"What Walt Wraught
By Mark. I Pinsky
Walt Disney Co. no doubt expected kudos for breaking racial barriers in its holiday hit, "The Princess and the Frog," and that praise has come from some quarters. But the entertainment giant also finds itself receiving stinging criticism from conservative evangelical Christians on a Web warpath. Hollywoodjesus.com said the animated feature's preoccupation with voodoo, black magic, bloody amulets and Ouija boards was "too dark and extreme for this kind of kids' film." Christiananswers.net rated the movie "Offensive"; citing a Tarot card reading, soul transfer and implied reincarnation, the site called the film "demonic." A reviewer for the respected magazine Christianity Today charged that the movie was "disturbing," with a "hollow, thoughtless core." These and other essays provoked furious debate involving hundreds of Internet responses, likely echoed in evangelical moms' groups in churches nationwide. Disney declined to respond directly to the criticism, saying in an email to me: "The Princess and the Frog is a lighthearted musical fairytale set in New Orleans during the jazz age featuring Disney's first African American Princess, which audiences and critics around the world have enthusiastically embraced."
What is most interesting about the current controversy is that it's not new. It's been going on for more than 70 years, beginning with the release of Disney's first full-length animated movie, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," in 1938. Reviewers at the time voiced similar worries about the dark magic in that groundbreaking feature.
Walt Disney always called himself a Christian, but his biographers agree that he was skeptical about organized religion and rarely set foot inside a church. He insisted that any narrow portrayal of Protestant Christianity (or any religion, for that matter) in his animated features was box-office poison, especially in lucrative, overseas markets. More broadly, Walt's fear was that explicit religiosity might needlessly exclude young viewers, while a watered-down version might at the same time offend the devout. Yet the studio's founding genius also understood that, from the ancient Greeks to the Brothers Grimm, successful storytellers have needed supernatural intervention agents to resolve plots. So, Walt decided, Disney's cartoon protagonists would appeal not to Judeo-Christian religion but to magic, which was more palatable around the ticket-buying world. (It's no coincidence that Disney's marquee theme park is called The Magic Kingdom.)
On the one hand, there were good fairies, godmothers, wishes upon a star (and, later, a blue genie); on the other, there were witches, wizards, sorcerers and malign spirits and spells. Critically, however, while evil and the Dark Side existed, they never, ever triumphed over good. Over the decades a more comprehensive, hopeful theology evolved around that single, unshakable tenet. In addition, Disney characters had to have "faith in faith." That is, they had to believe in themselves, as well as in something greater than themselves. That greater something was nonspecific, usually (and vaguely) defined in terms of human values and moral lessons rather than particular religious creeds. This secular toonism became the "Disney Gospel," and most Christian leaders and parents accepted its trade-offs. I suspect the majority have done (or will do) the same with "The Princess and the Frog," which embodies all of the elements of this cartoon cosmology.
In the lovingly hand-drawn, 2-D feature, a plucky working-class girl named Tiana tries to realize her dream of starting an elegant, riverside restaurant. In a slyly transgressive turn—for Disney—Tiana says she prefers to rely as much on hard work and self-help as on wishing upon a star. But she is turned into a frog when she becomes entangled with a ne'er-do-well prince and the shadowy, spell-casting Dr. Facilier, who has diabolical "Friends on the Other Side."
Redemption comes from the intervention of Mama Odie, who fills the traditional Disney role of fairy godmother, though in the persona of a positive voodoo priestess. In an uncredited, lyrical cadging from the Rolling Stones, she sings that you can't always get what you want, but you might just get what you need. The only affirmative representation of Christianity, in particular the Creole Catholicism of the period, comes at the very end, when the prince and princess—no longer frogs—are married in New Orleans's famed (but unnamed) St. Louis Cathedral.
At times, the long rapprochement between Christian leaders and Disney has frayed. In 1996, the Southern Baptist Convention launched a nationwide (and ultimately unsuccessful) Disney boycott. Among its complaints was that the conglomerate, under Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg's leadership, had betrayed Walt Disney's family-friendly legacy, in the company's employment practices (providing health benefits to same-sex domestic partners and endorsing "Gay Days" at its theme parks), books (Hyperion's "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Growing Up Gay"), ABC-TV shows ("Ellen" and "Nothing Sacred"), live-action films ("Priest" and, through Miramax, "Kids"); and that the full-length, animated features ("Lion King," "The Little Mermaid") contained subliminal sexual messages.
Before the boycott began, Messrs. Eisner and Katzenberg—both Jews—had already taken a 180-degree turn from Walt's religion-averse policy in the company's signature releases. They believed it was possible to animate faith without caricaturing it. In 1999's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," Disney writers and artists turned Victor Hugo's anticlerical classic on its head, in the process making the studio's most explicitly pro-Christian feature ever. While the Baptists applauded—and took credit for—this aspect of "Hunchback," they were considerably less enamored with the films that showcased different belief systems, all in positive, respectful lights: "Mulan" (Confucianism), "Pocahontas" (animism), "Hercules" (paganism) and "Brother Bear" (shamanism).
With all this experience, Disney filmmakers were confident enough to incorporate elements of Afro-Caribbean Santeria and Vodou, such as "loas," or spirits, hungry for souls, and colorful, West African masks that speak, in "The Princess and the Frog." The movie embodies the full canon of the Disney Gospel: dreaming, wishing, hard work, love and self-sacrifice, aided by strategic magical intervention. Believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition will also recognize the saving grace of selfless love and good works."
Just because you can hide behind some other form of intolerance/disagreement doesn't mean you're not a racist bastard. You can call a cat a dog, but it's still a cat. Some of you may feel that I'm being sensitive about the whole thing, but to be honest, whenever there's a mountain of criticism for a positive precedent in American race relations, be it the first black President or the first black Disney princess, you have to wonder what the motivation might be.