Monday, March 29, 2010

Disney's New Orleans

In its latest movie, the Princess and the Frog, and in its theme parks, Disney characterizes New Orleans with ornate riverboats, jazz music, Mardi Gras, and voodoo. While there is much to be said about the riverboat and voodoo aspect of this portrayal, for the sake of length I will focus on the music and Mardi Gras aspect of the portrayal.

The Princess and the Frog film is set in New Orleans’ French Quarter in the 1920s, a time "when jazz was thriving" according to Disney's press release. Disney had a lot of stake with the movie, because it was not only Disney's 1) return to 2D animation but 2) portrayed a real city and 3) featured the first Disney African American princess. It was in Disney's best interest to stay true to New Orleans, and it intended to do so. Regardless, when John Lasseter chose Randy Newman to create the music instead of acclaimed composer (popular with Disney) Alan Menken it created quite the stir. Lasseter chose Newman partly because Newman had more eperience with pop/jazz-ish music than Menkens did. Besides, Newman was born in New Orleans and frequented the New Orlean’s Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Of course, Disney didn't question whether or not New Orlean’s really was the birth place of jazz, but neither does the general population. In addition, the Mardi Gras Indians article we read mentioned that most jazz musicians were males, and Professor Huang mentioned that females only joined the music scene as pianists. While at Disneyland, I noticed that all of the musicians were male and in the movie they are all male as well. I suppose this stays true to form, but I'm not sure whether it was intentional or not.

Since Disney had a lot at stake with the movie, it was attentive to detail and tried to portray New Orleans accurately. The animators of the film were sticklers for detail and visited New Orleans, interviewed residents, and checked their facts as much as possible – they even made sure to draw the clock on the St. Louis Cathedral with a IIII roman numeral, just as it can be found in real life.

In terms of historical context and race relations, however, Disney didn’t do the best job. As we read in “Katrina’s World” the 1920s were a time for bourbonism and conservatism in New Orleans. Many Black Louisianans migrated to East St. Louis to escape oppression, extreme racial tensions, and to find jobs. In addition, 1927 was the year of the Great Flood and the late 1920s the time of Huey Long – although Disney may have gotten animation details right, the historical context is not quite right.

But of course, this is entertainment. No one wants to see a movie where Tiana’s restaurant is flooded right after she opens it…it still is a bit strange though. As Professor Huang mentioned, we do not live in a post-racial society. It seems kind of silly drawing this connection...but I couldn't help but notice that at Disneyland, the "ethnic" Disney princesses are grossly under-represented and none of them have their own rides. In addition, Disney's New Orleans Square was portrayed as a fun, musical place serving Tiana’s gumbo. There were colors everywhere, and a mardi gras dance. The entire place was decorated with mardi gras beads, and every time I looked at them I was reminded of Mardi Gras: Made in China and the factory that produced the beads, a factory which probably does not advertise itself as the happiest place on earth.

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