Disney’s First African-American Princess Marks Studio’s Return to Old-Style Animation

Posted by Audiegrl

Among Disney’s Royal Ladies, Princess Tiana Is a Notable First

AP/Mike Cidoni—For most of the last century, the Disney ‘toon heroine was as white as, well… Snow White, the studio’s first feature-film superstar, who marked her debut in 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

It would take some 60 years for the Disney artists to begin painting their leading ladies with all the colors of the wind, including the American Indian Pocahontas (1995), the Chinese Mulan (1998) and the Hawaiian Lilo (2002).

Only now, with “The Princess and the Frog,” have Disney animators put a black female front and center. Ironically, the inspiration for the new film came from two Caucasian men: current Pixar-Disney chief John Lasseter and the late Walt Disney himself.

The story really came from an initial idea of doing an American fairy tale, which hadn’t been done at Disney,” said “Princess” co-director Ron Clements. “And setting it in New Orleans, which is John Lasseter’s favorite city in the world. It was Walt Disney’s favorite city in the world … Out of that, it seemed natural that the heroine would be African-American.”

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Anika Noni Rose in Disney’s ‘The Princess and the Frog‘; ‘Dreamgirl’s‘ latest role is history making

Anika Noni Rose, famous for her role in 'Dreamgirls' both on Broadway and in the hit movie, stars in Disney's latest.

Anika Noni Rose, famous for her role in 'Dreamgirls' both on Broadway and in the hit movie, stars in Disney's latest.

NewYorkDailyNews/Joe Dziemianowicz—Anika Noni Rose has good reason to feel animated.

Her latest starring role isn’t simply high-profile — it’s downright historic.

The Princess and the Frog” leaps into local theaters on Wednesday, and her voice will be heard as Disney’s first animated black heroine: Tiana, a sassy go-getter out to rescue a bewitched prince from amphibian oblivion.

The tweaked Grimm’s fairy tale is set in jazzy 1920s New Orleans, but Rose, 37, a Tony winner best known from the movie version of “Dreamgirls,” says her connection to Tiana is rooted right at the core of the Big Apple.

Rose was in the middle of Times Square when word came that she’d landed the coveted regal role.

The producers “had been trying to reach me for quite a while, but I’m a New York girl,” says Rose. “I was trying to do 10,000 things at once and didn’t get the phone. I ended up running to the Disney office. Luckily they were nearby — and I was in sneakers.”

Those sensible shoes fit the character of Tiana, a chef who’s waiting tables until she can open her own restaurant.

Unlike other Disney princesses introduced with a trademark “I want” tune revealing their deepest desire (like the Little Mermaid, Ariel, who wants to “be where the people are“), Tiana’s first song, “Almost There,” is one of self-confidence and certainty.

She’s been saving and saving, and she’s got the down payment ready,” says Rose. “She sees her dreams coming true.”

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A Fairy Tale Beginning

Tiana, the heroine in the upcoming 'The Princess and the Frog.'

Tiana, the heroine in the upcoming 'The Princess and the Frog.'

Washington Post/Neely Tucker—In the 72 years since Walt Disney’s animated version of Snow White captivated audiences as “the fairest of them all,” there have only been eight such Disney princesses. Through these movies and a line of toys, dresses and figurines, the Disney princesses have become global, doe-eyed icons of childhood. Sleeping Beauty awakened by a kiss, Cinderella’s clock striking midnight, Belle waltzing in the Beast’s castle, Ariel with Prince Eric in the moonlit lagoon — these have become heroines whom parents the world over feel safe to let their young girls idolize and mimic. And while Disney has brought us nonwhite princesses before (see “Mulan,” “Pocahontas“), Tiana is a first.

The implied message of Tiana, that black American girls can be as elegant as Snow White herself, is a milestone in the national imagery, according to a range of scholars and cultural historians.

Her appearance this holiday season, coming on the heels of Michelle Obama’s emergence as the nation’s first lady, the Obama girls in the White House and the first line of Barbie dolls modeled on black women (“So in Style” debuts this summer), will crown an extraordinary year of visibility for African American women.

But fairy tales and folklore are the stories that cultures tell their children about the world around them, and considering Disney’s pervasive influence with (and marketing to) young girls, Princess Tiana might well become the symbol of a culture-changing standard of feminine beauty.

If this figure takes off, you’re looking at 30 or 40 years of repetition and resonance,” says Tricia Rose, a Brown University professor who teaches both popular culture and African American studies, citing the enduring popularity of Disney princesses at the company’s theme parks, on Web sites and in videos.

“It’s a very big deal,” says Leonard Maltin, the film historian, critic and author of “Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons.”

She’s the first modern American [Disney] princess, and that she’s black sends a huge message,” says Cori Murray, entertainment director for Essence magazine.

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My Families Experience at Disneyland…

Last night, while putting together this story, I mentioned to Ogenec, my own families experience at DisneyLand. At his request, I’ve added our story to this post.

1966 DisneyLand Guidebook

1966 DisneyLand Guidebook

When I was around 4 years old we drove to Los Angeles to visit our cousins and their kids. My Mom and Dad being older, offered to take us all out to DisneyLand. So it was me, Michelle (age 4), Peter (age 5), and Alex (age 8), and our two sets of parents. My dad purchased the groups admission and also a ticket book, which allowed us to ride all day. Believe it or not, it was only $5.00 for adults, and $4.00 for kids under 12, which back then was a lot of money to spend for just entertainment. My Dad gave the ticket book to my cousin George to keep in his back pocket. My cousin’s were very young parents, and couldn’t have been more than 25 or 26 at the time.

So we get to the first ride, and of course, we are all excited and squealing with joy, and guess what? The ticket book is gone. Someone stole it from George’s back pocket, man, was he upset. So my Dad, being 46 and the oldest of our group, takes charge and he and George go to find some manager to see what could be done. They were taken into a office, and sat in front of the secretary in the waiting room. By this point, they were getting kind of nervous… This was 1966, and there were not many other Black people at the amusement park, so they just assumed that we were all going to get thrown out for trying to scam the joint. LOL 😉

After about 15 minutes, a man comes out of the office, and asks my Dad and George to step in and sit down. He sat on the edge of his big desk and listened very quietly to their story. My Dad told him they didn’t want to disappoint their kids, and was there anyway they could get some ride tickets back, not all that were stolen, but just enough so the kids could ride a few times, and then we would all leave.

The man said, “That’s out of the question. You came here with your family, and someone robbed you, so that’s not your fault. Please take these ticket books, they are good for all weekend, and your family can ride as much as they want, and come back tomorrow if they want to.”

walt-disney1My dad and cousin got up, to shake this mans hand and thank him. My dad said, I’m sorry sir, I never got your name? The man said, my name is Walt Disney…..

True Story…

I’ve read different opinions on why Disney decided to create this movie. Some are not impressed, and have said that Disney’s motivation is more of a financial nature, rather than a move to foster any kind of diversity. Whatever Disney’s reasons, I’ll always remember my own families story, and have to believe somewhere, some place, Walt Disney is smiling…because for him, it was all about the kids.~~AudieGrl

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16 Comments

Filed under African-Americans, Art, Culture, Entertainment, First Lady Michelle Obama, History, Jazz, Media and Entertainment, Movies, Pop Culture, United States, US, Video/YouTube, Women's Issues, World

16 responses to “Disney’s First African-American Princess Marks Studio’s Return to Old-Style Animation

  1. Pingback: Disney's First Black Princess Marks Studio's Return to Old-Style … « Everything Kids

  2. are you sure that wasn’t the animatronic Walt Disney that used to make the rounds at Disneyland? 😉

    • audiegrl

      Nawwww. After that happened, Walt Disney was a legend at our house.

      My dad was stunned, to say the least. 😉

    • ogenec

      AG, as I told you last night, I was quite moved by the story. My little girls have secured a promise from me, written in blood, to take them to see this movie. They’ve (we’ve) eaten up all the other Disney fables: the younger one loves her some Mulan, and the older one is simply enchanted by Princess Jasmine. Of course, they have other favorites, as you can tell from my avatar: for Halloween, my older one dressed as Snow White, and the younger one as Princess Aurora. 🙂

      I can’t wait for this movie. Thanks for posting about it!!!

      • audiegrl

        Glad to do it. Now I know what to get for my little niece for Christmas. She’s almost two, so there should be some sort of Princess Tiana gear that will fit her age group. 🙂

  3. ogenec

    You better believe it. I was at Target this weekend, and the clothes, toys, etc. are already out in full force.

  4. lynnette

    That is a very moving story. Walt Disney was one of a kind. The Princess and the Frog sounds very exciting – I think I might go see it myself.

  5. betsmeier

    Love this story AG. My brother-in-law’s Father owned the company that made the all the mickey mouse hats. Then my brother-in-law and his brothers took it over. We would visit my Mom in Anaheim in the late 60s early 70s and he would get us free tickets to Disneyland. Then Disney hired China to manufacture the hats and that ended our free tickets, LOL.
    Putting free tickets aside, it was sad when Stan lost that contract.

  6. betsmeier

    Sadder that it didn’t go to an American company 😦

  7. lynnette

    Hi GeoT and Ogenec. 🙂 Hope you are enjoying this holiday season. I know you are Ogenec, with the two princesses. Audiegrl’s story brought a tear to my eye – what a precious memory. I must have had one of Betsmeier’s brother-in-law’s father’s MM hats because I bought one (or rather my parents bought one for me and one for my sister) in 1964 and 1972 when we went to Disneyland, California.

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