Disney's first Latina princess, Elena, takes her bow on TV
The rarefied sorority of Disney princesses has come a long way since 1937's Snow White set the tone, gradually expanding to add Asian, African-American, Native American and Middle Eastern tiara-wearers. Prepare to curtsy before another fresh face: Elena, the first Latina to take the vaunted throne.
Her realm is "Elena of Avalor," an animated Disney Channel series debuting 7 p.m. EDT Friday with an hour-long special. While Elena isn't a big-screen royal like — and they need no introduction — Anna and Elsa of "Frozen," she and the 26-episode series are getting majestic merchandising and tie-in fanfare from the Walt Disney Co. at large.
Latino advocacy and civil rights groups say their impatience has finally been rewarded.
"It's long overdue for Disney to have a Latino princess," said Lisa Navarrete, spokeswoman for the National Council of La Raza. "Even if it's not the highest priority for a civil rights organization, it's important for little girls to see themselves on screen."
Indeed, said Alex Nogales, president and CEO of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. The group has long been active in seeking Hollywood diversity and, like La Raza, was lobbying Disney to take the step.
Nogales said he was reminded why by his 4-year-old granddaughter, Chloe, after they attended a recent screening of the show. "'She looks like me. She has brown eyes, and look at her skin,'" he recalled her saying of the title character, a spirited, smart teenager who mirrors the new-wave Disney princess, as in empowered.
"Our children are being reflected through the screen and it's affecting them in a very positive way," Nogales said, something that wasn't part of his childhood media exposure.
The series' look, style and sound are shaped by a variety of old and new Latino and Hispanic cultures, but the dialogue is in English save for a sprinkling of Spanish words and phrases, such as the endearment "mija."
Elena, voiced by Aimee Carrero, is an appealing hero for the show's 2-to-11 target audience and beyond, a combination of intelligence, empathy and daring, and with a magic amulet to back it up.
(Read also: Disney's princess culture not that harmless: Study)
"I look at princesses as superheroes with tiaras for little girls," said series creator and executive producer Craig Gerber (who honed his skills on Disney's "Sofia the First"). "Whenever you write a character that can be looked at as a role model, there's a responsibility to make them a character worth looking up to."
Disney was enthusiastic about his TV pitch for "Elena," about a girl who must content herself with ruling as a princess until she is mature enough to claim her rightful title of queen, he said. Even pre-debut, the company has backed its commitment with products (dolls, accessories, apparel, an upcoming record and DVD) and the inclusion of the Elena character at Florida's Walt Disney World Resort this summer and California's Disneyland Resort this fall.
"It's definitely a show of how important the project is, not just to us at Disney Channel but to the company at large," said Nancy Kanter, executive vice president and general manager, Disney Junior Worldwide.
After its U.S. debut, the series will be rolled out in 163 countries on the Disney Channel and Disney Junior.
"Elena of Avalor" opens with a fast-paced recitation of what dire events brought her to the threshold of power at the age of 16. It also introduces her small, loving family circle including younger sister, Princess Isabel (Jenna Ortega), and doting grandparents Francisco and Luisa (Emiliano Diez, Julia Vera), and the nature of the world in which she dwells (a magical one, no surprise).
Other engaging characters include a Harry Potter-like wizard in training, Mateo (Joseph Haro), and a harbor master's daughter, a spunky blonde named Naomi (Jillian Rose Reed) who befriends Elena.
Head writer Silvia Cardenas Olivas is prepared for scrutiny of this newly minted princess. She's already gotten it from her Latina friends, who include women of Cuban, Dominican and Puerto Rican heritage. Their question: "How are you going to make us all feel like she could be our princess?"
"I'll be honest, I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility to get her right, so that everyone, whether you're Latino or not, identify with her," Olivas said.
Computer-generated animation is used to create a fairy tale kingdom that, based on consultants' research, reflects varied cultures and influences including from the pre-Colombian and colonial eras, Gerber said. So do the inhabitants of Avalor and its visitors, which include Zuzo, Elena's spirit guide drawn from the beliefs of a Mayan tribe, and shapeshifters inspired by Chilean mythology but with a touch of Disney cuteness.
The music featured in each episode — "Elena plays guitar as well as sings, which is something all Disney princesses must do," Gerber notes, wryly — covers the gamut of Latin styles including mariachi, salsa and banda and extends into R&B, rock and pop.
Should Disney's inaugural Latina ruler have gotten a big-screen kingdom? Kanter said that "Elena of Avalor" was conceived as a TV series, which "could be a really impactful way to tell not just one story but to tell dozens and potentially many dozens of stories over a long period of time."
That shouldn't preclude a theatrical successor, Nogales said.
"I would prefer it. It would go to another level in terms of showcasing a Latina in media," he said.
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