One is the story of a paralyzed former marine who finds himself in the middle of a conflict between humans and aliens over mineral rights that is quickly spiraling towards genocide with humans as the aggressors; the other is a fairytale about transformation and romance. On the surface James Cameron’s Avatar, a 3D spectacle described most frequently as “epic” and Disney’s first classically animated feature in five years, The Princess and the Frog, may seem to have very little in common besides being highly anticipated films that have taken the top slots at the box office. Unfortunately when explored more deeply it becomes apparent that both have issues concerning racial inequality and how we understand it that hover just beneath the surface and go unexplored. Yet on the positive they both espouse the need for balance in life, a sentiment most decidedly expressed in the relationship between men and women and their roles within the story.
Considering how blatantly Avatar deals with one species attacking and attempting to dominate another, saying that there are issues concerning how we understand racial inequality might seem odd. To understand what is being said here, let us first consider that science fiction as a genre has long been seen as particularly metaphoric in terms of understanding the self and other, typically with the self represented by humans and the “other” embodied in the form of the alien. Often this has specifically been equated to issues of race, in ways remaining highly problematic as the self is generally presented as being white with the alien(s) being understood to represent minorities. This is the problem within Avatar. The Na’vi, who are the ten foot tall, bipedal, feline-like natural inhabitants of the planet Pandora, upon which the movie takes place, are shown to be a wholly altruistic people who are unable to understand the true motives of the mining corporation attacking them and ultimately can only be lead effectively against this corporation by Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the former marine mentioned above who is taking part in the avatar program, which mentally links humans to human-Na’vi hybrids in an attempt to create a deeper understanding and connection between the two peoples. Jake, who initially comes into contact with the Na’vi with absolutely no understanding of them, ultimately proves to be their savior, therefore showing, perhaps unintentionally, that some white, male, human makes a better Na’vi than a real Na’vi does.
As an isolated incident in Hollywood this might not be an issue but considering the tendency of this scenario to crop up again and again, it is fair to say this is an issue in the film. While the Na’vi are highly sympathetic but also shown to be powerful and wise, with James Cameron having directly stated that the Na’vi were intended to represent the better part of ourselves, this attempt to make them cheer-worthy leads to their becoming horribly two dimensional and flat, which is probably the greatest failing of the film.
While these issues might be arguable in terms of Avatar, those within The Princess and the Frog have garnered attention even preceding the film’s release. Set in 1920’s New Orleans the movie tells the story of Disney’s first African American princess, Tiana, and her struggle to achieve her dream of opening her own restaurant. As per usual Disney had on their rose-colored glasses in making this film. Although it would be nice to imagine a world as pleasant as that depicted in the movie, Disney conveniently ignores the problems of segregation and racism that plagued the U.S. at the time the movie takes place. Instead a picture of harmony is presented in which only the vaguest hints of reality peek through in the form of a clear distinction between white and black neighborhoods and an offhand comment—which on the surface is about economic standing but could potentially read in racial terms as well—made to Tiana by one of the realtors from whom she is trying to buy her future restaurant.
One might also point out that the movie’s villain, Dr. Facilier, is an African American man who is attempting to take control of New Orleans from its most prominent resident, Big Daddy La Bouf, whose wealth, while not directly explained, is hinted to have come from either the sugar or cotton industry. Suffice it to say that Dr. Facilier eventually fails in this attempt. However, in Disney’s defense it should be noted that the filmmakers seemed to have actively tried to avoid or correct some of the issues connected to the film. For example, while Dr. Facilier is shown to use voodoo to bewitch and swindle his victims, Mama Odie uses voodoo to help those around her. Also, in the end, Dr. Facilier is not overcome by being “put in his place” but instead by Tiana’s decision to choose love over greed which results in Dr. Facilier’s spell being broken allowing his “friends on the other side” to take him as payment for his debts.
Where both films stumble in terms of how racial conflict is understood, oppositely they excel in their depiction of women, an action which serves to convey a message of the importance of balance. In Avatar we learn upon meeting the Na’vi that they are a patriarchal society in structure but not in such fashion that discredits or ignores the importance of the female Na’vi. In fact the society is shown to be co-ruled by a male civic leader and a female spiritual leader. This spiritual leadership is nothing to be taken lightly as the Na’vi are an extremely spiritual people who commune directly with their planet and its other inhabitants, as well as having a deep spiritual bond to their goddess Aywa, whose power is eventually proven scientifically by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). Also within Na’vi culture males and females are able to take up the same jobs and roles with many of the warriors and hunters, who fly the dangerous banshee, being female.
These roles are both exhibited by Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) the young Na’vi woman who brings Jake Sully to the Na’vi and eventually forms a deep and romantic relationship with him. Neytiri is depicted as a fierce and formidable warrior with a deep spiritual connection to Aywa and her people. When the civic leader, Neytiri’s father, dies during an assault on the Na’vi she is the one to receive his bow, a weapon she eventually kills the film’s central antagonist with.
Another way in which the Na’vi are shown to be superior to the humans comes from this balance between male and female. When Jake convinces the Na’vi to gather in order to strike back against the humans, Neytiri rides out with him on his mount at the head of the warriors. At first this may look like yet another damsel tagging along on the back of the saddle—after all, Neytiri does have her own mount—but what is really going on is a reinforcement of balance. Here Jake is not leading the Na’vi alone, with Neytiri riding with him it is a joint venture and they are both leading The People; as Jake flies Neytiri cries out encouraging her people and calling them onward.
When the importance of female Na’vi within their society becomes clear it also illuminates the lack of women on the human side. Throughout the film only two human women become somewhat prominent: Dr. Grace Augustine and Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez) and ultimately both choose the side of the Na’vi when war breaks out. Very few other women can be spotted amongst the ranks of the humans and none are obvious along the front lines. The situation this creates is one in which the “bad” guys are a society without balance and the “good” people are in balance. A similar argument has been made about the Empire and Rebel Allience in the original Star Wars trilogy, although Avatar does this more obviously.
What about The Princess and the Frog then? Disney has long been debated concerning its princesses and their depictions. In the 90’s during the Disney Renaissance it became clear several times that the company was attempting to make its female characters more than just damsels in distress or heartsick romantics with one of the strongest examples being Belle from Beauty and the Beast who ultimately saves the prince instead of being saved, although yet again her happy ending was to fall in love. Tiana becomes something new. Not only is Tiana’s dream to be a business owner but any romantic bones in her body are completely focused on the restaurant and not some prince. Instead the typical princess dreams are left to her friend Charlotte. Despite dreaming of nothing but true love and prince charming, Charlotte never becomes stale. She, like Tiana—who snores and is far from perfect—has her own realistic moments where she sweats too much, has to redo her make-up and readjusts her dress like any teenage girl might adjust a strapless top. Not to mention that while she is terribly spoiled, Charlotte is not selfish and never fails to be kind to others.
Unlike most other Disney princes who are non-entities or innocent diamonds in the rough, Prince Naveen is a flawed, ladies man who is as focused on play as Tiana is on work. During their time together as frogs the two each learn to appreciate a little of what the other offers. In falling in love with Tiana, Naveen comes to understand the value of hard work and discovers what it is like to want to make sacrifices in order to make a loved one happy. Naveen is even the first to make these gestures. For her part Tiana comes to realize that a single-minded determination to have a business may cost her what should be just as important, love. Thus when Naveen is willing to marry Charlotte in order for Tiana and himself to become human again and for Tiana to get the money for her restaurant, Tiana finds that her dream of having her business can only really become true if Naveen is a part of it. While the film progresses to the typical Disney wedding of Prince and (now) princess, the real happy ending of the movie comes when the two are able to open the restaurant together through sharing the work and not by any deus ex machina in the form of Naveen’s wealthy family.
The need for balance between love/play and work expressed by Tiana and Naveen are not the only examples within the film. As mentioned before where we see Dr. Facilier use voodoo for bad, Mama Odie uses it for good. This is also another of the more unique points of The Princess and the Frog. Whereas Disney has traditionally had female villains, an occurrence that possibly stems from Disney’s tendency to make its antagonists a mirror of its protagonists thus having female villains for its female leads and male villains for its male leads, The Princess and the Frog is one of the rare examples of a female protagonist paired against a male villain.
Disney also works to balance how the side characters are understood as well. Shortly after meeting Ray the Cajun firefly and his extended family, who at first would seem a mean parody as most of them are missing teeth or look a little dimwitted, a trio of Hillbillies appear, causing havoc. After seeing the good-natured spirit of the fireflies who work together to guide Tiana and Naveen and who clearly have close family ties, the overly violent and uncooperative Hillbillies make it clear that while the fireflies might be a little backwoods, they are definitely to be admired and not to be thought poorly of.
Despite their problems, both Avatar and The Princess and the Frog present their viewers with positive messages about the treatment of others and the need for balance in our personal lives as well as within our societies. While neither is your typical award fare and are ultimately intended as primarily entertainment pieces, their ability to send such messages presents us with two prime examples of how entertainment does not have be dimwitted or without moral.