It had been ten years since Disney last attempted a cartoon musical when it released “Princess and the Frog.” Instead of being welcomed by all right into the Disney family, one particular thing stuck out to some in the audience. It wasn’t the first acknowledgment of African-Americans by Disney in decades. It wasn’t it being the first Princess film in the United States. It all boiled down to one word, a word that was used again and again and put an unusual spin on “Disney magic”:
“Voodoo.” The trademark villain– and the sort-of fairy godmother– both use voodoo.
A number of concerned mothers and censoring groups have bristled about them using magic and calling it that. Since 1937’s Snow White, Disney has scarcely produced a musical without some hocus and some pocus. But this did get a little bit obvious what kind of magic it was referencing.
Take the villain, for instance. The lanky, swanky Dr. Facilier is a voodoo practitioner whose powers are all lent to him by his “friends on the other side.” He lures the prince and sidekick into his emporium, shows them their life stories in tarot cards and gets them to shake his hand. That’s when the imagery really comes out: button-eyed voodoo dolls, baritone-voiced tiki heads and psychedelic smoke-and-mirrors that only Ursula from The Little Mermaid could top.
Many a wary parent sees this as too edgy for their own children. About.com’s Movie Review for Parents rated the film High for Scary Scenes, but it merited an Extreme under ‘Disrespectful/Imitative Behavior.’ “Kids may decide to imitate the use of tarot cards, voodoo dolls, and other such items,” it suggests.
The forums and lists of comments from Disney-sponsored sites to ordinary blogs have more mixed reviews. A woman who took her 3 year old niece to see the show wrote enthusiastically: “I thought that shadowman [Dr. Facilier] stole the show. The actor is Keith David, AMAZING!!!” Just three comments below, another said that her church group had a very different experience: “My 4 year old niece told me that she was scared that the shadow man would take her blood.”
Dr. Facilier totes an army of pointy-eyed shadows, a mask-shaped necklace that bites the Prince’s finger (pricking it for a drop of blood) to make him a frog, and an endless supply of little skull paraphernalia. Mama Odie is another story. She plays the “179-year-old blind lady” living in a shack in the bayou, with her seeing-eye snake and a host of singing birds. What voodoo does she have in her arsenal? A magic club that blasts the shadows with light. And, oddly enough, a bathtub full of gumbo that shows the future. This, too, is Disney’s un-traditional voodoo.
Disney religion has acknowledged every belief system it’s come across as true. Mulan’s ancestors hang around the shrine as ghosts. Pocahontas has visions and talks to Grandmother Willow about them. Don’t even bring up how much legitimacy the Greek gods get in Hercules. But perhaps Princess and the Frog using an American folk magic, albeit with sketchy historical accuracy, was what crossed the line.
Does the movie teach voodoo? Only if 101 Dalmatians teaches children to skin puppies. Children know a villain when they see one, especially a Disney villain: dark circles around the eyes, wicked grins, hissy fits and all. The one thing kids might be is scared.