When The Princess and the Frog first premiered, it signified more than just another beloved addition to an iconic franchise of Disney Princess films; it was a return to the classic style of filmmaking and hand-drawn animation that first propelled Disney movies into the cultural landmarks they are today.
Part of that legacy includes unforgettable characters, and that’s where Princess Tiana comes in. Though it’s been five years since we were first introduced to the spirited and driven waitress from New Orleans, her catchy songs and inspiring outlook have stayed with us. This is due in large part to an incredible performance by Anika Noni Rose, the Disney Legend and Tony Award-winning actress who gave Tiana her voice.
This Friday, Anika will be reprising her role as Princess Tiana on a special holiday-themed episode of Sofia the First. In honor of Tiana’s return, we sat down with Anika to discuss her memories from The Princess and the Frog, what it’s like to be a real-life Disney Princess, and how it feels to be revisiting the princess who had such an impact on her.
In the early stages of creating The Princess and the Frog, directors Ron Clements and John Musker (the same team that directed The Little Mermaid) wanted to emulate what they believed was the pinnacle of Disney’s unique style of animation: the design found in Lady and the Tramp. When we chatted, Anika mentioned that this was one of her favorite movies growing up, along with Mary Poppins, Fantasia, and The Jungle Book. With a childhood so steeped in Disney animated classics, what was it like to become part of that legacy?
“It really took me awhile to realize, for it to hit me what a huge, huge deal it was. I mean I knew, in a literal sense, but for it to kick into my body…” Anika went on to tell us about a moment in which she, her mother, and her grandmother went to the movies and saw a preview of The Princess and the Frog for the first time. “That was sort of mind-blowing.”
But for The Princess and the Frog to become a reality, it took years of day-to-day work, similar to the hard work Tiana does in the film. Recalling the recording process, Anika told us, “It’s a very solitary thing for something that is such an integrated piece of art… It takes so many elements to put together, and yet, you are usually by yourself when you’re doing it. You do a segment, come back five months later, do some more. You’re in the booth by yourself and you can see Ron [Clements], and John [Musker], and Peter [Del Vecho], on their side of the booth, and you’re doing your thing and they’re taping you, and then you come back and see a little segment done and do it again.”
Throughout the long process of bringing Princess Tiana to life, some moments stood out for Anika as especially memorable. “I think that one of my favorite memories was when they showed her to me in color for the first time. It was a surprise… They played this footage for me, and I just started to cry. So moving to me, and so amazing.” Many fans have noted the uncanny resemblance between Anika and Tiana, right down to the fact that both are left-handed, and this didn’t escape Anika’s notice during that first look: “I had no idea that she would look so much like me. It was such a great, great honor.”
Being a Disney Princess is certainly an exclusive and enigmatic club. Even years after the premiere of The Princess and the Frog, Anika still carries the legacy of her Disney movie with her. “You can ask any of the princesses; you never get away from that. Even just walking down the street with a ponytail and jeans and sneakers, people will come up to me and thank me for voicing Tiana, or tell me how excited they still are about her, and the movie, that it was hand-drawn, and how they love the music. So it’s not something that you ever are separated from.”
With Tiana still so present in her everyday life, we had to ask Anika what her reaction was when she found out she’d be revisiting her for Sofia the First. She told us, “They just asked me if I was interested in doing it, and I absolutely was. I really like Sofia the First. I like the way the show functions and how Sofia is finding herself and her place, and getting help and learning lessons. So I definitely said ‘Okay!’”
When asked what it was like returning to the recording studio for Princess Tiana after five years, Anika said, “It’s not difficult accessing Tiana because she was a part of me for, I think, three years or so while we were making [The Princess and the Frog]. So she’s definitely there, and you step into the room and you start to record, and there she is. So it was just a lot of fun for me to do…. It was really a lovely experience.”
That episode of Sofia the First, “Winter’s Gift,” premieres this Friday, December 12 on Disney Channel at 9:00 a.m. ET/PT, and also guest stars Alyson Hannigan, Phylicia Rashad and Nick Offerman. In the episode, Sofia meets a young faun named Winter (Hannigan) who has been cursed by an Ice Witch (Rashad) and must help her find the perfect gift to undo the curse. Princess Tiana makes a special appearance to help Sofia and her new friend learn that a true gift comes from the heart.
Don’t forget to tune in to Disney Channel tomorrow at 9:00 am ET/PT to see Anika Noni Rose’s reprisal of Princess Tiana!