Dear Disney Studios,
First and foremost, I’d like to congratulate you on the success of Frozen: a fun and emotionally engaging film. And if Josh Gad’s prediction proves accurate, this movie heralds a second Disney renaissance which I, as a child of the 90’s, could not be happier about.
That said, Disney, you need to change up where you set your movies and how you design your characters. If Tangled and Frozen are any indication of your future plans (and they made too much money not to be) then I fear you are heading down a path of racial homogeny.
I should clear up that I don’t actually think Tangled and Frozen are racist (though I do think we should be passed equating black curly hair with villainy). It’s not the individual films that are the problem, it’s the projected trend. I don’t think it’s wrong to have an all-white cast in a movie that takes place in western Europe (though BBC’s Merlin and Roger and Hammerstein’s Cinderella produced by Whitney Houston prove that it’s not necessary to do so). What I find wrong is making that the norm: to feature all-white casts in all of your movies and that’s what I’m concerned you’re planning to do. I sense that the controversy and relative financial disappointment of The Princess and the Frog (especially in comparison to the acclaim and box office performance of Frozen and to a lesser extent Tangled) has scared you off of extending beyond western Europe, and therefore all-white casts, indefinitely.
I’m writing to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way- and shouldn’t be this way. Consider The Jungle Book, Aladdin, Mulan and Lilo and Stitch. You have made good (and financially successful) films with non-white characters in the past and you can do it again. However, it’s no longer enough to merely set your film outside of Western Europe, and rightly so. Your future projects must accurately represent the cultures your films are set in and characters must be ethnologically accurate.
Where on earth does Aladdin actually take place? Agrabah is based less on actual locations than vague western notions of the “exotic East.” The song “Arabian Nights” implies that Agrabah is somewhere on the Arabian Peninsula but it’s also a reference to the popular alternative title to One Thousand and One Nights, a story which takes place in Persia. Furthermore, the Sultan’s palace’s is designed after the Taj Mahal. So, we have ancient Arabia, Persia and India referenced: three very different cultures that you just lopped together because, well, why not?
Similarly, I appreciate the effort you put into studying Powhatan culture for Pocahontas, but Pocahontas herself doesn’t look like a Powhatan woman. She doesn’t even look like a white woman with darker skin, actually. That nose makes her look more like Voldemort than any human I’ve ever seen but I digress. You did design your characters in Brother Bear, Lilo and Stitch and Princess and the Frog with ethnological accuracy, though, and I thank you for that. Just keep it up in the future.
As flawed as Aladdin, Pocahonatas and other films are, though, you did once feel comfortable setting your films in regions other than western Europe- why did you stop? Well, let’s acknowledge how the world has changed since the 90’s. Your films now face a level scrutiny for political correctness that they didn’t during your first renaissance (and certainly didn’t during the golden age). For the most part, I think this is a good thing because certain things should no longer be tolerated. At the same time, though, this hypersensitivity has made non-caucasian characters a “risky” addition to a film because their portrayal will be subject to the constant question “is it racist?” This in turn makes it safer to just stick with white characters.
And lets face it, The Princess and the Frog was met with controversy on a level that Tangled and Frozen were not. Part of this is due to the hypersensitivity mentioned above but part of this is also because the film itself is genuinely flawed. Among other things, you set the film up for controversy by making race an issue in the movie, not by featuring a black protagonist, but by doing so and then setting the film in 1920s Louisiana. You cannot set your movie in the deep south and claim it has no racial undertones. You just can’t. Furthermore, the crux of the movie’s promotion was that Tiana was your first black Princess. You never let her simply be an interesting, charismatic Princess who just happens to be black. Of course the issue of race hounded that movie.
Yes, racism ought to be addressed in movies, but that shouldn’t be the only time to feature non-white protagonists. I think you (and the rest of the film industry) have this idea that when you have a black, Native American, hispanic or Asian character, you have to address the fact that he or she isn’t white. Therefore, the only time to have a non-white cast is when you want to tackle race or other serious themes. When you just want to kick back and tell a good story, you default to the “standard”: white,
The key to moving forward is to combine the cultural sensitivity of the present with the confidence in storytelling you once had. Approach future projects more or less the way you did Frozen (or Lilo and Stitch, actually, though that one was a while ago). In making Frozen, you didn’t opt for for a generic, medieval western-European design as you did with Tangled. You researched Norwegian architecture, fashion and music and incorporated them into the movie. Then you told a wonderful story, free of any self-imposed obligation to address the Nordic “angle” of the film. Though there was some controversy over the appropriation of Sámi culture, I feel this is a step in the right direction. Maintain this approach in the future but set your next projects in India, Egypt, the ancient empires of Ghana, Mali or Songhai, Japan, Indonesia, Mexico … there’s a enormously diverse world with unadapted folktales and fairy tales brimming with movie potential that you are squandering through your fear and limited world view.
Think on it Disney.