What's ironic about all this was that "The Princess and the Frog" (formerly known as "The Frog Princess") was supposed to be the film that would bring about the triumphant return of traditional animation at Walt Disney Studios. Which is why Mickey's public relations staff thought that the official announcement of this movie -- which will feature Disney's first-ever African-American Princess -- would be greeted with tons of positive coverage.
Instead the exact opposite happened. Almost from the moment that John Lasseter stood on stage at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and told the Disney shareholders who were gathered at this year's annual meeting that ...
"I'm proud to announce we've started production on a (new) movie.
We are going back to hand-drawn animation -- Go ahead, clap. I'm clapping too. I love animation. We're also going back to classic Disney fairytale, but this one is an American fairytale. It is called 'The Frog Princess.'"
"The Frog Princess is being written and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who did 'The Little Mermaid' and 'Aladdin,' among other great movies. And it's a fantastic, fantastic story, and I'm really proud to say The Frog Princess takes place entirely in New Orleans.
The movie is completely set in New Orleans, with the fabulous French Quarter, the beautiful Garden District, the mystic bayou, the mighty Mississippi. It's full of what this city has that's so wonderful that I love so much. It's got the jazz, the Mardi Gras; it's got the voodoo spells. In fact, it even has a soulful, singing alligator, and it's great.
The main character of the story, our hero, is named Maddy. And I am very, very proud to announce that she is the very first African American Disney princess. We're really proud and excited about this. This is a fantastic story, this movie is going to be classic Disney, yet you've never seen one like it before."
... the politically-correct types came out of the woodwork and began finding reasons to [complain] and moan about this yet-to-be-animated animated feature.
Chief among their complaints were:
1. The name "Maddy" sounded too much like "Mammy" and/or "Addy" (Which supposedly was a slave name)
2. Maddy starts off this film working as a chamber maid for Charlotte, a rich, white, spoiled Southern débutante. Which -- to some particularly sensitive types -- also smacked of slavery.
3. The film's original title -- "The Frog Princess" -- was interpreted (by some) to be insulting toward France. Or -- at the very least -- a slur on French royalty.
Now here are poor Ron'n' John (Who are already having to deal with the enormous pressure that comes from knowing that traditional animation's future at Walt Disney Studios is pretty much riding on how well "The Frog Princess" does at the box office) trying to make the best possible movie they can ... Only to then find themselves caught in the middle of this politically-correct firestorm. Where op-ed writers were pouring over their film's casting list, actively looking for things that they can then pretend to be offended (EX: The number of people who expressed outrage that the movie's villain -- Dr. Duvalier -- is a smooth sinister black man who practices voodoo).
Disney did what they could to quickly address people's concerns about this motion picture. Which is why -- over the past two months -- they got word out that the film's title had been changed from "The Frog Princess" to "The Princess and the Frog." They also used that "Enchanted" article that Susan Wloszczyna wrote for U.S.A. Today last week to let animation fans know that Maddy's name had been changed to Tiana.
But the "Frog Princess" furor still refused to die down. Which is why -- earlier this week -- the Walt Disney Company took the unprecedented step of reaching out to BET, Suite101, the A-List, and several other websites who had previously published negative pieces about this still-in-development animation feature and issuing the following statement:
"While it is a Studio policy that we do not comment on our animated films while they are in the early stages of production due to the nature of our evolving development process, it has come to our attention that there is incorrect information being circulated about Disney's 2009 motion picture 'The Princess and the Frog' (whose previous working title was 'The Frog Princess').
The central character is a young girl named Princess Tiana. The story takes place in the charming elegance and grandeur of New Orleans' fabled French Quarter during the Jazz Age. She is the newest addition to the Studio's royal family of 'Disney Princesses.' Princess Tiana will be a heroine in the great tradition of Disney's rich animated fairy tale legacy, and all other characters and aspects of the story will be treated with the greatest respect and sensitivity.
This American fairy tale is several years away from completion and the creative process is ongoing. No other details regarding the film have been released at this point, and unfortunately much of the information that has surfaced, including the casting breakdown ... is inaccurate. When we do casting calls we frequently use substitute information as we don't want details out about the movies. Therefore that information you have is incorrect."
Mind you, Disney PR is hoping that this blanket the-Web-has-bad-info-about-"The-Princess-and-the-Frog" statement will then allow the politically-correct controversy that currently surrounds this still-in-development animated feature to finally dissipate. Which will then allow Ron'n'John and their production team to get back to the business of making the most entertaining movie they can.
Earlier this year (At the very same meeting where John Lasseter officially announced "The Frog Princess," in fact), Bob Iger revealed that he had just placed Dick Cook -- the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios -- in charge of determining whether or not the Walt Disney Company should release "Song of the South" on DVD.
Now a few weeks ago, I heard that Dick Cook reportedly asked Ron'n'John if it would be possible to have an entire sequence from "The Princess and the Frog" (Formerly known as "The Frog Princess") completed by the late Summer / early Fall of 2008. And by completed, I mean voiced, animated, edited, fully scored and color-corrected.
Soooo ... Why would Cook need a sequence of this film completed within the next 15 months ? It's simple, really. Dick supposedly wanted this excerpt from "The Princess and the Frog" to be an extra feature on the "Song of the South" DVD. So that this 2009 film can then effectively run interference for that 1946 Academy Award winner.
To explain: What the Mouse was hoping to do with this completed sequence from "The Princess and the Frog" was when people would then raise objections to "Song of the South" and its depiction of blacks, Disney officials would then be able to point to this excerpt from their studio's upcoming traditionally animated feature and say "Look, back in the 1940s, we may have depicted African-Americans in a sometimes clichéd, often despicable fashion. But we don't do that anymore. Look how even-handed we are with the characters from 'The Princess and the Frog.' How we don't use any stereotypes with this film."
It was hoped that -- by doing this -- Disney officials would then give those who would automatically hammer on "Song of the South" because of the way that film depicts blacks much less to complain about. Defuse the situation, so to speak.
The only problem with this plan that it was dreamed up prior to "The Frog Princess" being consumed by its own PC controversy. Now, there are those at the Mouse House who wonder if it's wise to link these projects. Thereby making both "Song of the South" and "The Princess and the Frog" bigger targets for politically-correct types.
However, should the complaints about Ron'n'John's newest project actually be defused by that statement that Disney released to the Web earlier this week ... Well, the company might (And let me stress that word again: might) try putting "Song of the South" out in stores in time for the 2008 holiday shopping season.
And just so you know, Disney's supposedly considering making "Song of the South" a title that they'd then release under their recently resurrected "Disney Treasures" line. Which could possibly mean a very small production run for this particular DVD. Something along the lines of 150,000 to 500,000 units tops. Just to sort of test the waters. To see if there'd actually be an uproar if the Walt Disney Company were to make this 60+ year-old film widely available for sale in the U.S.
If that Disney Treasures version of this film does well ... Well, look for the Mouse -- a year or so later -- to make another, wide-open edition of "Song of the South" available for purchase. But only in the Disney Blu-Ray format. Which would (in theory) provide consumers with yet another incentive to invest in HD technology.
Of course, a lot of things can happen between now and the 2008 holiday season. Disney could get cold feet about "Song of the South" and/or decide that "The Princess and the Frog" is already far too controversial. Which is why they then wouldn't dare to do anything to link these two films.
But -- that said -- this shows that the Walt Disney Company is once again looking for ways that they can then release "Song of the South" to the U.S. market. Which should give all you animation fans out there some reason to hope again ... I think.
We're mostly blogging this for the new images of Princess and the Frog, but it's also a great explanation of what's been happening with the movie.