They came to see the princess Saturday, and she was there in all her glory, lighting up the silver screen as thousands of area children and their parents saw "The Princess and the Frog," the latest animated feature from Disney and the studio's first to feature a black princess.
In true Disney fashion, the film was a delight from start to finish. But for many moviegoers, it was also a celebration of pride, diversity and perhaps the destruction of another racial and cultural barrier.
"We've always been fans of Disney, but this is a princess our princesses can truly identify with," said Donna Bruce, who attended an afternoon screening at the AMC Loews Georgetown 14 in Northwest Washington with her daughter Karla Choice and granddaughters - Lalah Choice, 6, and Lilian Choice, 5 months - in tow.
Mrs. Bruce, who is black, also said that many of her friends planned to organize parties when they attended the film, an experience that reminded her of the release of 1995's "Waiting to Exhale," the film adaptation of Terry McMillan's best-selling novel about the love lives of four modern-day black women.
On Friday, the film's opening day, Nia Jones, a black pre-teen from Hardy Middle School in Northwest Washington, joined nearly a dozen of her black and mixed-race classmates for a birthday party celebration, saying "We've waited a long time for this."
Similar feelings were also voiced by moviegoers at the AMC Magic Johnson Capital Center theater in Largo, where nonstop showings of "Princess" rolled out on several screens at the multiplex from morning through night.
"I loved the movie because its portrayal was true to real life of what's going on in our neighborhoods. It's the story of a young girl who focused on her dream and the dream that her father instilled in her. I loved the morals," said Malika Ferguson, 36, a Capitol Heights resident who attended with her daughter, Anylah Robinson, 7.
"It was good because the princess was nice and because it taught you a lesson," Anylah said.
Set in 1920s New Orleans, "The Princess and the Frog" tells the story of Tiana (voiced by Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose), a young girl from a close-knit family who follows her father's (Terrence Howard) dream to open up a five-star restaurant. After years of waitressing and saving every cent, she seems well on her way - until a voodoo practitioner-con man (Keith David) casts a spell that turns a visiting playboy prince (Bruce Campos) into a frog. The spell eventually ensnares Tiana, who is also turned into an amphibian when she plants a smooch on the frog-prince.
The film, which also boasts a bevy of spirited songs by Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Randy Newman ("Our Town" from "Cars"), opened on more than 3,000 screens nationwide, the statistical online movie database Boxofficeguru.com reports. It was expected to open at No. 1, with an estimated $26 million in revenue. Final figures will be released on Monday.
While earlier Disney animated works like "Mulan" and "Pocahontas" have featured nonwhite princesses, the company's depiction of blacks has been precarious at best. Its 1946 Oscar winner, "Song of the South," drew criticism for its negative and stereotypical portrayal of blacks.
However, the success of "Princess" has cast all that aside.
"I never thought I'd ever see a black princess in a Disney film. But then, I never thought I'd live to see a black president," said Catherine Taylor, 62, a retired schoolteacher. "Princess," she said, "has a wonderful message for little black girls that they can be whatever they want if they work hard. It's a beautiful thing."
"I liked it because of its strong message and the strong father-daughter relationship it depicted. You don't see that very much in films with African-American men," added Mrs. Taylor's son, Lance, 33.
Despite the praise, however, there were a few criticisms.
"We didn't like the fact that the father died early on, and that there was voodoo," said Lenay Coleman, a systems analyst for Xerox, who traveled from Ashburn, Va., to Largo to see "Princess" with a quartet of close friends and their children.
"But everything else was just great - and we brought all the merchandise to prove it. The dolls, the 'Princess' costumes, the soundtrack. Just everything."