Disney creates a princess to beat racism accusations

By Andrew Gumbel

LOS ANGELES - Walt Disney's first black princess will appear in a big-budget animated feature set for release in 2009.

It is the latest in many attempts by the company to prove its multicultural bona fides and ward off the spectre of racism that has lurked since its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s.

The company chose its annual shareholders' meeting to announce that it had started production on a film called The Frog Princess, set in New Orleans and featuring an African American princess called Maddy.

The meeting also took place in New Orleans - which gave Disney an opportunity to show its solidarity with the Crescent City after Hurricane Katrina.

Company executives gave away almost nothing about the plot or characters in the film.

Studio chairman Richard Cook said only that it would be scored by Randy Newman, who has worked extensively with the Disney subsidiary Pixar on the Toy Story films, A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc. and Cars.

The choice of a black princess is part of a long-term marketing strategy to give Disney characters as much "diversity" as possible.

In 1993, Disney created its first non-white princess for its animated version of Aladdin - and faced protests from Muslims and Arabs who said the film was racist in its depiction of a Middle East riddled with casual violence.

Disney followed that in 1995 with Pocahontas, a retelling of the encounter between an English settler and a Native American princess.

This brought more trouble for the studio - animators were accused of modelling Pocahontas on model Naomi Campbell, although they countered they had used Native American faces as their inspiration.

The Frog Princess is written and co-directed by John Musker and Ron Clements, who were responsible for Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.

Perhaps more significantly, the film fits into Disney's princess-oriented marketing strategy.

Since 1999, the company has introduced toys, books, clothing, furniture and other merchandise based on its eight animated film princesses - Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Jasmine from Aladdin, Pocahontas and Mulan.

Maddy will fit right into that product line. And she is almost sure to raise the hackles of anti-Disney critics.

The days when Walt Disney could be accused of blatant racism are long gone.

But it is still often accused of offering a bland, corporate, patronising vision of different ethnicities and cultures.

"Disney's message of inter-racial harmony is clear," Marlene Wurfel once wrote in a tough - and funny - essay in Z magazine.

"It doesn't matter what colour your skin is. There's no escape. What matters is that you are beautiful, good, submissive, self-abnegating, materialistic and willing to play the game."

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