So, watching Disney’s recent addition to their princess line of movies and merchandise, The Princess and the Frog, after re-reading Witches Abroad of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett was really interesting. Of course, The Princess and the Frog is a standard Disney princess movie based on a classic fairy tale, modernized to take place in New Orleans (although, as we clearly see, it takes place in a world where that fairy tale exists and is known commonly). While Discworld always makes a point of the power of stories and narrativium and plays with tropes surrounding stories, Witches Abroad does this the most blatantly and with the most impact on the plot, taking place in Genua, which is written as a cross between New Orleans and a more sinister side of Disneyland. In a lot of ways, I kind of feel like these two things are opposite sides of the same coin, in the best possible way.
Mr. Pratchett was certainly aware of what he was doing in the creation of Genua, as he has been quoted as saying, “Genua is a ‘sort of’ New Orleans with a ‘sort of’ Magic Kingdom grafted on top of it. It had its genesis some years ago when I drove from Orlando to New Orleans and formed some opinions about both places: in one, you go there and Fun is manufactured and presented to you, in the other you just eat and drink a lot and fun happens.” Having never been to either place, I can’t give my opinions, but this is certainly not an uncommon viewpoint. But I think that quote is relevant in more ways than one. It seems to be that while Disney wants to manufacture and present this story to you in a polished, vaguely artificial way, Pratchett just lets the story unfold in a more organic form. Understand that I’m saying this as a huge fan of both of these works; I’m not trying to disparage Disney, because manufacturing both stories and fun is what they do and they do it very well.
In The Princess and the Frog, the characters seem very nearly aware that they’re in an archetypal fairy tale; at various points, you basically see characters deciding that “okay, well, this worked in the fairy tale I read when I was a kid, so obviously it’ll work here, too, yeah”, like when Naveen decided that the solution to being turned into a frog is to kiss a princess – because of course it is if you’re using fairy tale logic. The characters seem like they’re trying to follow that story, because they know that story has a happy ending and they don’t have any better answers at the time. And although outside forces like Dr. Facilier, and misunderstandings, etc, seem like they’re driving the story off course, in the end, The Princess and the Frog really does end just about the same way as the classic fairy tale does – prince and princess kiss, both are human, love each other, happy ever after. After rereading Witches Abroad, this just really sticks out to me as an example of the story always finding a way. References are repeatedly made to stories wearing a groove in the world, forcing people to follow them, recreating the stories countless times throughout history.
On the other side of things, Witches Abroad is about the characters actively trying to subvert the story, while being forced to follow it by the evil witch. It mostly plays on Cinderella, who in this story, does not want to marry the prince, and simply wants to live her life and go to the Carnival (because of course it takes place at the equivalent of Mardi Gras; it’s the story of stories). The prince (or Duke, really, but he fulfills the same narrative role) is, in this case, an actual frog who has been turned into a human after making a deal with the evil witch, which I really liked as an inversion of the usual, and also of course is part of why “Emberella” doesn’t want to marry him. In Witches Abroad, Emberella, with the assistance of our main trio of witches (plus voodoo witch Mrs. Gogol who plays a very similar, but ultimately more sinister, role to Mama Odie in The Princess and the Frog), actively resists the pull of the story, but is pushed back into it by Lilith, who fancies herself a good fairy godmother, making fairy tales come true. But at the end, the story is both subverted and told truly, because while Emberella turns out to be the true heir to the city, being the daughter of the former Baron, who takes an active political role and rules the city alone (not exactly your usual fairy tale fodder), we also get the classic story of “the good witches defeat the evil witch and everything was right with the world”.
Of course, The Princess and the Frog does pull some of its own subversions. The first time I watched it, I went into it expecting, at the end, for Naveen’s family to accept him back and he and Tiana to go off and be happy royalty. I much preferred what actually happened, how they fulfill Tiana’s dream of the restaurant and learn from each other and get to better balance work and play, which is a much better lesson than “kiss a frog, marry him, and get rich quick”. This, of course, isn’t saying that all stories need to teach lessons, much less good ones, but fairy tales started as morality lessons for children, and for the most part, it’s possible to stay true to that origin.
I just really like the juxtaposition of these two pieces. In one, you have a highly idealized New Orleans, as if it’s been infused with the Disney magic, which makes everywhere seem much cleaner, nicer, and prettier than it really is, while in the other, you have a genuinely wonderful city that’s been Disney-fied in the worst way, making things false and fake, ignoring the fact that real life and real people way too complicated to fit neatly into that mold (that’s why Disneyland exists – because no real place could ever work like that). In one, you have characters actively playing into a story and trying to follow it, mostly succeeding, but in the end, creating their own story ending that I think ends up making them happier than following a fairy tale verbatim ever could have; in the other, you have characters trying to escape a story, and again mostly succeeding, but at the same time, just playing into different archetypes and following a different story in their own way. Because I think, in the end, the key to both of these works is that as much as stories influence the real world, reality will always be much stronger and much more compelling than any story could be, but those elements of fantasy and fairy tales give reality just a little extra sparkle, and remind us all of the importance of stories.