie that can be traced back to the story.

There are two different routes that "The Frog Prince" stories take with their heroines. Some of them have a strong-willed heroine who at first despises the frog, and the rest have a sweet-natured heroine who submits to the frog's requests without protest. Tiana is derived more from the former type. Later Grimms editions had the latter type of heroine, but the first few editions kept the Tiana-type heroines. In those earlier versions, the princess loses a ball in a deep pond, and the frog offers to fetch it for her in return for eating at her dinner table and sleeping in her bed beside her. She agrees, but once she gets the ball back, she flees. The frog follows her, and she at first shuts him out, but her father, the king, demands she honor her promises. She continues to be disgusted by the frog until eventually, when he tries to sleep next to her, she becomes so revolted she flings him against the wall, which is what turns him back into a prince.

The kiss is a much more modern invention, in fact more modern than even the later Grimms editions; the sweeter heroine, who needs no commands to allow the frog to do as she promised he could, receives her prince simply by allowing him to sleep in her bed, no kiss required (although...it might be implied that there's...a bit more...than that). In a Scottish version of this tale, "The Well of the World's End," the girl chops the frog's head off. The Polish version of the story uses a snake rather than a frog, and the princess tears the snake in half. In the Lithuanian version, she burns the snake's skin. The toad in the Korean "The Toad Bridegroom" asks his prospective bride to cut his back open with scissors, but rather than being violently disgusted by the toad, the Korean heroine had offered to marry the toad in order to save her father's fortunes. Some Anglo-American versions have the frog tell the princess they must be married to break the spell, as a way to gloss over that earlier bed incident, but those stories also usually involve the sweeter heroine. The strong-willed ones are the ones who are generally performing some act of violence which unexpectedly breaks the spell, whereas the sweeter heroines do whatever it takes because they know what will happen when they do this.

Tiana, of course, knows what will happen when she kisses the frog (or at least, what's supposed to happen), but that doesn't stop her repulsion. Throughout the story, Tiana is determined, resolute, and tenacious: much more reminiscent of the strong-willed heroines flinging frogs across their bedrooms. Interestingly, though some of the frogs explicitly require a princess to break the spell, many (particularly international versions) are just normal girls, like Tiana. Disney's choice to use a girl who wasn't a princess at the beginning highlights one of the running themes in the movie: no matter where you're from or who you are, you can achieve your dreams.

I really appreciate that Disney took it in a different direction from the fairytale; the moral the Grimms seem to be trying to put into the story is that the woman owes the frog for doing her a favor. We hear this over and over with men complaining about being in the "friend zone," as if being nice to someone obligates them to have sex with you. While it is surely a good lesson to keep your promises, the frog's repeated insistence on getting into the princess's bed is really, deeply unnerving to a modern audience. I find myself recoiling in horror at this particular passage: "The princess began to weep, for she was terrified of the clammy frog. She didn't dare touch him, and now he was going to sleep in her beautiful, clean bed. The king grew angry and said: 'You shouldn't scorn someone who helped you when you were in trouble.'" Very often in Disney's fairytale films they have to flesh out the story quite a bit; most fairytales aren't more than 10 or 12 pages long, so there's necessarily going to be some creativity with the story. Sometimes this is more successful than others, and I think The Princess and the Frog was a really successful adaptation, even though it had some help from a longer young adult novel.

The enchantment of the frog isn't actually discussed in more than passing in the Grimms' story. It is mentioned that the frog is enchanted, sometimes an enchantress or witch is referred to, but rarely is it mentioned why he was enchanted. Later stories usually say the frog insulted the witch, but more often than not, the frog was a perfectly good guy who just happened to get in the way of an evil witch. In The Princess and the Frog, we get the carefree and clueless Naveen and the scheming Dr. Facilier.

Facilier sees Naveen and Lawrence and sees an opportunity to get rich. He mentions in passing to Lawrence his frustration with the rich elite of New Orleans (Big Daddy and the like) and his mistreatment at their hands, and while this isn't touched on much at all in the film, even that brief mention shows that Facilier is motivated by more than just being evil like the witches/enchantresses in the fairytales are. Naveen and Lawrence didn't personally do anything to Facilier, but he sees Naveen as part of the system he loathes, and Lawrence as a fellow disgruntled lower-class denizen. It's really a great use of the witch/enchantress character from the story and one that gently prods at the entire royal and upper-class system that we generally don't question in the realm of Disney films.

It is worth noting, however, that the use of voodoo was not the most tastefully done thing. Louisiana voodoo is based in large part on west African religious traditions adapted by slaves, and the perception of it as magic or even evil magic is a very troublesome viewpoint. Seeing ceremonies and religious imagery we aren't familiar with can read as magic or evil magic, but that doesn't mean that's what it is. That's not to say there aren't loads of people in New Orleans capitalizing on that view of voodoo, but perpetuating the portrayal of a religion belonging largely to marginalized people as "evil" is a very ishy thing to do.

All that said, The Princess and the Frog is one of my favourite Disney movies. I appreciate that they had the creativity to take a fairytale and set it somewhere outside the author's country of origin, and to make it a more modern story than they usually do with fairytales. I think the story is excellent and the characters are interesting and lovable. The setting, the artwork, and the music are all beautiful. I would truly love to see more Disney fairytale movies in this vein.


Popular posts from this blog

The Next Disney Movie That Will Never Be: The Feslihanci Girl


There Is, There Was, There Will Be: On Creating a Fairytale Story