Disney’s The Princess and the Frog: Addressing Race within the Disney Princess Film Canon

***This post is adapted from a talk I gave at the Herman Hudson Symposium at Indiana University in 2012***

Disney's The Princess and the Frog

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog

In the publicity leading up to the release of Disney’s 2009 feature film, The Princess and the Frog, two aspects of the film were heavily promoted: 1) that this film would mark Disney’s return to hand-drawn animation after a five year hiatus and 2) that the protagonist of the film would be black, making her Disney’s first black princess.

Although critical response was heavily mixed, the most vocal critics lambasted Disney’s treatment of race in the film. For many who disliked The Princess and the Frog, a huge issue is that the film never deals with, and barely even acknowledges, the racial realities of the Deep South in the 1920s. In spite of precautions taken by Disney to try to ensure that this film was racially sensitive, including consulting with the NAACP and Oprah Winfrey over possible problems, the final result was criticized as yet another instance of Disney “whitewashing” its films.

So what went wrong? The problem begins with Disney’s attempt to make the film fit into the established Disney princess canon. In doing so, Disney has chosen to privilege the generic limitations of the Hollywood musical as well as the traditional definitions of a Disney princess, and this limits the degree to which racial realities can be overtly acknowledged in the film. Instead, race becomes a lens through which other problems may be understood and explained.

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Animation as a Genre

Genre theory often sets out to answer how any genre can be understood as an identifiable subject with clear boundaries. Rick Altman’s work on generic semantics and syntax is particularly useful in understanding the ways that animation as a method of production has influenced, but not overshadowed, notions of animation as a genre. Altman argues that genre is too often thought of has having one, set element that gives it its qualities. Instead, genres may be classified as such because they share the same semantic elements – defined as a film’s ‘building blocks’ (sets, props, plots, etc.) – or because they organize those elements in a similar way (in the themes, plot structures, character relationships, etc.).[1] Most importantly, Altman argues that these concepts are most productive when they are taken in tandem; the most recognizable genres are those that show coherence between the semantic and the syntactic elements.[2]

Understanding that early animation was advertised as a technological marvel of the new film industry creates a syntax for the animated cartoon genre: it helps define one of the genre’s overarching concerns and its relationship to other film genres, but it does not complete the picture. Most of all, animation-as-style does very little to explain American animation’s predisposition toward a recognizable aesthetic in the figures nor the predisposition towards comedy.[3] It is the gradual influence of the cartoon – or (more literally) newspaper comics and flipbooks – and the cartoonists themselves that helped to define the medium as a genre.

In contrast to the dismal treatment of the comics section in newspapers today, “the funnies” were once a central component to the daily newspaper. As early producers looked for ways to incorporate more narrative into their films, the serial comics in the papers seemed a useful source. The newspaper comics had the benefit of having already-popular, recognizable characters, familiar gags, and allowed viewers to come into the theater with at least some basic expectation for the kinds of situations that would be found in these comics.[4] It did not take long for films based on comics to become a reliable pillar for early narrative cinema, although the collaborations usually featured live actors playing the parts of the popular newspaper characters. Before embarking on his time-consuming animation projects Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur, cartoonist Winsor McCay allowed the use of his characters in the film Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (Edwin S. Porter, 1906), with live actors playing the comic characters’ roles.[5] Similar techniques were used to bring the “Katzenjammer Kids” and “Mutt and Jeff” comics to the cinema[6]

Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (Edwin S. Porter, 1906)

Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (Edwin S. Porter, 1906)

It was not until the early 1910s that filmmakers began to borrow from the aesthetics of the comics as well as the characters and gags. McCay’s Little Nemo (1911) is one of the earlier efforts. Another early adaptor was animation pioneer Emile Cohl, whose animated cartoon based on the strip “The Newlyweds” inspired the publicity for the film to clarify that “The Newlyweds are not real people dressed up to imitate the famous McManus cartoons, but are drawings that move! The trick photography required to produce such wonderful effect is the work of the ‘Eclair’ people.”[7] Here, the beginnings of the concerns of animation as modern, technological style of filmmaking begins to blend with the aethetics and themes of the comics. This is also the first known instance of the phrase “animated cartoon” being used as a descriptor for an animated film.[8] By 1916, popular comic “Mutt and Jeff” had become a regularly produced animated film series, and a number of other comic strip characters, including Krazy Kat and Happy Hooligan, had been given short-lived careers on the silver screen.[9]

Advertisement for one incarnation of "Mutt and Jeff" circa 1933

Advertisement for one incarnation of “Mutt and Jeff” circa 1933

More than just borrowing ideas and characters from the comics, early animated cartoons also drew a large portion of their personnel from the newspaper comics. As animation in film began to take off, animators for syndicated comic strips were quickly snapped up by film corporations to help produce the enormous number of cels needed for each cartoon. These animators were regularly hired away from one studio to work at a rival film studio, allowing early animation to develop a relatively uniform style, both in terms of drawing styles and comedic influences.[10]

While there is quite a difference between the Mutt and Jeff or Krazy Kat animated cartoons and the animated cartoons seen today, these comic characters were integral to the initial development of the recognizable aesthetics of American animation. Modeling the theatrical animations after comic characters gave American animation a distinct “look” that was widely copied throughout the developing industry in the early days of animated films and helped to establish the initial possibilities how slapstick gags might appear on the big screen.

So, while discourse about animation as a style of filmmaking gave the animated cartoon one important element of its generic identity, it took more to begin to develop a style into a genre. With the influence of the comics, animated cartoons were able to not only develop an initial, recognizable aesthetic, but also a relatively similar approach to comedy, character types, and plot structures (or lack thereof). This early marrying of the developing technology to the already-popular drawn medium may be seen as the basis for the animated cartoon as comedy, as a story, as a fantasy, and the beginnings of a niche appeal to younger audiences (since comics, like later cartoons, were intended for all audiences but known to be particularly attractive to children). It is these elements that have helped to make ‘animation’ a recognizable genre in its own right for American audiences.

 

[1] Rick Altman, “A Semantic – Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Cinema Journal 23.3 (Spring 1984), pp6-18; Altman, Film/Genre, pp84-87

[2] Altman, Film/Genre, pp87-90

[3] Not all American animated cartoons are comical, of course, but those exceptions are marked as remarkable outliers rather than exemplars of the genre.

[4] Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (1982), pp36-27; Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library (1987), pp12-17.

[5] Crafton, pp37

[6] Crafton, pp43; Maltin, pp13-15

[7] Moving Picture World Feb. 22, 1913; cited in Crafton, pp81-83

[8] Crafton, pp83

[9] Maltin, pp15-17

[10] Maltin, pp16

Animation as technology

As I talked about a little last time, the term animation can point to both a style of production and a genre. The two are often, but not always, intertwined in industry discourse. But to understand the tem, it is helpful to dissect each separately, and to do that I am going to start with a discussion of animation as a style of production.

Examining the use of the term ‘animation’ over time helps to paint a picture of how American audiences have collectively decided to talk about animated film. Thus, I will start with some of the earliest mentions of animation in trade magazines. Here we see the idea of ‘animation’ as primarily a technical achievement begin to form.

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Animation scholars inclined to the philosophical often cite the literal definition of animation – that is, that animation is “the act of giving life.” More accurately, animation is may be said to give movement to that which does not have life.

As lofty and exciting as this sounds, in point of fact this definition technically applies to all of cinema. Long before Edison and the Lumière Brothers worked to develop the first motion pictures, the first illusions of making images move began with the manipulation of drawings. The phenakistoscope, an optical toy in which viewers watched a rotating series of successive drawings through a slit in the cardboard, and the kineograph, or flip book, were two extrememly popular versions of pre-cinematic inventions that relied heavily on illustrations rather than photographs.

The popularity of the work of Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers ensured that moving pictures would become the dominant form of ‘cinema’ proper. The practice of making drawings move, however, continued to be developed alongside the popular live-action film. Here, the ‘magic’ animated sequences acted as part of the spectacle created by the motion pictures.

Tellingly, the myth of the beginning of ‘true’ animation starts, not with animated drawings, but with animated objects in a live-action film. In 1907, audiences and rival filmmakers were stunned upon witnessing a sequence in the Vitagraph film The Haunted Hotel (James Stuart Blackton) in which a long, close take shows a table being set, a knife cutting slices of bread, and beverages being poured – all without showing human intervention and with no apparent wires.

Now, in reality it is highly unlikely that this film is a ‘first’ of any kind. As  Donald Crafton has argued, most cameras were capable of doing single-frame takes by the time The Haunted Hotel was released, and the technique of stop-motion was “almost as old as cinematography.” In reality, The Haunted Hotel was most likely just one of the more well-publicized reactions to this type of “trick cinema,” and – to be honest – it is a very nicely executed piece of early animation.

Early advertisements for films with animated sequences highlighted the astonishing tricks featured. Advertisements for The Haunted Hotel, for example, relied almost entirely on selling the “Startling! Puzzling! Bewildering!” effects, emphasizing that the tricks are done “All Without the Sign of A Human Hand!” – a pronouncement which draws attention to the fact that the trick is done so smoothly as to leave no trace of the mechanism.

The Billboard, March 2, 1907, pp33

The Billboard, March 2, 1907, pp33

However apocryphal, the myth of animation’s origins is useful because it shows how animation as a style of filmmaking was discussed. Unlike the genre of animation, the interest in animation as a style has focused on how effects are achieved rather than the narrative reasoning. That is, the story of animation as a style is largely a story of the technological developments that make wondrous illusions possible. Here, animation is discussed as a construction of modernity, the ultimate display of technological prowess.

The use of scientific and magical descriptors bleeds over from these early trick films into the discourse of animation. Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) was advertised with a similar mixture of the miraculous (“She eats, drinks and breathes…Yet she lived millions of years before man inhabited this earth”) and the scientific (“According to science this monster once ruled this planet. Skeletons now being unearthed measuring from 90ft to 160ft in length!”).Gertie_Variety

The term ‘animation’ in both trade and popular discourse consistently pointed toward the technological developments that made the amazing images possible. From the advances in stop-motion techniques in the late 1890s to the development of celluloid and rotoscoping in the late 1910s, the discussion of animation was as much about the techniques of the animators and the patented technology as it was about the films they made.  The April 15, 1911 issue of The Moving Picture World advertises one of McCay’s earlier animation attempts, Little Nemo (1911), thus:

“At the club, Winsor McCay [says] that he feels positive he can produce drawings that will move, and wagers that he will make four thousand pen drawings inside of one month that will move as actively and as life-like as anything ever reproduced by the camera, and surpass in their performance anything ever seen.”

Here we see the method of production (the four thousand drawings required) and the accuracy of the film (the ‘life-like’ qualities) emphasized above and beyond that of the film itself. The title of the film is not even mentioned here until the second paragraph, where it becomes known that the subjects have been taken from his ‘Little Nemo’ comic series.

Eventually, many of the more popular animated cartoons began to advertise their shorts by relying on characters, popularizing characters like Mutt and Jeff, Krazy Kat, or Koko the Clown and paving the way for animation to develop as a recognizable genre in its own right. Yet, despite this, the discussion of technique and technology remains a common theme in articles that discuss animation in trade literature.

Today, animation studios for both television and film widely advertise their production methods. Audiences are kept informed about the various uses of CGI in animated films – for instance, Disney described the development of technology to make accurate snow for Frozen, and when Disney returned to hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog, the production process was highly publicized. Moreover, the blurring lines between CG animated film and realistic CG visual effects makes sense when animation is seen as style and technology rather than a generic descriptor. Although ‘animation’ is now most popularly discussed a genre based around comical children’s films, the discussion of animation as a style based in technological developments has nevertheless left its mark.

 

For further reading see:

Giannalberto Bendazzi, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press (1994).

Donald Crafton, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (1982).

Solomon, Charles. Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation. 1st ed. New York: Knopf (1989).

Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library (1987).

What is animation?

“I’m interested in animation.”

From childhood through my teens, into my academic studies, and finally now, in my post-academic job hunt, I can’t count how many times I’ve used that sentence. In a recent discussion at a WIA director’s panel, director Lauren Montgomery (Green Lantern: First Flight) commented that she knew animation was her career path when, as other girls were moving on to make up and “adult things,” she was still rushing home to see the latest cartoon on television. This sentiment was echoed not only by the other panelists, but by much of the audience as well; I would imagine that many animation lovers have experienced a similar development of their passion.

For me, my interest in animation kept me watching my ancient Disney and Warner Bros VHS tapes long after my friends had moved on to rom coms and DVDs. Unfortunately lacking any hint of artist talent, I didn’t become an animator (as so many who love animation do), but instead used animation as the foundation of my academic life; from Thomas Edison to Ed Catmull, from shorts to features to television to documentary, from America to Europe and Asia, and from the early painstaking drawings by Windsor McCay to the computer generated images by Pixar, each offered a fascinating glimpse into the wonder of animation as art and entertainment.

Finally, in grad school, I was asked what my focus was. Dutifully repeating the aforementioned phrase, I watched as my professor sat stoney faced, his eyes piercing into me. “What the $*&% does that actually mean?” he asked. Aside from the harsh delivery, my professor had a good point. The animation label is applied to a great range of things, not all of which play well together as a generic category. What I had missed in taking animation as myriad individual points of study was an opportunity to study the idea of animation as a broader concept.

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If we think about the many ways that films can be categorized as ‘animated films,’ it initially seems as though ‘animation’ is a flawed generic category. Although animation in the US is often associated with the fantastical — coyotes are blown up and dropped off cliffs, hippos in tutus dance with alligators, and princesses are saved from ferocious step-mothers-turned-dragons — animated films have also been used to create a clear picture of reality, unencumbered by the messiness of real-life images. Both Disney’s Four Methods of Flush Riveting (James Algar, 1942) and Dumbo (Samuel Armstrong and Norman Ferguson, 1941), are “animated films,” despite the glaring differences between them in content, tone, and intended audience.Disney1940s

At its most basic, genre may be defined as an attempt to categorize a product in a way that is understandable to others; it is a way to create expectations about that product, whether done between producer and consumer, between critics and audiences, or between fellow movie-goers. As Steve Neale writes in Genre and Hollywood, “Genres do not consist solely of films. They consist also of specific systems of expectation and hypothesis which spectators bring with them to the cinema and which interact with films themselves during the course of the viewing process. These systems…help render individual films, and the elements within them, intelligible and, therefore, explicable.”

If the purpose of a genre is to create expectations for the viewer before and during the experience of watching the film, it would seem as though using the descriptor ‘animation’ would be ineffective. Yet, if I were to pick a random person off the street in America and tell them that we were going to watch an animated film together, chances are relatively low that any randomly-chosen viewer would picture anything like Four Methods of Flush Riveting or Eastman Medical Films’ Indirect Inguinal Hernia (1929). Instead, there is a good chance that many would picture a similar animated-film prototype: a comedy with drawn figures in which the fantastic and the real playfully interact.

In this respect, animation can create definite expectations for a potential audience. Despite the myriad ways the term has been or could be employed to describe various cinematic works, the term is also employed — by industry insiders, critics, and average movie-goers — in ways that suggest that we have come to some kind of understanding of animation as a generic category as well.

So how, then, are we to reconcile two seemingly disparate ways of talking about animated film? On the one hand, the term ‘animation’ is used in contexts where it is understood as the nominalization of the verb “to animate,” which points us to a recognizable style of production. At the same time, it is a short form of “animated cartoon,” a designation that has become a genre in which the style of production is only one element of many. These two versions — animation-as-genre and animation-as-style — have developed alongside one another, and while the construction of animation-as-style has influenced the how animation has been bounded as a genre, these can still be read as two separate ways of categorizing cinema.

In a subsequent post, I will examine how industry discourse about the animated film has created two separate but interwoven ideas about animation as both a style of filmmaking and a genre of film in itself.