"THE PRINCESS and the Frog" is the first animated Disney "princess" movie to feature an African-American lead, but it didn't start out that way.
The project began as a routine adaptation of the classic "Frog Prince" fairy tale, and was stuck there until Pixar's John Lasseter took over the Disney animation division, bringing with him an armload of new ideas.
One was his desire to set an animated movie in New Orleans, one of the country's most uniquely picturesque cities. The "Frog" team jumped on it, and the race of the characters grew from the locale.
"It wasn't like we started out thinking, 'Let's make an African-American animated movie,' " said Bruce Smith, one of the artists who animated "The Princess and The Frog." "That was like the third evolution, and grew naturally from the creative ideas that came before it."
Once established, though, the project quickly became one of Disney's most talked about - purported images of Tiana, the new heroine, were leaked on the Internet, prompting an array of controversies over how Tiana should be written and drawn.
"You know how the Internet is," said Randy Hancock, another "Princess" animator. "We still don't know where some of those images came from. It wasn't from our studio. It wasn't what we were really doing, and we always felt confident that once people could see what we were doing, things would be different."
In many ways, he said, Tiana evolved as a classic Disney princess. "We're totally focused on the story, and Tiana's role in it. We want to give her the right personality, the right goals and motivations, the right narrative obstacles. And we were always confident in what we were doing. There weren't a lot of second thoughts about how it would be received."
Hancock said that their expectations were confirmed when Disney screened "The Princess and the Frog" for the NAACP, to a standing ovation.
"If Tiana is embraced by African-American girls who want to dress up as Tiana, then that's great," said Hancock, who's white. "But I've got a white, blonde, blue-eyed girl who likes to dress up like Tiana also, and that's where we're always going. A character with universal appeal."
Smith, who's black, said that Tiana departs from classic or previous princesses mainly through her contemporary, go-getter attitude.
"No matter what the race of the character," he said, "I think what people fall in love with is the personality, and I think Tiana is a very down-to-earth girl. She's kind of a workaholic. She doesn't believe in just wishing on a star. She wants to work for her dream, and that's a contemporary attitude."