By: Dontré L. Conerly
Belle. Ariel. Jasmine. Chances are, you know these names as just a few of Disney’s magical princesses from such classic tales as Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin. After 10 years, since it introduced Chinese warrior princess, Mulan, in 1998, the Disney royal court unveiled its first black princess, Tiana, who will make her debut this holiday season in The Princess and the Frog. A contemporary fairy tale, Tiana’s is an up-to-date tale, of sorts, and tells of a modern-day girl who, but for some magic, is much more relatable than an underwater mermaid or the Sleeping Beauty—but no less enchanting.
Set in the musical town of New Orleans, Louisiana, The Princess and the Frog is billed as “an unforgettable tale of love, adventure, comedy, and heart” that encompasses all of the iconic Disney elements, fused with the culture of the famous city: There’s a beautiful mansion in the middle of the Garden District; a voodoo villain; a good-looking frog prince, Naveen; and a host of colorful characters, including a trumpet-playing alligator and a love-sick Cajun firefly.
Like each of the other Disney princesses, Tiana is a diamond in the rough that must learn a few life lessons along the way before her sparkle lights up the screen. Born the daughter of a seamstress, she’s gifted with great cooking ability and dreams of owning her own restaurant. Motivated and determined, Tiana wants to do things her way, without the use of a prince; but when life leaves her with few options, magic becomes the answer to her dreams. “She’s a strong woman who doesn’t need anyone to do things for her,” says Harlem resident Anika Noni Rose, who lent her voice to bring princess Tiana to life. “She wants to do things for herself.” Rose is joined in voice by Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, and Jenifer Lewis, among others.
Disney introduced the new princess in New York City, on Monday, February 16, 2009, at the American International Toy Fair, and called upon the Tony-award winning actress to unveil the extensive line of The Princess and the Frog-inspired products, apparel, Halloween costumes and role-play dresses. For Rose, the chance to voice the role was a Disney dream of her own. “I have always wanted to do a Disney voice, since before I even thought of being an actor, so for me this is a dream come true” she says. The dream, of course, came true when Disney asked her to not only lend voice, but many of sound effects for the role, such as running, kissing noises, and a scene where she crashes into a bookshelf. “It’s just me in a room and I had to provide that sound,” she says. Rose says she would’ve been happy with any part, really, just so long as she was included. “It didn’t even have to be the princess; I was just fine being a tick,” she teases, flashing her mega-watt smile.
Overjoyed to be asked to lend her voice to a role greater than just an insect, Noni Rose was brought to tears and rendered momentarily speechless when Mattel presented her with her very own, one-of-a-kind Princess Tiana doll. The gift was the culmination of a perfect job for Rose, who invested a lot in snagging the role. “I wanted it so badly,” she confesses. “I would have been crushing to me had I not got it.”
Princess Tiana’s debut was accompanied by the introduction of a new toy line to honor Disney’s first fairy tale princess, Snow White, who made her debut in 1937 in the world’s first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Whereas Snow White’s nemesis sought vengeance for the fact that she is “the fairest of them all,” Tiana is anything but—an important characteristic of this new Disney princess. Premiering as the first black Disney princess in a line of eight predecessors over a span of 70 years, Tiana’s place in Disney history is illuminated; and Noni Rose can hardly decide how to describe her emotions. “It’s fantastic,” she says. “I wish I had more words to describe it. I’m verklempt.”
Anika noted that while Tiana is Disney’s first Black princess, she does join Jasmine and Pocahontas as “brown” princesses. However, she moves the focus from Crayola descriptions and points to an even more important distinction of Tiana: she’s the first Disney princess from America. It is this characteristic, Rose said, that has gotten her fans from all across the color spectrum. “All kids run up to me and tell me how happy they are for Tiana,” she says. “Little white girls, black girls. Everybody.”
While Disney is confident that Princess Tiana will take her place among the eight other Disney princesses that have enchanted young girls for the last 70 years, they are particularly pleased that The Princess and the Frog marks their return to musicals and 2D hand drawn animation. Known as “traditional animation,” it is the oldest form of animation, which uses hand-drawn storyboards to create a tale.
Given Disney’s affinity for bringing its animated characters to the Broadway stage, Noni says that if The Princess and the Frog were ever made into a musical, she’d have first dibs on the role. “I ain’t trying out for the role I originated. It’s mine!” she enthuses.
For more information on the upcoming film, and to see the trailer, click here.