Q: What makes Walt Disney’s characters so immortal?
A: Even seemingly disparate Disney classics have a trope in common: the come-up, also known as the glow-up — and commonly associated with the rags-to-riches archetype. These stories thrill audiences by exploiting our hunger for glamour, which we often lack in our daily, thankless labors. There are so many examples that demonstrate my point that I wasn’t sure where to start when I considered this topic; I ultimately narrowed my lens to two animated films: The Princess and the Frog (2009) and Hercules (1997). Both animations lean on mainstays of Disney’s magical universe: grand heroes’ journeys, dark villains, and sensationalized African-American spiritual practices. They were also both directed by Disney’s powerhouse duo: Ron Clements and John Musker.
The Princess and The Frog (2009):
Redressing egregious representations of African-Americans in Fantasia (1940) and Song of the South (1946), The Princess and the Frog transports Disney’s starpower to 1920s New Orleans. The city bustles in its animated glory, colored with gradients of pomp, sunset, and sun-kissed skin.
From her early girlhood, Tiana (voiced by Elizabeth Dampier & Anika Noni Rose), makes it clear that she’ll doggedly pursue a career as a restaurateur — fulfilling her father’s unrealized dreams. She has hints of several beloved Disney characters: Belle’s indifference to ‘provincial life,’ Cinderella and Aladdin’s ‘diamond in the rough’ melodramas, Ariel’s endearing stubbornness, and of course, Hercules’ starry-eyed determination to ‘go the distance.’ I have no doubt that this was a strategy to assimilate to Disney’s royal canon.
The film’s tone is set by Black magic and Black music. It swells with Big Easy jazz, and its villains are people who abuse New Orleans voodoo. The principal villain is Dr. Facilier (voiced by Keith David) — a corrupt bokor known to swindle his clients. Though he favors Prince’s purple flamboyance, he doesn’t favor princes at large. He casually turns Prince Naveen (voiced by Bruno Campos) into a frog in exchange for a handsome payoff.
In the end, The Princess and the Frog is a cautionary tale about taking shortcuts to success. Characters who don’t earn their winnings perish, and characters who endure a humbling journey (e.g. Tiana and Naveen) are rewarded with their dreams (as well as romance).
Hercules’ intoxicating soundtrack was powered by Black Baptist church traditions. The film’s Greek chorus (The Muses) was composed of five actress-vocalists: Lillias White (Calliope), Vanéese Y. Thomas (Clio), Cheryl Freeman (Melpomene), LaChanze (Terpsichore), and Roz Ryan (Thalia). They were the film’s glue and glitter — bringing elegance, soul, and impressive lung-power to the production.
This 1997 animation rewrote the original tragedy, flipping it into a story of uplift and triumph. Disney did for Hercules what Black people have done for Christianity: reformed it with meaningful context. The progenital legend bears embers of relatability, but it’s far-removed from modernity. Its rebirth as a playful underdog story gave us more to hold onto (and complemented Disney’s archive of try-hard bootstrappers).
The film joined a cosmic, Grecian aesthetic with gritty cosmopolitan streets (possibly inspired by the 1970 film, Hercules in New York) — creating a delightful, hodgepodge world. As in The Princess and the Frog, Hercules’ antagonist was dark magic. Hades (voiced by James Woods) is the gloomiest presence in the film, intent on exploiting and destroying anyone who crosses his path to power. Like most Disney villains, he entraps victims by probing their desperation. Reflecting the underworld, fire and smoke emanate from Hades’ fingertips.
Conclusion: Director-animators Ron Clements and John Musker have distinctive storytelling patterns. You can often suss out their Disney films by tracking gallant heroes in need of big breaks, Black music, and black-magic villains. The Princess and the Frog and Hercules mark this lucrative trend.
*These films can be streamed on Disney Plus
‘The Princess And The Frog’s Directors John Musker and Ron Clements take us to “the other side” of animation!’ by Jérémie Noyer (interview)
‘Disney Directing Duo Reflect on Creating ‘Aladdin’ Genie With Robin Williams: “A Marvel to Witness”’ by Caroline Giardina (interview with Ron Clements and John Musker, in which they compare CGI animation to hand-drawn animation)