When Disney announced it was casting its first black princess for its latest animation film, the African-American heroine was hailed as a positive role model for little girls and an ambitious marketing ploy, not to mention an attempt to ward off the allegations of racism that have lurked since the heyday of Walt Disney Productions in the 1940s and 1950s.
But now the film studio finds itself fending off a chorus of accusations of racial stereotyping in its forthcoming big-budget cartoon, The Princess and The Frog: An American Fairy Tale, which marks a return to hand-drawn animation.
A musical set in 1920s New Orleans, the film 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 clichéd 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.
Rodney Hinds, features editor of The Voice newspaper, said: "We are talking about a big company who has had to go back to the drawing board. It's disappointing... Some of the stereotyping of people from our community is still rigid in people's minds. We have our own dreams and stories like everyone else, and we want them to be portrayed positively. This is about how people are perceived and a princess is normally a positive character who most people aspire to."
Disney commented: "The story takes place in the charming elegance and grandeur of New Orleans' fabled French Quarter during the Jazz Age... 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."
Disney's efforts to be multicultural have not always gone according to plan. In 1993, there were protests from Muslims who said the animated film Aladdin depicted the Middle East as barbaric. One lyric included with the line: "I come from a land, from a faraway place, where the caravan camels roam, where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face; it's barbaric, but hey, it's home."
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