Disney’s cool new cartoon princess

When you consider the pantheon of classic Disney characters, chances are that Sunflower the Centaur doesn’t spring to mind.

Sunflower is the young black centaur in Fantasia, and if that still doesn’t ring any bells, it’s because she’s absent from any official version of the movie you’ll see today.

From the waist up, Sunflower is — or was — a textbook example of the “pickaninny” caricature. Neither her looks nor her subservience to the graceful, silky-haired white centaurs caused much fuss in 1940, but shifting civil-rights era sensibilities saw Sunflower snipped from Fantasia‘s 1960 rerelease.

It is against this historical backdrop that Disney is unveiling The Princess and the Frog, whose heroine, Tiana, an African-American restaurant worker in 1920s New Orleans, represents a conspicuous break in tradition. “Our intention was to make an American fairytale set in New Orleans,” says producer Peter Del Vecho.

Although Del Vecho describes the tale as one of “universal truths” rather than a coronation of Disney’s first black princess, the incidental nature of Tiana’s race only increases the movie’s cultural significance, especially when viewed against previous black-oriented animations.

The 1970s proved that cartoons could be a source of black pride when, following animated outings for the Jackson Five and the Harlem Globetrotters, 1974 witnessed a landmark in African-American animation. The first cartoon series with an all-black cast, Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids covered issues pertinent to inner-city black children while sugaring the pill with slapstick, singalongs and the comedian’s exuberant, multicharacter voice work.

Another animation doing a similar job to Fat Albert, three decades on, is Aaron McGruder’s series The Boondocks, which exploits the limitless possibilities of its medium to provide the type of outrageous racial satire rarely glimpsed in three dimensions.

Place The Boondocks‘ thicket-thatched Huey alongside the beautiful Princess Tiana and the future starts to look like a more welcoming place for black cartoon characters. — © Guardian News & Media 2010

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