From left to right, Zoey Howzer, Penny Proud, Michael Collins and Dijonay Jones go to school. Photo courtesy of Disney
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- Kyla Pratt said The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder, premiering Wednesday on Disney+, will set examples for young viewers. Pratt's character, Penny Proud, becomes an influencer in one episode to compete with a popular vlogger.
"Addressing crazy social media and everything that's going on in the world, it's going to help them during their growing process," Pratt said in a Television Critics Association Zoom panel. "I'm just happy to be a part of it."
The Proud Family ran from 2001 to 2005. Pratt, 35, was 14 when she began voicing the role of a teenager embarrassed by her parents and getting into trouble with her friends.
Alisa Reyes also returns as Penny's friend, LaCienega Boulevardez, Soleil Moon Frye as friend Zoey Howzer, Tommy Davidson and Paula Jai Parker as parents Oscar and Trudy Proud, and Cedric the Entertainer as Uncle Bobby.
EJ Johnson, 29, steps in for Phil Lamarr as the voice of Michael Collins. Michael was always flamboyant, effeminate and fashion loving. Louder and Prouder allows Michael to be openly queer.
"It speaks volumes to other kids like me who are growing and figuring out their gender identity from the youngest of ages," Johnson said. "Just to have a character who is out and proud, fabulous and completely, utterly unapologetically themselves is really just so beautiful."
Louder and Prouder introduces new characters, too. Maya (Keke Palmer) and KG (Artist "A Boogie" Dubose) have moved into town with their two fathers (Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter).
As The Proud Family already included Black and Latinx characters, Pratt said it was important to represent as many different people as possible. Pratt said the new characters would open Louder and Prouder up to an even wider audience.
"When you're growing up, to see representation of yourself lets you know that you are not alone in this world," Pratt said. "It reminds you that there are other people out there who may not be exactly like you, but they have something like you in common."
The Proud Family was part of Disney's effort to portray more diversity. It also released the animated movie, The Princess and the Frog, in 2009, marking the introduction of the first official Black Disney Princess.
Pocahontas in 1995 and 1998's Mulan offered Native American and Asian princesses, respectively. Pratt said she realized after starring in The Proud Family how important it was for kids to see characters like themselves in entertainment.
"Shows like this are a helpful tool, especially for parents," Pratt said.
Pratt has two children with her partner, Danny Kirkpatrick. Liyah is 8 and Lyric is 11, and Pratt said animated characters have helped her explain to them why their natural hair looks different than that of White characters.
"It doesn't look like that princess over there, or that princess here," Pratt said she'd tell her children. "But look what you have here, and baby, you are a goddess."
Johnson said he grew up identifying with Disney villains Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Cruella de Vil from 101 Dalmatians and the Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Introducing an LGBTQ character, Johnson said he hoped young viewers see there is room for them in animation, too.
"I want other little kids to be able to see Michael and all of our characters and just know, 'I can do that. I can be on Disney,'" Johnson said. "All your dreams can come true if you have the heart and just go forward and have that fearlessness."
Johnson said he was more closeted than Michael growing up. He said he hopes Michael's free and open character inspires viewers.
"This character is so fearless, fabulous and free," Johnson said. "I can give that freedom to this character."
The returning stars said fans still will recognize their voices from the original Proud Family. Frye, 45, said animation allowed her to remain a teenage girl.
"It's like being in a beautiful time machine," Frye said.
The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder still teaches kids lessons at the end of every episode. For example, Penny learns that corporate sponsorship can corrupt her social media platform.
"No matter how sassy or spunky LaCienega is, at the end, she always learns from her trials and tribulations," said Reyes, 41. "We always come together, and that's what makes us grow."
New episodes of The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder stream Wednesdays on Disney+.