The point I’m trying to make in that rather long-winded introduction is that new Disney films don’t arrive in a vacuum. There’s a certain expectation that comes with that ‘Animated Classics’ tag (which many have failed to live up to in the past), and there are also positive and negative connotations inevitably attached to anything that comes out of the House of Mouse – especially if that something happens to be a Disney Princess movie.
So it was a huge relief to see that Frozen seems to have been received warmly by critics and audiences alike, with many praising Disney’s treatment and depiction of its princess characters. Now – there are spoilers to follow, so look away if you haven’t seen Frozen, but the key scene in a film that celebrates sisterhood over the search for a “true love’s kiss” sees our protagonist literally running away from romance to sacrifice herself and save the life of her sister. It’s a brilliant moment in a truly wonderful film, and one that perfectly encapsulates the approach that co-directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee took in crafting a modern Disney fairytale with feminist sensibilities.
To the extent that I (as a possessor of a Y-chromosome) can agree with the critics making those points, I absolutely do, and I’ve certainly weighed in myself when it comes to trumpeting the brilliance of Frozen. However, nestled in amongst all of that praise are a couple of myths that I’d like to dispel. The first is that Frozen is a return to form for Walt Disney Animated Studios. Take a look at their last five features (The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Winnie the Pooh, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen) and they’re probably ahead of Pixar creatively right now, and they’ve been “on form” for as long as John Lasseter’s influence has been felt on their big-screen output.
But that’s an argument for another day. The other myth that I’d really like to take some time to dig into and dispel, is that this is a radical new direction for the Disney Princess. That’s not to say that Frozen isn’t another impressive (or big) step in the right direction, but rather that the actions of its heroines shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. This isn’t a radical new feminist direction for Disney, nor is it completely out of the blue. This is something that Disney have been edging ever-closer towards for probably more than 20 years, and Frozen just happens to be the feature that goes the furthest and wears its feminism proudly on its sleeve. There’s arguably still work to be done – a Disney Princess with a waist would be nice – but for now let’s take a look back at Disney Princess past to see how we got to this point.
When people talk about Frozen being more than just “another Disney princess film,” or of it “breaking the mould,” they’re probably referring to the tradition established by Disney’s first four princesses. Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora, and to an extent even The Little Mermaid’s Ariel, are all beautiful but virtually personality-free young (white) women who fall foul of a malevolent female villain and are ultimately saved by a handsome prince – usually with a magical true love’s kiss. That’s not to say that they’re not all lovely, and in some cases truly great animated films, but they established a legacy that Disney’s subsequent princesses have had to battle against ever since.
But then in 1991 (that’s 22 years ago, if we’re counting) Beauty and the Beast arrived and changed everything. Its heroine, Belle, was anything but personality-free. We meet her with her nose buried in books and rejecting the advances of a square-jawed buffoon. She isn’t yearning for a prince, but she does love her father, and when his safety is threatened she sacrifices her freedom to save him. Okay, it ends in another Royal Wedding, but this time our princess falls in love with a beast rather than a handsome prince, and tellingly, this time it’s Belle who saves her prince’s life, rather than the other way around. In my opinion Beauty and the Beast is a film as subversive and infinitely more ‘radical’ than Frozen, and the Disney princesses that have followed are much closer to Belle than say Cinderella or Snow White.
Disney’s next princess arrived just a year later, but this time Princess Jasmine was a supporting character in Aladdin’s story, rather than the lead of her own film. For that reason it’s hard to read as much into the character as the others, but at the very least you can say Jasmine’s feisty and independent, despite being the film’s nominal love interest. Jasmine represented progress on another front – being Disney’s first non-white princess – but she’s admittedly caught somewhere between Ariel and Belle when it comes to being a progressive princess.
There were another two princesses to come during Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 1990s renaissance, and the first was Pocahontas in 1995. The film is a controversial one, with some critics arguing that it was at the very best clumsy in its depiction of Native Americans, but yet again we saw Disney crafting a movie around a heroine who ultimately saves the life of the man she loves, rather than the other way around. In my opinion, Pocahontas represents Disney at its most conflicted; grappling with its legacy of having underserved both women and minorities, and very deliberately trying to address that imbalance. In that particular case, maybe they were trying a little too hard… and it shows. But just three years later they faced the same challenge and got it right.
Mulan is the only ‘Disney Princess’ who’s not actually a princess – she neither comes from royalty nor marries into it – but she more than earns her place on the ‘official’ roster. It’s appropriate that she’s not technically a princess, because she never follows any of the rules or tropes that we’d come to expect, even in a post-Belle Disney canon. I think it’s simplistic to suggest that Fa Mulan only becomes empowered because she pretends to be a man – everything she does to succeed comes regardless of her gender, and it’s only a world of chauvinism that prevents her from doing so even earlier. Like Belle, she’s spurred into action out of a love for her father, and she uses both brains and brawn in order to succeed.
Again we see Mulan save her ‘prince’ – this time her military captain, Li Shang – except it’s notable how little the romance plays into things. In fact, there’s hardly a hint at it until the very last scene. Before she takes matters into her own hands, Mulan is facing a future that will define her by the man she ends up with. In the army alongside Li Shang she’s defined by her achievements, and any hint at attraction between the pair (Disney notably wait until Mulan’s gender is revealed to go there) is driven by a mutual respect. Mulan doesn’t chase her man; she’s more concerned with saving China and preserving her family’s honour, and any future romance only becomes a possibility when Li Shang betrays his feelings at the end. Mulan may not have a sister to run to like Frozen’s Anna, but when it comes to family and true love their priorities closely align.
I’m going to stray away from the ‘official’ Disney princesses now to look what’s perhaps the key text when it comes to Disney’s modern approach. In the early 2000s Walt Disney Animation Studios were in a funk. Pixar and 3D animation had arrived and Disney’s traditional 2D style was a dying art. They began to move away from it, and, for a while at least, the studio seemed almost embarrassed of their own heritage and attempted to ape their competitors. After five new princesses in nine years and as many features, the studio then went 11 years and 12 movies without a new princess, and it took parent company Walt Disney Studios to bring one back to the big screen.
Enchanted arrived in 2007 as both a tribute to Disney’s history, and a clever subversion of the classic Disney princess. Amy Adams’ Giselle would actually be an ‘official’ Disney princess if the studio had been willing to pay Adams for her lifelong image rights, despite Giselle (just like Mulan) never actually becoming a princess. (It’s actually Idina Menzel’s Nancy who becomes Enhanted’s princess, which trivia fans can note makes Menzel the only person to play two Disney princesses).
With Enchanted, Disney got to have their cake and eat it too; poking fun at themselves while paying tribute to everything that had made them great. Giselle is able to slowly break free from the old-school Disney clichés whilst the film luxuriates in them. Her life is saved when she gets her true love’s kiss, but it’s then that she takes up a sword and saves Patrick Dempsey’s Robert, who becomes the damsel in distress. Meanwhile, Nancy gets the storybook ending and marries Prince Edward (a classic Prince Charming, knowingly painted as a bit of a clown) back in hand-drawn Andalasia. If we’re talking about Disney films in terms of subversion, Enchanted just about trumps them all. Don’t believe me? Look no further than Giselle ending up in the role of the (not so evil) stepmother.
Enchanted was Disney getting its groove back, and two years later the Animation Studios brought us back-to-back princess action in the form of The Princess and the Frog and Tangled. If you haven’t seen the former then seek it out. It’s a delight. Tiana, Disney’s first African-American princess, is yet another strong protagonist who has zero interest in finding a man, let alone a prince. It’s her shallow friend who wants a royal wedding. Tiana’s driven by a steely determination to earn enough money to open the restaurant that she and her late father dreamed of, and her journey actually involves learning there’s more to life than just hard work. She learns to love her prince, but like Belle and her beast, their love isn’t superficial. She saves the day at the end, and when back in human form Tiana’s the breadwinner in her relationship with the destitute Prince Naveen. It’s a film that has all the trappings of a Snow White or Cinderella, but feels thoroughly modern in its approach.
That brings us to our final stop before we reach the brilliant Frozen and the present day. Just imagine how the story of Rapunzel would have been told by Walt Disney Animation Studios back in the era of Sleeping Beauty et al, and that should put into perspective just how far Disney princesses have progressed. That’s why I’m so convinced that Frozen’s far from radical, but rather a smart, natural progression. Rapunzel’s original fairytale makes her a naturally vulnerable character, but Tangled shows her taking her fate into her own hands and bravely venturing out into the world for the first time. A prince doesn’t save her from her fate, a criminal arrives in her tower, and it’s her positive qualities that teach him to be a better person and fall in love with her. She’s smart, talented and pretty kick-ass despite her vulnerability, and Frozen’s detractors would probably point out that she’s not a million miles away from Anna.
In the past a true love’s kiss would have been required to save the princess, but Rapunzel becomes another in a now long line of Disney princesses to save her man, rather than the other way around. Flynn is just the guy lucky enough to have found himself a beautiful princess. He has been saved and plucked from a life of squalor by Rapunzel. It’s not as progressive or as subversive as Frozen, but the fact that we collectively didn’t even raise an eyebrow speaks to the twenty years of Disney progress. Now they’re going even further and we should be absolutely thrilled about that.
One official Disney princess who also deserves a brief mention is Brave’s Merida, who found her way onto that roster despite being a Pixar creation. I don’t really think that Merida qualifies totally to be part of this discussion because Brave is so clearly a Pixar product and not a Walt Disney one. Merida feels almost intentionally positioned to be a counterpoint to what Disney have produced in the past. But ironically, in Frozen, Walt Disney Animation Studios have essentially achieved what Pixar were trying to do with Brave, but more effectively and efficiently. Frozen substitutes a sibling relationship for Brave’s mother-daughter one, and simply tells a better story around. Frozen perversely benefits from coming with all that Disney baggage too, that simultaneously positive and negative legacy, and arguably ends up seeming even more progressive because of it.
Frozen’s Elsa sums it up when she belts out the showstopper ‘Let It Go’. There’s no holding back the Disney princesses any more, but only because of the groundwork laid that got us to this point.