Elizabeth Dampier was living a fairy tale. It was Nov. 15, 2009, and the 10-year-old from Mississippi was walking the red carpet at the world premiere of Walt Disney’s animated musical The Princess and the Frog.
The fifth grader beat out hundreds of girls to land the gig voicing the young Tiana, Disney’s first animated African American princess. It’s a role that would become synonymous with Tony Award-winning actress and singer Anika Noni Rose, who played the older version of Tiana. Besides Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan (1998), characters of color were nowhere to be found in the vanilla worlds of Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, and Belle. To mark the long overdue moment, the House the Mouse Built opened its Burbank, California, studios to the public for a special screening, the first time it had done so since the 1940 showing of the classic Fantasia.
A decade after that 2009 premiere, Dampier, now 20, is still marveling that she was a part of the game-changing moment.
“I couldn’t wait to go back home and tell everyone about the premiere,” recalls the former child actor, who is now a beauty and fashion blogger. “Everyone [was] standing up and cheering for the entire length of the credits. It was an amazing experience, but I did not realize that [we were] actually making history. I honestly didn’t realize it until the movie came out.”
Based on the Brothers Grimm story The Frog Prince, Walt Disney’s 49th animated film was released widely on Dec. 11, 2009, amid deafening buzz. Not only was The Princess and the Frog the studio’s first hand-drawn movie in five years after Disney laid off most of its traditional animators before switching to CGI, it was its first animated picture since 1946’s offensive Song of the South (the stereotypical Reconstruction-era Uncle Remus and the black help existed only to bring happiness to a white family living on a Georgia plantation) to feature an African American character.
Directed by Disney stalwarts Ron Clements and John Musker, The Princess and the Frog is set in a 1920s black community in New Orleans. Tiana, a poor yet determined young woman, dreams of opening her own restaurant and serving her late, beloved father’s signature gumbo. Soon the ambitious waitress meets a talking frog named Naveen (Bruno Campos), who claims to be a prince from the fictional country of Maldonia. He’s been cursed by the villainous voodoo witch doctor Dr. Facilier, played with velvety aplomb by veteran actor Keith David (Gargoyles, Todd Macfarlane’s Spawn, Ken Burns’ The War, Greenleaf), who could make a greasy fast food receipt sound like a Langston Hughes poem.
“There is no way I would ever, ever, ever kiss a frog. Yuck,” bristles Tiana.
But of course she does. That’s when the old fairy tale trope is turned on its head as Tiana is transformed into a frog. Time is of the essence as the pair rushes to upend Dr. Facilier’s evil spell, get married and live happily ever after. With a Roaring ’20s jazz age soundtrack written by Grammy and Oscar winner Randy Newman, syrupy vocals from Dr. John, and a deep bench of A-list voice talent headed by Oprah Winfrey, John Goodman, Jenifer Lewis, and Terrence Howard, the movie would go on to earn $267 million globally at the box office and receive three Academy Award nominations, including two for Newman’s songs.
Along with its throwback Disney musical numbers, Rose was a major reason for the film’s success. The Bloomfield, Connecticut, native beat out the likes of Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Tyra Banks to score the groundbreaking part. For many, she proved to be a revelation.
“Anika has long carried big projects,” said Michael-Leon Wooley, the voice of fan favorite Louis the Alligator, speaking from his New York City apartment where he has a statue of the gregarious trumpet-blowing reptile on top of his grand piano.
“Anika has always been able to handle pressure. She was the lead in Caroline, or Change,” for which she won a Tony Award in 2004. “She brought a lot of grace, dignity, and humor to Princess Tiana, which has become such an iconic character.”
Wooley met Rose on the set of the 2006 Oscar-winning film Dreamgirls. Two years later, the pair would find themselves together again at Los Angeles’ Disney Studios recording Princess’ show-stopping number “When We’re Human.”
“That was a great day,” Wooley recalled.“I knew it was a great number because Randy Newman was writing the music. I remember me, Anika and Bruno [Campos] were in the studio together to record ‘When We’re Human.’ When you are working with that level of talent you have to bring your A game. I don’t think I talked the day before. That’s how much I rested my voice!”
Critic Roger Ebert praised the film, marveling at lead animator Mark Henn’s “lovingly hand-drawn animation that proceeds at a human pace, instead of racing with odd smoothness. I’m just gonna stand here and let it pour over me.”
But the project was not without its detractors. For starters, Tiana spends much of the film as a frog. The racially ambiguous Prince Naveen sparked debate about whether Disney was ready for a black prince. Some writers took exception to the fact that the story takes place in the racially segregated Jim Crow era at a time when interracial marriage was outlawed.
In a 2010 essay published by the Journal of African American Studies, educator Sarita McCoy Gregory summed up the ambivalence of some observers: “Disney’s attempt to render blackness visible and human must be read against its objective of maintaining whiteness in the movie. Food and jazz share the burden of serving as metaphors for colorblindness and black humanity, leaving the audience with a feeling of accomplishment that they have moved beyond race in their acceptance of Tiana as a princess.”
The criticism did not take away from the immense impact the film had on children, especially black girls who finally saw themselves as a Disney princess. “The fact that she was the first black princess meant to me that she was going to be, like, influence for other kids,” said one child during an opening night screening covered in a 2009 NPR segment. “I like that the princess was black,” exclaimed another.
Wooley can attest to the movie’s legacy. “I judge a big singing contest here in Los Angeles,” he said. “There were a few black girls ranging from 16 to 18 in the competition who were amazing. When I told them that I was Louis the Alligator, they all had the same reaction … They burst into tears. And I love that.”
During a 10th anniversary screening of The Princess and the Frog in September at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, the film’s cast and crew reunited for a Q&A session. Hosted by self-described “superfan,” actress Quvenzhané Wallis (she was 6 when the movie dropped!), the event was a celebration of the film’s enduring reach.
Sitting onstage alongside the actors and directors were producer Peter Del Vecho, head of effects Marlon West, supervising animator Bruce W. Smith and screenwriter Rob Edwards. “You want to root for her,” said Edwards of the universal appeal of the strong-willed Tiana. Rose held back tears as she explained to the audience the responsibility she accepted in taking on such an important role.
“Never once did I feel, ‘Oh, my God I can’t believe I have to do all this,’ ” she said of the myriad auditions and early-morning plane flights she endured to get the part. “Never once did I feel I was not where I was supposed to be. Never once did I feel like this girl was not me.”
But The Princess and the Frog nearly got off to a disastrous start. When Disney leaked some concepts from the film in early 2007, there was immediate backlash. Among the grievances was the lead character’s original name, Maddy, which for many African Americans came too close to the offensive term “mammy.” Fans and media outlets also balked at Tiana’s original occupation as a maid to a rich white family.
The directing team of Clements and Musker had worked on huge titles such as The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), Hercules (1997), and, later, Moana (2016). The two white animation vets understood that The Princess and the Frog needed a shot of celebratory black culture and nuance. The pivotal casting of Winfrey as Tiana’s mother Eudora in September 2008 got the ball rolling.
The directors then brought in Smith, creator of the animated Disney Channel series The Proud Family, to assist with character animation and voice. Edwards, a veteran television and film writer whose credits include A Different World, In Living Color, Roc, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the Disney feature Treasure Planet, was also instrumental in injecting much needed authenticity. Both played roles in establishing the unmistakable black hues, contours and vocal inflections of each character, from their dialogue to the bombastic Broadway-style performances.
Rose’s character struts infectiously on the high-kicking “Almost There.” David soaks up all the menacing fun on the bass-thumping “Friends on the Other Side.” A nearly unrecognizable Lewis delivers foot-stomping gospel-inflected joy on “Dig a Little Deeper.” And Wooley and company serve up sheer bliss on “When We’re Human,” which has become an indelible addition to the Disney songbook.
The end result was a commercial and artistic triumph despite its flaws. The Princess and the Frog is as entrenched in the pop culture landscape as Bambi, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Toy Story or Frozen. For example, Play Like Mum, a British website, looked at 20 years of records of babies’ names and found that Tiana was the second-most popular Disney-inspired name in the United Kingdom, just behind Elsa of Frozen.
In August, Disney announced that Princess Tiana and Prince Naveen are part of its new Midnight Masquerade princess and prince doll sets (with a price of $200), just one more addition to a long list of The Princess and the Frog merchandise. This Halloween there was no shortage of little girls wearing Princess Tiana’s green gown. And a Princess and the Frog-themed restaurant is set to open in a new hotel at Walt Disney World.
There’s such passion surrounding the film and its title character that Disney was forced to reanimate scenes from 2018’s Ralph Breaks the Internet that featured Tiana hanging out with a group of her fellow princesses, including Cinderella, Rapunzel and Jasmine, because she had been portrayed with lighter skin and more Eurocentric hair than in the original film.
“We were disturbed when she was changed so radically from the original movie,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter of the civil rights organization Color of Change, which led the charge to switch Tiana back to her prominent black features. “She’s incorporated into the Disney theme parks now. They have to hire black women to be Princess Tiana. So to whitewash that character was basically recasting Tiana.”
Rose released her own statement on the controversy, revealing that she met with the producers of the sequel, Wreck It Ralph 2. “They explained how CGI animation did different things to the characters’ color tones in different light compared to hand-drawn original characters,” she noted, “and I was able to express how important it is to the little girls [and let’s face it, grown women] who felt represented by her that her skin tone stay as rich as it had been, and that her nose continue to be the little round nose that Mark Henn so beautifully rendered in the movie; the same nose on my very own face and on many other little brown faces around the world, that we so rarely get to see represented in fantasy.”
Since the 2009 release of The Princess and the Frog, a lot has changed. More than ever, movie studios are recognizing the importance of empowering women and people of color to tell their stories. And there’s plenty of money to be made, too, as proven by the $1.3 billion box office earned by 2018 blockbuster Black Panther.
At New York Comic Con in October, Rose appeared on a panel with three other actresses who had portrayed Disney princesses and noted her character was the only one whose film had not been remade or had a sequel announced. She told fans to start petitions and write to Disney. “Send them a physical letter,” Rose said amid applause.
It is not unrealistic to believe that if The Princess and the Frog were released today, it would be bolstered by black directors, a black writer, a black composer or even a black lead animator. But its universal message of never giving up in the face of the obstacles would remain the same.
“It was very important to be from Mississippi, being that [The Princess and the Frog] was based in the South,” said Dampier, who will never forget her part in that watershed cinematic moment. “It helped to inspire other girls and show that [everyone can] make a mark, too.”
As for Wooley, he’s still boogying in the bayou.
“When I have the Disney radio station on and ‘When We’re Human’ comes on, it’s a whole thing,” he said. “I will stop the car in a parking lot just to sing it! As a voice actor, being an animated Disney character is like getting the ultimate brass ring. But more importantly, to star in the first Disney film featuring a predominantly black cast … it’s surreal.”