The Disney Princess movie franchise has been one of the most dominant cultural forces over the last few decades. Recently Disney has launched a campaign to convince people that there’s more to Disney princesses than a pretty face. The Princess and the Frog, released in 2009, embodies much of this new initiative to provide clear, positive role models for girls (and it also gives us our first African-American princess!).
Set in 1920s New Orleans, the movie follows Tiana, a hard-working young woman who works multiple jobs in hopes of saving up enough money to open her own restaurant. When Tiana kisses a frog claiming to be a prince, she turns into a frog herself, and embarks on a journey to find a way to reverse the curse before it’s too late. Voodoo features heavily in the film, and Disney certainly took some flak for it. While Disney does a great job of providing us with a dynamic Disney Princess, I had to wonder—does it do an equally good job portraying Voodoo?
The biggest misconception about Voodoo is that it’s just one kind of religious belief and practice. But, in fact, that’s a bit like saying all Christians are the same. Afro-American religion represents a number of different kinds of religious expression developed by Africans in the Americas. Most involve a whole pantheon of spirits and/or ancestor worship, and incorporate religious elements from Christian, Native American, Spiritualist, Islamic and other traditions. These religious expressions manifest themselves as Haitian Vodou, Louisiana Voodoo, Hoodoo, and many other traditions.
The two kinds of Afro-American religion included in The Princess and the Frog seem to be Louisiana Voodoo and Hoodoo. Hoodoo is probably the basic concept of what most people think of when they think of the word “Voodoo.” Hoodoo allows people to gain access to spiritual forces in order to influence events in your own or another’s favor. It’s a combination of a spiritual system and folk magic, with strong Christian influence. Icons of Christian saints are often found on hoodoo shrines. Hoodoo has a strong negative stigma of being nothing more than silly tricks and/or devil worship. Louisiana Voodoo developed in New Orleans with lots of French, Creole, Spanish, and Catholic influence. It emphasizes the use of Hoodoo paraphernalia, gris-gris (talismen), Voodoo Queens (powerful women skilled in Voodoo, the most famous of whom was Marie Laveau), and the worship of a snake deity. For the purposes of the movie, Disney ignores the distinctions between the different kinds of Hoodoo and Voodoo, so for my own purposes here, I’m going to label Disney’s brand of Voodoo/Hoodoo simply “Voodoo.” For more information on Voodoo, Vodun, and Hoodoo, check out this site for some older texts, as well as here for a list of contemporary articles.
In The Princess and the Frog, we have two Voodoo practitioners: Dr. Facilier and Mama Odie. Dr. Facilier is the movie’s main villain, and is reminiscent of a combination of Jafar from Aladdin and Scar from The Lion King. Mama Odie, on the other hand, is a cross between Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and Grandmother Willow from Pochahontas. Mama Odie is called a Voodoo Queen by one of the characters, and sings about giving people what they need, not what they want. She’s morally good, but with a formidable power.
However, it is Dr. Facilier that gives the audience their introduction to Voodoo through a song about his “friends on the other side.”
We see that Dr. Facilier runs his own Voodoo Emporium (1:12), and talks about how “it’s just a little thing we have here in Louisiana” (1:23), so it’s safe to say that he’s clearly talking about Louisiana Voodoo. He downplays what he does as a little “parlor trick,” but we find out that. Dr Facilier has some very real powers that come from some very real shadowy beings. He claims to be able to grant wishes (“make your wildest dreams come true”) and the power to change someone’s future. Then at 1:50 he sings “I got voodoo, I got hoodoo, I got things I ain’t even tried…” So while the song’s lyrics technically distinguish hoodoo and voodoo, it’s all functionally the same in this movie. The filmmakers did seem to do some basic research into the hallmarks of Louisiana Voodoo, though. Dr. Facilier uses a talisman to transform Prince Naveen into a frog, and Mama Odie is a Voodoo Queen. Both characters incorporate snakes into their practice: Dr. Facilier uses them as menacing minions, while Mama Odie’s is a beloved pet and assistant.
There are two primary points we can gather from Disney’s portrayal of Voodoo. The first, is that they only give half an attempt to portraying Voodoo, in its complexity, accurately. It seems about the same as including some crosses, the Bible, and a priest in your portrayal of Christianity. The second, is that Voodoo isn’t presented as an entirely negative practice. If Disney had decided to only make their villain a practitioner of Voodoo, the messages would have been that Voodoo is evil. However, because Mama Odie also practices Voodoo (and is rather good at it, too), we see that Voodoo is essentially a neutral practice that can be used for good or evil. At the end of the movie, we see Dr. Facilier’s spirit dragged to “the other side” by the shadowy spirit beings he once claimed as friends. This is consistent with the general understanding among those who practice Voodoo that the practitioner serves the spirits that give them power, and to disobey them puts one at grave risk. Dr. Facilier gets what’s coming to him because he fails to hold up his end of the spiritual bargain. It’s clear that he abuses his power, and is more interested in personal gain than respecting the spirits. Mama Odie, on the other hand, uses her connection to the spirits to help others. She easily dispatches the shadowy spirits sent to capture Prince Naveen, showing the audience that those who use their Voodoo ability for good are more powerful than those who use it for evil.
So while Disney doesn’t do a great job of presenting Voodoo in its true complexity, it does portray it in a neutral to positive light. The Princess and the Frog shows us that Voodoo can be used for both good and evil, but that using it for good gives more powerful results. Given Disney’s history of either no religious undertones or only Christian religious undertones in its movies, including Voodoo in a Disney Princess movie is a step in a more diverse direction.