This film is the 49th animated feature film from Walt Disney Pictures, a tradition established nearly 75 years ago with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is also their first animated movie in which the heroine is an African American, who eventually becomes Princess Tiana.
Everyone knows the story in which a princess finds true love by kissing a frog that magically turns into her handsome prince. But in the retelling of the story, set in New Orleans, Tiana kisses and frog and becomes a frog herself, and both endure many adventures in the bayou before their true destinies are revealed.
I spoke with Anika Noni Rose, who voices Princess Tiana, about this historic movie.
With this film being such a landmark, having the first African American Disney princess, what did you think the first time you saw the character?
There were a couple of first times. The first time I saw it in color, we were doing the Toy Fair in New York and I sang. It was the first time that I sang the song publicly. They were like, “Okay, Anika, why don’t you do the sound check?,” so I did. And then, they said, “We have a little something to show you.” When they hit play and I saw my face, but a little better, hanging off the side of that balcony, I couldn’t even breathe. I just started to cry. It was the most amazing, awesome experience. I don’t even know that I have real words for it.
This is something that I’ve always dreamed of doing. I didn’t dream of being a princess. I could have been a dandelion. So, this is when your dreams take off and become bigger than what you had imagined. It’s amazing.
What did you think of the hand-drawn animation?
As a Disney geek, the thing that hand-drawn animation does in this movie, that I haven’t seen since CGI came out, is that when you look at the bayou, you can see the humidity in the air. It is hazy, warm, moist and thick with it. That’s something that Disney specifically does by hand, with their color pallette, that other people don’t do and that the CGI hasn’t quite managed to hit.
When you’re watching a fairy tale, you’re not looking for reality. You’re looking for softness and for an extension of your disbelief, so that it takes you into your dreamland. That’s what hand-drawn animation does, when I watch it.
As the first Disney animated feature with an African American princess, what do you think this film will mean to people?
I think that it will mean different things to different people, depending on what time they grew up in. For my nephew, it will be the norm. He will think nothing of it. It will be his first princess, period. For my mother, it will be something she’s been waiting for, and it’s her child, no less. For my grandmother, it will be something that she never thought would happen.
Each person that sits in that theater will have a different journey that they’re bringing to the story and it will make the story different for them. I think that’s something that’s really beautiful about this. Disney is Americana, and we’ve opened a new chapter in Americana. It’s been here for a very long time, but hasn’t necessarily been shared. So, in that respect, it’s just another step in the completion of the story of what America is.
When you were a little girl, did you ever wonder why there were no African American animated characters?
I don’t remember wondering that. I was just watching the movies and enjoying them. I do remember wondering to myself, one day, “Will there ever be a Chocolate Brown?,” after seeing Snow White. But, I didn’t necessarily feel deprived. When you’re a child, you don’t know. I do remember, very strongly, seeing Charlayne Woodard in a production on TV, called Cindy, and it was Cinderella. Charlayne Woodard was fantastic and I was shocked because it just wasn’t something that I thought was the norm.
What do you want to say to all the little girls out there, who you’re now a wonderful role model for?
That’s difficult. I’m honored that people would think of me as a role model. On the other hand, I think it’s dangerous to choose a person and lift them up so high. I’m going to take a role that somebody doesn’t like, at some point. They’re going to be like, “She was awful!,” and think bad things.
If you can separate those things and think, “Wow, I like the way she’s handled her career and I like the way she handles herself, as a person,” then I think that’s amazing and I hope that it does push other children to look up and say, “See that star up there? The one you can barely see, that twinkles really small? That’s the one I’m going grab,” and they do it. That’s a wonderful thing.
If they want to see Tiana as a role model, I think that’s brilliant. Her story is finite. She’s not going to turn the corner and fall out and have 20 children. It’s not going to be the type of situation where she’s going to go wrong because she’s there.