You'd figure that Disney has all its family-friendly bases covered with its latest offering:
Warm, hand-drawn animation, jazzy songs, role-model parents, and the first green and nekkid princess in the Mouse House's history. (Well, yes, she's nicely dressed and proudly African-American at the start and at the end.)
But conservative Christian film reviewers are not all on board with "The Princess and the Frog." And unlike similar attacks on, say, the Harry Potter stories, I think they have a point.
Knee-jerk attacks from the right at pop culture often evoke eye-rolls from those not on the same theological wavelength – sometimes because the charges seem so off target. Consider the anti-Potter reaction. Harry, they said, was engaged in magic. Which is per se unbiblical and therefore evil.
But magic in the Potter series had nothing to do with spirits or Satan. It's an innate ability that some people have, an ability that can be honed by hard work and discipline. More like dunking a basketball than anything remotely mentioned in Christian scripture. And the Potter attackers eventually had to eat a bit of crow when the final book revealed that Harry's world has at least as much Christian subtext as C.S. Lewis's Narnia. (I'm serious about that
Not so much for the 1920s New Orleans of "The Princess and the Frog." As with most of the Potter series, there's not even a tip of the hat toward explicit traditional religion. But unlike the Potter books, the underpinnings of "Frog" are antithetical to some elements that many would consider central to Christianity.
If you haven't seen the film or have managed to miss the reviews: Tiana is a hard-working young waitress who wants to fulfill her late father's dream of opening a restaurant. Naveen is a charming but shiftless prince on the make for a wealthy bride. The prince is transformed into a frog by Dr. Facilier, aka "Shadowman" (voiced by Keith David, pictured above). And he mistakes Tiana for a princess whose kiss will restore him. Instead, she also becomes a frog and the plot takes off through the bayous and backstreets of New Orleans.
The animation is a reminder of what hand-drawings can do. The story has enough edge to give it emotional heft. For instance, one of the main animal characters ends up as dead as Bambi's mom. The songs are pleasant enough, but there's no "Be Our Guest" or "Under the Sea" among them. Overall, it's very good Disney but a little below the standards of "Pinocchio" or "Beauty and the Beast."
So what's the beef from some Christians?
Annie Young Frisbie offers an excellent analysis in Christianity Today
. No surprise that she notes that the villainous Shadowman is a voodoo worker who explicitly bargains with evil spirits on the "other side." But she also takes a whack at "Mama Odie" (voiced by Jenifer Lewis, also pictured), one of the main heroes of the movie:
"Mama Odie offers up a defiantly American church of the self. Just 'dig a little deeper' inside yourself and you'll find what you need to achieve all of your dreams. Sure, there's magic, but it only shows up once you've done everything in your power to get what you desire. Her message is the epitome of works-righteousness, where the only counter to the forces of evil is the good inside the human heart.
"Sure, this is the message of just about every family film that has come down the pike since the dawn of cinema. But to see it presented in a context that evokes the style of Christianity, Mama Odie's song serves as a stark reminder as to how the American values of self-reliance diverge from the Christian message of humble submission to external grace. Just because something looks and sounds beautiful doesn't make it gospel."
Thaisha Geiger on Christiananswers.net takes a similar tack
"This movie displays that voodoo magicians hold all the power of both good and evil. A PG rating would have been more appropriate; I strongly advise that younger, undiscerning children not be allowed to see it."
Ditto for the review on Hollywood Jesus
"One should never lightly toy with the spiritual world, especially the world of demons and their dark powers. Having a show-stopping Broadway-like song about dalliances with dark forces in an animated movie may make it seem like doing such things is really no big deal; not something I want my kids to pick up on."
Beyond that, in a movie that makes such an effort to capture the look and feel of that place at that time, I'd have expected at least a nod toward religion. The chances are pretty close to 100 percent that a successful, stable African-American family like Tiana's in 1920s New Orleans would have been hitting church on Sundays. We see family meals, a party, a wedding and a funeral.
But there's not a whisper of Christianity in the narrative.
To the contrary, prayers are offered to a wishing star that looks amazingly like the one that got Pinocchio's plot started. The forces of darkness are battled by light – real light, like the light from a lightning bug's bottom. Evil is punished and unredeemed. And the good guys win by dint of self-sufficiency and clear self-awareness.
I'm not saying that the film should have included an altar call. Far from it. Those of us who don't sit in the faith-not-works/Jesus-only pew aren't looking for that in our entertainment and surely won't miss it here. But for those who do espouse that particular Christian worldview, I can see how this otherwise values-upside film might cross against their grain.