As a 20-year-old, I can’t deny that Disney movies have a strange grip on me. Just ask my siblings — I’ve cried in public about “Brother Bear.” I blame nostalgia and the killer soundtracks.
Whenever I hear about releases of new Disney retellings, I am the first to hand over my cash to the “House of Mouse.” While there are a variety of standalone retellings, Disney’s publishing house, Disney-Hyperion, also thrives off of their young adult fantasy series dedicated to villain retellings and retellings “with a twist.” I’ve read and enjoyed quite a few of the books in the “Twisted Tale” series, which takes well-known Disney movies and gives them “what-if” scenarios. As the 13th installment of the “Twisted Tale” series, “Almost There” by Farrah Rochon is a retelling of “The Princess and the Frog” (itself a retelling of the Grimm fairy tale “The Frog Prince”).
For those unfamiliar with “The Princess and the Frog,” the animated movie follows a hardworking young woman named Tiana (Anika Noni Rose, “Amphibia”), who dreams of opening her own restaurant in New Orleans. At a Mardi Gras ball, she transforms into a frog after kissing a prince-turned-frog named Naveen (Bruno Campos, “Disney Comics in Motion”). When Prince Naveen of Maldonia was cut off by his parents, he traveled to New Orleans and intended to marry a rich heiress, like Tiana’s best friend, Charlotte (Jennifer Cody, “Winx Club”). Before he could, however, he was tricked by Dr. Facilier (Keith David, “Rick and Morty”), an infamous witch doctor. Tiana and Naveen must find a way to turn back into humans before it’s too late.
Full of hijinks and traditional Disney fun, “The Princess and the Frog” is a lovely addition to the Disney Princess Franchise with the company’s first Black princess. It was successful at its release in 2009, even though it premiered a week before “Avatar,” the highest-grossing film of all time. Unfortunately, the movie falls victim to Disney’s tendency to portray their protagonists of Color as nonhumans for half (or more) of their screen time. The good news is that “Almost There” is far more well-rounded with the three different perspectives of Dr. Facilier, Naveen and Tiana, none of whom are portrayed as animals.
In “Almost There,” Tiana has the life she’s always wished for — her previously-deceased father is alive and well, and they have finally opened a restaurant together. But this life came at a hefty price; she had to make a deal with Dr. Facilier. When Tiana and Dr. Facilier confront each other, Tiana threatens to destroy his precious talisman. Similar to a dream sequence in the movie, he presents a life to her where all her dreams have come true; all she has to do is add a drop of a potion — provided by his friends on the other side — into her signature gumbo dish at her future restaurant and the life is hers. So instead of turning Dr. Facilier away, Tiana has no choice but to accept the deal after he threatens those she loves.
One year after she makes the deal, on the eve of Mardi Gras, Tiana is busy with her restaurant when she notices strange things happening in New Orleans. An ominous fog arrives, her friends disappear and thick algae threatens to envelop the city. At the same time, Dr. Facilier tries to change their deal and make Tiana sign over her soul to his friends on the other side or, unbeknownst to Tiana, he risks forfeiting his own. Tiana and Naveen team up with Charlotte to prevent things from getting worse in New Orleans while grappling with their unrevealed feelings for each other.
If there’s one thing Disney movies are known for, it’s their fairy-tale endings where the protagonists live “happily ever after,” and “The Princess and the Frog” is no different. However, “Almost There” starts at a point where Tiana and Naveen haven’t gotten their happily ever after yet, and it’s a mystery whether or not they will even get one due to the terms of Tiana’s deal. Since the deal allowed Naveen to turn human again, he consequently forgot the adventure he and Tiana had as frogs. I worried that Naveen’s character growth (rare for a Disney prince) would vanish in this new storyline, but Rochon proved me wrong. Naveen works at Charlotte’s father’s sugar factory and expresses his desire to make a name for himself in New Orleans, inspired by Tiana’s hard work and determination.
While “The Princess and the Frog” fails to mention race in any meaningful way, Rochon’s novel addresses it head-on, multiple times. Yes, the movie is a work of fiction that deals with magic and kissing frogs, but when Disney chooses a setting like 1920s New Orleans and doesn’t address the social implications, it becomes problematic. This is especially an issue considering this was Disney’s first Black princess and the movie is set in a Jim Crow South, a time and place where Black people had virtually no opportunities for social mobility let alone harmonious relationships with white people. Because of this, it’s unrealistic to think Tiana could own a restaurant or have a best friend like Charlotte. In “Almost There,” Tiana explains her awareness of the differences between the lives of Black and white people, citing her experiences as a child with a best friend like Charlotte, a wealthy and spoiled white girl. She also recalls when two real estate brothers told her that a woman of her “background” couldn’t possibly own a restaurant, something that plays out in the movie as well. One memorable scene in the book is when Charlotte and Tiana are shopping at a fancy department store and the minute Tiana tries something on, the store clerk tells her it’s “not allowed” according to store policy. Charlotte stands up for Tiana, claiming to never set foot in the store again due to her friend’s mistreatment, but Tiana explains to Charlotte that this is her life all the time and that she simply can’t do what Charlotte does. Tiana says, “‘They can forbid me from trying on their merchandise, and if I don’t comply, they can call the authorities. That’s my reality.’”
New Orleans is the center of “Almost There,” which is unsurprising considering Rochon is a Louisiana native. Rochon successfully transports readers to a New Orleans filled with Southern food, jazz, Mardi Gras and, most prevalent, Vodou. In the movie, we see two different kinds of Vodou: that of the “Shadow Man,” Dr. Facilier, and of Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis, “Tuca & Bertie”), a priestess who lives in the Bayou. The book goes into more depth about the history of Vodou, a religious practice originating in Haiti. The Vodou Mama Odie practices calls on Lwa, the spirit of her ancestors, and is filled with lightness and healing energy. Vodou is often misunderstood, but as the book progresses, Rochon presents both good and evil Vodou with care and respect.
“Almost There” is action-packed and filled with romance and all things pertaining to New Orleans. It serves as an excellent companion to Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog,” but stands out as its own book that any Disney fan would love.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.