Monday, January 11, 2010
Vodou in The Princess and the Frog
I was actually really excited to see that Disney would be addressing Vodou in New Orleans in it’s movie The Princess and the Frog. Vodou is a presence in New Orleans; you might have to look for it, and you might have to accept that the Voodoo you are allowed to see in the Quarter is often commercialized, watered down and synergized in stores with voodoo-esque trinkets from other cultures and sects. But it does exist here and it is part of the city’s history and fabric.
So, after having seen The Princess and the Frog I thought I would write about Disney’s presentation of Vodou. First, if you are unfamiliar with Vodou as a structured religion and not just a creepy mess of stereotypes, Vodou is a legitimate religion. Vodou began with religions brought by slaves from the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, what is now Togo and Benin. It has some Taino and Catholic influences as well. Vodou is an organized religion, with oral histories, ceremonies, deities called Loa. It is not the same as Santería or Candomblé, although there are similarities. Vodou is mainly practiced in Haiti, but New Orleans was once a French colony, with a similar history and after the Haitian Revolution in 1804, many French fled to New Orleans, bringing their Haitian slaves with them.
So, keeping that in mind, let’s look at how Disney portrayed Vodou in it’s movie:
In the film, Vodou is divided, like Disney’s own world view, into Good and Evil. On the good side you have Mama Odie, who seems to meet both the Fairy Godmother and the Mammy archetypes in some commentaries I’ve read. And on the other side you have Dr. Facilier, who deals with spirits for evil purposes. I would like to say that one thing that has struck me about Vodou (from what I’ve read about it) is that properties like Good and Evil don’t seem to weigh as heavily as they do in Christianity. Certainly, the spirits, the Loa, can be fearsome. But they can also be benevolent. Erzulie, the Loa of the Sea, is often depicted as an adored and beautiful woman, but she can drowns sailors and eat up entire ships. It’s not about the spirits being good and evil. They can bless you or curse you, and part of the religion is swaying the Loa to help you achieve what you want, whether it be for good or evil. How you use their power is up to you and whether or not they wish to help you. So it seems to me that few practitioners of Vodou are going to use it entirely for good or for evil.
When Dr. Facilier first enters the movie, we see him at Jackson Square dealing tarot cards. For a fleeting moment I excitedly thought that maybe he would be just a trickster, an illusionist. God knows half the people reading fortunes in front of the Cathedral are quacks. I had one lady tell me I wanted to be a doctor and when I assured her I didn’t, she scrambled and said, well, maybe you want to be psychiatrist or a physical therapist. And then ask me for a tip. But no, Facilier really does have the spirits’ ears. In fact, he is in debt to them. The expressive shadows that follow him may not be Loa, but there are the only real view of the “other side” that we have, and they are decidedly eerie. There are several acid trip-like scenes that remind me of the caterpillar smoking opium in Alice in Wonderland. You know, when you were old enough to know what an opium pipe was and you were like, that caterpillar is NOT smoking opium in a children’s movie. Yes he was, and yes, African masks really do float around and speak and voodoo dolls really do come out of the ground in Lafayette Cemetery and pull Facilier down to Hell at the end.
Mama Odie represents the benevolent side of life. She’s blind, of course, because she doesn’t need eyes to see into your soul. She is surrounded by the peaceful bayou, in communion with the animals; I love her home, with the wicker throne and the bottles in the trees. Dressed all in white, she really does look like a Vodou priestess. But when you think about the actual magic she wields in the story, she doesn’t seem as powerful as Facilier. You don’t have to know magic to tell someone that “what they want might not be what they need.” Or for a trumpet-playing alligator to pass off as human at Mardi Gras time. I’m just saying, the alligator wanted to be human but she couldn’t do that (or didn’t want to) while Facilier turned two humans into frogs. Maybe she is just more reserved with her use of magic, but her usefullness is more in her vague advice than in her ability to do magic.
Did I think Disney would get this right? No, of course not. Religion is complicated and the greater culture already has a hard time grasping what Vodou really is. The presentation was imbalanced. Facilier was a great villain, but does Vodou really need to be demonized more? I mean, if parents don’t want their kids to see Harry Potter, they are certainly going to find issues with this movie. And Mama Odie doesn’t do enough to counter balance the evil imagery. Facilier does his magic in the Voodoo Emporium, while Mama Odie is not so explicitly associated with Vodou. People could definitely walk away thinking Vodou is all creepy dolls and scary African imagery and not see Mama Odie as the alternative view point she is meant to be.
Mama Odie is probably closer to what real Vodou is about, but she didn’t do enough magic, didn't do enough to propel the story to be as strong a character as Dr. Facilier. So what, ultimately, is Disney's portrayal of Vodou? As scary, as evil, as something normal people do not participate in.