Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Story of Story Revisions

Across the white-capped pond, the Independent tells a tale of story revisions:

[The Princess and the Frog], a musical set in 1920s New Orleans ... was supposed to feature Maddy, a black chambermaid working for a spoilt, white Southern debutante. Maddy was to be helped by a voodoo priestess fairy godmother to win the heart of a white prince, after he rescued her from the clutches of a voodoo magician.

Disney's original storyboard is believed to have been torn up after criticism that the lead character was a clich├ęd subservient role with echoes of slavery, and whose name sounded too much like "Mammy" – a unwelcome reminder of America's Deep South before the civil rights movement swept away segregation.

The heroine has been recast as Tiana, a 19-year-old in a country that has never had a monarchy. She is now slated to live "happily ever after" with a handsome fellow who is not black – with leaks suggesting that he will be of Middle Eastern heritage and called Naveen. The race of the villain in the cartoon is reported to have also been revised.

The film studio began making changes a year ago, first to its title, The Frog Princess, which some had interpreted as a slur. Amendments to the plot followed.

Now, I've got zero knowledge of what changes have taken place with TPATF and what's remained the same. I talk to the board artists every few weeks, but our conversations never dwell on the continuity of the film on which they're working. We generally dwell on studio gossip (that's what is important, after all).

So maybe the Independent's reporting is dead on, and maybe it's fabrication, I've no idea what the ratio could be. But I do know that almost every animated film made has gone through changes ... sometimes BIG changes ... during the course of production. And I also know that studio execs are sensitive to having offensive things in one of their pictures. And when the main characters are black and most or all of the story and production crew is white, the sensitivity becomes hyper. (And probably should be).

Studios are not in the habit of offending wide swaths of the ticket-buying and DVD-purchasing public. They're game is to earn money, not make self-defeating philosophical statements. Ralph Bakshi caught hell in various quarters for Coonskin, Disney is not likely to invite similar controversy.

There might be others, but the only three animated films I recall having African Americans as the central characters are the Bakshi film, Bebe's Kids, and the upcoming Princess and the Frog. Of the three, only Bebe's Kids had an African American director.

The one thing I know the British paper is right about are the Aladdin changes. Lyrics were changed, and the city in the film -- unmistakably Baghdad -- was changed to Agrabah. See, there was this war in Iraq (the first edition) gathering on the horizon at the time, and Disney execs were a little anxious about box office prospects if they didn't change the original title The Thief of Baghdad.

Empires fall and recessions come and go, but Hollywood paranoia about box office grosses is eternal.


Anonymous said...

I think "The Princess and the Frog" has to be the worst choice for a title Disney could have made. It sounds like a lame direct-to-video fairy tale made by the Sesame Street Muppets. After reading about all the other changes made to this film - all in the name of political correctness - my interest in the film has lessened considerably. So much for the resurgence of 2D. But then, cowardice isn't usually compatible with a surge of ANY kind.

Anonymous said...

Didn't Disney also make two shorts with African American leads? One by One and John Henry? Not that I've seen either of them...

Anonymous said...

One person's "political correctness" is another's moves to eliminate stereotypes that should have long ago been put to rest. I'm not going to argue the issue here, because people have already made their minds up about which side of that equation they stand on. But I never got the "Frog Princess" title, anyway. If the princess ISN'T actually a frog, it doesn't make sense as anything but a slur, in my opinion.

I assume this story's riffing off of Cinderella, so you could explain the story changes as a way to make the script less cliched in its non-racial aspects as well. Works for me.

Tim said...

Disney is in a "damned if they do, damed if they don't" state when it comes to representing any non-white ethnicity. First there are complaints that all their humans are white. Then when they try and delve into foreign based tales (Mulan, Aladdin, etc.), they get slammed for their inaccuracies. Perhaps their new Princess movie (whatever the title may be) should have been set in Africa so as to eliminate any of the inherent racial overtones accompanying a U.S. based story.

Oh, and here's another two animated features with main characters are people of color:
"The Proud Family Movie" (2005) with Bruce Smith in the director's chair.
"Kirikou and the Sorceress" (1998). Yes, it's an African cast, not an African-American cast. And its director is white (French). And I think there was a sequel as well.

Tim said...

Before I get mis-understood, my suggestion to set a story in Africa was not a "go back to Africa" slur. I simply meant there is a wealth of stories from several rich cultures on that continent to choose from that have not been tapped for American audiences.

Anonymous said...

As long as people look to be offended, they'll find SOMETHING to get worked up about because Disney is too large a target. It is ridiculous. Ultimately the film will suffer like those in the past because of all the hand wringing going on over relatively insignificant matters.

Anonymous said...

"So much for the resurgence of 2D."

Traditional animation (2D) is a stand alone art form that is not directly linked to the fortunes of Disney or any other studio. 2D will rise and fall on it's own as long as there are animators who want to create with it.

Or should the realist painters have put away their brushes the day Jackson Pollock started dripping paint on his canvases?

Anonymous said...

I thought "The Frog Princess" was about a stuck-up French chick. Who knew?

Anonymous said...

But oil painting is pretty much irrelevant these days though?!? It has been reduced to landscapes ala Bob Ross...

Film is where it's at! (feature films, that is)


Anonymous said...

"But oil painting is pretty much irrelevant these days though?"

Bob Ross aside (may he rest in peace), oil painting is alive and well and thriving. Take a stroll down gallery row on PCH in Laguna Beach and ask the many artists there (who are making a very decent living) if they think oil painting is irrelevant. As long as patrons willing to pay the artist, do it.

Still, as a Local 839 member since 1993, I agree that animated feature film is where it's at.


Anonymous said...

Write and storyboard and cast a story for white people. Then tell the colorists that they're black. continue as planned.

Anonymous said...

Black or do we know it's a piece of shit? It's got the disney signature on it. Somebody teach the wonderbread doll collectors over there who Bill Peet was.

Anonymous said...

Please, give this a chance.

There are simply too many smart and hugely talented people to dismiss it based on nothing-both veterans with well known resumes and younger, equally great artists you've never heard of.

I don't know much about it right now-and the less I know the better my real reaction will be when I see it the way it was made to be seen: in a movie theater.
I'm willing to give Musker, Clements and their crew at least that much. It's just way premature to start postulating and worse, judging...but that should go without saying.
I'm guessing they know what's riding on this project and all they can do is the best they can.
I'd hope we're all pulling for it to succeed, aren't we?

Floyd Norman said...

Man, I thought this "executive dance" was over.

Have the princess marry a black guy. Hell! Have the princess marry a white guy. Anything else is a total cop out.

As wise old Yoda would say, "Do -- or do not. There is no try!"

Anonymous said...

Have her be an asexual armenian from glendale with a .45 in her glovebox. Kids today will relate to that.

Anonymous said...

" Somebody teach the wonderbread doll collectors over there who Bill Peet was."

Ha ha ha hah!

Anonymous said...

"I'd hope we're all pulling for it to succeed, aren't we? "

You know, sometimes I really wonder ? It seems like some people in our industry (or at least a few people who hang around this blog) almost seem gleeful at the thought of a major stumble from Pixar or Disney.

I am eagerly awaiting to see what John and Ron & Crew come up with on the Princess and the Frog (although I do agree that's an awkward title ... maybe it will change? ) and I'll reserve judgement until I'm watching it in the theater.


By the way are there really people out there who are so ignorant and single-issue focused that they truly think the name Maddie (one of the most popular girl's names in recent years) sounds reminiscent of "Mammy" ? That's a bit of a stretch , to say the least .

Floyd Norman said...

Sooo... what's wrong with "Mammy."

Seems it worked okay with Al Jolson.

Anonymous said...

"Floyd Norman"....Is that some kind of racist slur? It's got letters in it just like so many of these racist slurs.

Anonymous said...

So my question is..

Is it any good? Of those that have seen it (Steve, what have you seen? What are the artists saying about it?) If the changes don't water down the story I don't mind it, but I don't want Disney trying to change everything to make everyone happy.. it won't happen. Some people want to be offended.. it validates their failures in life. Gives them a boogey man to blame everything on.

So who's seen it and what do ya thing?

Anonymous said...

I predict "The african american princess and a rana catesbeiana specimen"( will be another pastel coloured marshmallow with a big D on it, just like much of the latest fluff disney has put out in the last few years.


Anonymous said...

It's just before the end of the stale roman empire and the fat cats ain't gonna challenge the hypnotic trance they have over naive midwesterners. If anyone's got original ideas...go through the pain and get them in action through a different route.

Anonymous said...

Why can't they just make a nice talking animal movie?

Disney had a cool-sounding "thriller" called "Fraidy-Cat" in development.

Sometimes I feel these human protagonist movies are an attempt to appear like "serious" film makers. And the fact that they can sell another princess doll with it.

BTW, The daily show has a great commentary by Larry Wilmore (co-creator of "the PJs") when "The Frog Princess" was announced:

Anonymous said...

"Why can't they just make a nice talking animal movie?"

Like Bolt?

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