“My Daddy never did get what he wanted. But he had what he needed. He had love. He never lost sight o’ what was really important.” — Tiana
“The only thing important is what’s UNDER the skin.” — Mama Odie
The Walt Disney Company announced that Disney+ will be getting an animated series titled Tiana based on the heroine in The Princess and the Frog (2009) and will reportedly follow the challenges of her marriage to Prince Naveen, her new royalty status, and operating her restaurant.
Of course, this is not just because Disney wants to embrace diversity but because of business synergy with the Disney theme park ride Splash Mountain now being re-themed to the film that will supposedly open at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World in 2024.
The premise for the attraction takes place after the final kiss in the movie and will follow Princess Tiana, Prince Naveen and Louis the Alligator on a musical adventure through a twisting waterway as they prepare to arrive at a big Mardi Gras performance.
Music for the attraction will be recorded by the original cast from the movie with Anika Noni Rose providing the voice of Tiana in the ride as she did in the film. Bruno Campos (Naveen) and Michael-Leon Wooley (Louis) will be doing so as well.
Composer Randy Newman, who wrote the music for the film, was born in New Orleans and also provides the voice for the character of Cousin Randy. Newman composed, arranged, and conducted the music for the film, a mixture of jazz, zydeco, blues, and gospel styles.
The rocky top of Splash Mountain will be transformed into a giant tree with Mama Odie’s boat lodged in the branches. Walt Disney Imagineering commissioned New Orleans artist Sharika Mahdi to do a series of paintings to inspire key elements during the planning phase.
Rose stated, “It is really exciting to know that Princess Tiana’s presence in both Disneyland and Magic Kingdom will finally be fully realized! As passionate as I am about what we created, I know the fans are going to be over the moon. The Imagineers are giving us The Princess and The Frog Mardi Gras celebration we’ve been waiting for, and I’m here for it!”
In the animated feature it is 1926 in New Orleans and a nineteen-year-old black waitress named Tiana is working hard at two jobs trying to save enough money to open her own restaurant. Her best friend, a rich white Southern belle named Charlotte La Bouff who she grew up with is excited because Prince Naveen of Maldonia will be attending a ball thrown by her father.
When the Prince, who is actually a self-concerned ne’er-do-well playboy who has been cut off from his family’s money, visits a local voodoo witch doctor named Dr. Facilier to try to improve his fortunes, he is transformed into a frog while his manservant is magically disguised as Naveen in order to marry the rich Charlotte so Dr. Facilier can have access to the La Bouff family fortune.
Mistaking Tiana for a princess at the ball, the frog begs her to kiss him and when she does, she becomes a frog as well. They escape to a bayou where they meet Louis, a trumpet playing alligator, and Ray, a Cajun firefly in love with the evening star. Voodoo priestess Madame Odie tells the frogs that Naveen must kiss a real princess for the curse to be broken for both of them.
Facilier tempts Tiana to give him back his magical charm in exchange for returning to human form and getting her dream of her own restaurant. Tiana destroys the charm and the demons claim Facilier instead.
The two frogs marry but that makes Tiana a real princess so their kiss after the vows transforms them both back to human form and they open a restaurant.
“They’re a mismatched couple,” co-director John Musker said, “like Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night. Only he’s more the Claudette Colbert character: rich, with not much sense of reality. She’s the blue-collar person who has worked all her life.”
The animated feature was very loosely based on the 2002 novel The Frog Princess by E.D. Baker where the princess kisses the frog and turns into one herself. It began production under that working title in 2006.
Disney immediately changed several key elements to the film after receiving numerous complaints of racial insensitivity. Besides re-titling the picture to avoid the implication that the first African-American Disney princess was somehow ugly or an animal, the lead character’s name changed from “Maddy” (a nickname for Madeline) to “Tiana”, since “Maddy” sounded too much like “Mammy” and was also considered a “slave name”.
The name “Tiana” was created because it rhymed with Diana, a Greek mythological name usually associated with royalty, and “rana”, the Latin word for “frog”.
A subplot about the heroine working as a chambermaid, her love interest being non-ethnic and other things were also dropped to avoid negative stereotypes. In addition, Oprah Winfrey was hired as a technical consultant and later given a voice role as Tiana’s mother.
The two directors also consulted with Rob Edwards, the African American who worked on the final screenplay for the film who later said, “This is a princess movie for people who don’t like princess movies”.
Disney spokeswoman Heidi Trotta, in an attempt to forestall further complaints, stated “Princess Tiana will be a heroine in the great tradition of Disney’s rich animated fairy tale legacy, and all other characters and aspects of the story will be treated with the greatest respect and sensitivity.”
Tiana is portrayed as a motivated, intelligent, resourceful, determined and independent young woman who does things her own way. Tiana wears eleven different outfits in the film including two different work outfits, two costumes for the masquerade ball, imaginary clothes at “Tiana’s Place”, outerwear like her green coat, her wedding dress and the actual outfit she wears at the real “Tiana’s Place”. That’s not counting her childhood clothing.
Tiana’ supervising animator Mark Henn (who also animated Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas and Mulan), said, “Tiana has her own motivating desire and decisions that drive her and make her interesting and sympathetic. She will exist as an iconic Disney princess far beyond my career as an artist.
‘In our movie, Tiana has three different incarnations. You have the little girl, young Tiana, then you have the adult Tiana and also the Frog Tiana. It’s all the same person and that’s probably one of the most fun challenges of this.
“It’s a little akin to when we had Ariel as a mermaid with a tail and could talk and then we had her with legs and couldn’t talk. But that was not as big of a literally physical change that we faced with Tiana.”
Henn claimed in an interview that he was initially inspired by studio employee Jaimie Milner, a film intern who was working in post production for some of the early design of the character.
Rose had a few requirements for the look of her character: ” I said I wanted it to look like she ate and wasn’t skinny, and she has a full mouth and a little round nose and curly hair and these are all things that made her look distinctly herself. I didn’t want Tiana to resemble a cookie-cutter princess who had been colored in brown. When I saw her for the first time and realized how much she looked like me I was really blown away.”
Henn did videotape live action reference of Rose and incorporated some of her characteristics like dimples and left-handedness into the final design. Rose was in her late 30s when she did the voice of the 19-year-old Tiana.
A reworking of the story itself was greatly inspired by the life story of black New Orleans chef Leah Chase, the Queen of Creole Cuisine, and Chase would contribute to the Disney book Tiana’s Cookbook that was published when the film came out. Chase had already written three other cookbooks, and at the age of 87 was working on another one.
Co-director Ron Clements recalled, “There’s a woman in New Orleans who we met named Leah Chase who was a waitress and ultimately opened a restaurant called Dooky Chase with her husband … we met with her and we talked with her and she went to kind of into her story, her philosophy about food, which is a big element of the movie.”
Chase met her husband Dooky in 1944 and they opened a sandwich shop that just grew. She recalled, “I had never seen the inside of a restaurant in my life. I loved waiting on people. I loved seeing people eat. And if you like that, you’re going to go further. I stumbled a lot, but that’s what life’s all about. You just stumble and keep going.
“Now everybody wants to be Tiana. I think it’s fantastic. When I came up, being a cook was nothing. It’s just lately that we have chefs coming into their own. Back then, people would look at you, especially if you were a black woman, and say: ‘Oh, you just a cook. That’s it.’ But now, being a chef is It.
“When the folks from Disney first showed up, I had no idea of what they wanted. I talked to them for hours and didn’t know what I was talking to them for. I was just talking about my life.”
While Prohibition was in force until 1933, alcohol is freely served at the party, on the riverboat and at Tiana’s restaurant at the end of the film. Animator Eric Goldberg supervised the animation on the Art Deco fantasy sequence of Tiana dreaming of her restaurant basing it on the art work of Harlem Renaissance black painter Aaron Douglas.
The film avoids any questions about segregation and racial injustice during that Jim Crow era and implies that Tiana’s difficulties in opening her own restaurant is the result of her being poor (only having the down payment for the sugar mill) and being a single woman in a white male dominated society.
Some things that are racially related are implied including the fact that the band performers and Tiana are not masked at the masquerade, reflecting local New Orleans law at that time that prohibited blacks from covering their faces. Dr. Facilier has broken the law by hiding behind a white Janus-faced mask so he is clearly a villain.
Disney attempted to establish a “color blindness” since it is just a romanticized fairy tale and not a historical documentary. Charlotte has no hesitation wanting to marry Prince Naveen even though an interracial marriage would have been illegal at the time. Even the close friendship between Charlotte and Tiana would have been out of the ordinary during that era.
“I think one thing that’s special about The Princess and the Frog is that it’s not a black movie per se,” claimed Rose. It just happens to be a movie where a young black woman is the heroine. But it is something that can speak to anyone who steps into that theater to sit down.”
Several black performers lobbied for the role of Tiana including Jennifer Hudson, Alicia Keys and Tyra Banks. In April 2007, it was confirmed that Anika Noni Rose would voice the character. Elizabeth M. Dampier voiced the character as a child.
“We didn’t approach this movie with that as any kind of agenda,” said co-director Ron Clements. “John Lasseter suggested taking the fairy tale The Frog Prince and setting it in New Orleans. The idea of making our heroine African American simply grew out of the setting and that was an integral part of the story we pitched to John in March of 2006.
“We all thought it was a great idea. But it wasn’t until later that we fully realized the importance of this in the African American community.”
Tiana became the first Disney African-American princess and the ninth official princess for the Walt Disney Company.
While with the release of Home on the Range (2004), the Walt Disney Company had announced it would cease producing 2D hand-drawn animation, ironically the arrival of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull from Pixar to take over the animation department resulted in them insisting that this new film be produced in 2D hand-drawn animation to maintain the Disney heritage of such animation.
Pixar had been working on a film with the working title The Spirit of New Orleans: A Pixar Ghost Story because of Lasseter’s fondness for the city and some of that work was incorporated into the final film.
He brought back Ron Clements and John Musker who were part of the Disney animation renaissance of the 1990s but had left the studio when hand drawn animation was eliminated to co-direct the film. The directors spent ten days in Louisiana before starting to write the film.
It was decided to make the film an “American fairy tale” set in the 20th Century with the inspiration for the New Orleans scenes to be Lady and the Tramp (1955) and the scenes in the bayou to be Jungle Book (1967).
“Because hand-drawn animation was gone, it was almost like building the studio again,” Clements said. “Some of the 2D artists had become 3D stars, but many had just left altogether. Yet, just about everybody who did draw wanted to come back. We put together an all-star team of animators.”
In addition to current and former Disney animators, the production crew—which topped 300 at its peak—included recent graduates from the California Institute of the Arts. “They had studied hand-drawn animation without knowing if they’d have a place to apply their learning, and they blossomed into real talent,” Musker said.
Clements added, “With this type of animation, you have to work with a mentor to learn how to do it and get proficient. It’s a craft and an art that requires a lot of dedication. But, there’s an intuitive connection about drawing, from the brain to the hand to paper, that people miss with computer animation. With just the flip of a pencil, you can change an expression. That casual interaction is much tougher with 3D.”
For the first time, the directors used something that was common at Pixar: layout animatics. They filmed the storyboards and add the dialog track to see the film but also added staging and lighting.
“We took the storyboards to the next step,” Musker says. “We added camera moves and compositing. We wanted to know if the composition was strong enough to carry the idea quickly, so we composed all our shots in black and white to see the values. Being able to evaluate that in real time, with real lights and darks, was a valuable step.”
The animatics were created using Harmony and Photoshop. In-house tools then linked individual scenes created in those programs to entire sequences. Effects artists also worked directly with Harmony; however, layout, character animation including all the in-betweens, and cleanup all originated on paper.
“We wanted this film to look handcrafted,” said Marion West, visual effects supervisor. “But there are some fireflies and some vehicle wheels that are 3D, and some 3D doors open and shut in Maya. But, it’s a very, very understated use of 3D.
“The background paintings were ninety-nine percent handcrafted. They were done in Photoshop, but they were drawn or inked or painted one stroke at a time. The painters applied every brush stroke as they would with a regular painting.”
The film premiered in Los Angeles and New York City on November 25, 2009.
It went on to gross $104.4 million in the United States and Canada, and $271 million worldwide, making it a box office success, but it was perceived as a failure because it did not “ignite the box office” like The Little Mermaid or Aladdin.
It out-grossed the fairly recent films including The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home on the Range.
The title of the film made the potential audience think it was just a “little girl’s film” and Disney marketing did nothing to alleviate that misconception. Audiences that did go to see it gave it favorable ratings although surveys showed that people thought it was “old-fashioned.” The film was also overshadowed by the release of James Cameron’s Avatar a week after it debuted.
Upon its release the film was controversial for some Christian groups because of the use of Louisiana Voodoo as a plot device. Non-Christian groups criticized that voodoo was used as a type of magic instead of as a religion. The film also received criticism for the film’s revisionism of Jim Crow practices in the Southern United States during the time period.
Unfortunately, what the Walt Disney Company learned from the experience was that hand drawn animation was not popular with current audiences and so future films should all be computer animated.
However, the Walt Disney Company did try aggressively marketing merchandise related to the film as well as shows at the parks.
A live parade and show called Tiana’s Showboat Jubilee! debuted October 25, 2009, at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, and on November 5 at Disneyland in California. Performers gathered together and sang songs from the movie. The show ran at both parks until January 3, 2010.
At Disneyland Park, the show was replaced by an event called Princess Tiana’s Mardi Gras Celebration, which featured Princess Tiana along with five of the original presentation’s “Mardi Gras dancers” and the park’s “Jambalaya Jazz Band” as they performed songs from the movie. That show ended October 3, 2010.
Of course, Princess Tiana continues to make meet-and-greet appearances at the parks as well as appearing in parades and as a segment in some shows. Princess Tiana was also included in the lucrative Disney Princess Franchise, guaranteeing her presence and merchandise will long continue.