But as I watch these films, it occurs to me how much the Disney Princesses have changed over the last 67 years, and not in the "Snow White is positively corpulent by today's standards" sense. I'm talking about their characters.
By 1937, The Walt Disney studios had been successfully creating animated shorts featuring music and talking animals when they decided to tackle a new project--a feature length film based on a classic fairy tale. The result was Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a film that is considered a classic even today, and launched the first of the Disney Princesses. These original princesses (Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora) were very beautiful, very passive--and not much else. (Two of them spent the better part of their films comatose, and the third was hired help.) Aurora from Sleeping Beauty had fewer lines than any other title character except the non-verbal Dumbo. Admittedly, their love interests were not much better. They were nameless "pretty boys" who "fell in love" after one song. Sleeping Beauty was the first to name the prince and give them a chance to get to know each other a little--but since their marriage had been arranged sixteen years ago, it was pretty much a fait accompli. And again, they share one dance, one kiss after she wakes up from a coma, and wedding bells.
After Sleeping Beauty, Disney returned to the "talking animal" characters and would not create another film with a princess for nearly thirty years. The result was a rather unsuccessful little film called The Black Cauldron. Here, we are introduced to the non-canon Princess Eilonwy. This princess is younger than her predecessors, not quite pubescent, and scornful of the hero, who is not a Prince Charming, but a pig-keeper and wannabe hero. However, she has actual dialogue, interaction with the other characters, and some action scenes. She also does not marry Taran, although they do share a forced kiss. Either because of her youth or the film's failure, she is not "officially" canon. However, had the numbers gone differently, this would have been the first film of the Disney Renaissance.
The Disney Renaissance was truly the point in which the Princesses come into their own. Although the most successful film of this period was a talking animal film (The Lion King), most of the Renaissance films that anyone remembers feature a princess. These princess are not the beautiful cyphers interested only in True Love with the Handsome Prince. They want more! And they express their desires in song, usually in the first act. They also spend a few days getting to know the Handsome Prince, instead of one song. The Little Mermaid tentatively broke the mold in 1989, giving us a girl who wanted legs. The "may-unn" was merely secondary. And she rescued her prince long before he rescued her. However, she was a bit more old-school than the others. For one thing, the entire time that she was getting to know Prince Eric, she was mute. A slight improvement over the girl marrying the first guy who kisses her while comatose, but the symbolism is pretty obvious. The next princess was Beauty and the Beast. Here we have a girl who refuses to marry the obnoxious town swain--only to wind up in the mother of all emotionally abusive relationships with an anger junkie who quite literally held her hostage. Not to mention what a lovely message to abused women. Just be perpetually pretty and sweet, and the abuser will become kind and loving. With Aladdin, we have two departures. The first is that Princess Jasmine is not the title character (although she also wants more!, she doesn't express this in song.) The second is that we now have a princess who is not Caucasian. She initially rejects Aladdin for being just another obnoxious prince wanting a pretty wife for the harem--until she sees his
After the first four films, the quality goes straight down. Stories that had once been considered original had become predictable and formulaic. This is pretty obvious in Pocahontas, which was so like its four predecessors that it had become almost a parody. However, in this film, we have not only our first interracial love affair, but the first time that the princess rescues the hero without getting rescued herself. Thus began an era of some experimentation where the actual hero who rescues the princess is not handsome (The Hunchback of Notre Dame); the princess and hero meet on the job while the girl is in drag (Mulan); the princess is the 8,000-year-old ruler in her own right of a lost kingdom (Kida in Atlantis: The Lost Empire); the "princess" is a working girl with no time for romance by choice (Tiana in The Princess and the Frog); and the "princess" is an anthropologist using her "prince" as a subject for study (Jane Porter in Tarzan). However, in almost all instances, we still have Beautiful (if now spunky) Princess getting rescued by and falling in love with Handsome Prince.
Tangled is another example of a transitional film. As the quality of Disney films went into decline, the Pixar branch became more successful. So, in 2010, Disney released Tangled, the first CGI film in the "princess" line. Although stylistically, it is more like the later films I will call Disney Princess 3G, the story is similar to older ones. Rapunzel is a shut-in emotionally abused by her not-mother (because we've never seen this before), who gets out with the help of Eugene. Although the girl wields a mean frying pan and uses Eugene as a tour guide without thinking he's cute, he still rescues her, and they still marry in the end. So, we're back to Beautiful Princess Getting Rescued.
Which brings me to the 3G stories. For the first time, we have princesses who not only do not marry the prince, but end up rescuing themselves. We also have less of a clear villain, or if we do have one, it's usually the prince himself. In Brave, we actually have a princess who is her own worst enemy. Instead of a mother figure who subjugates the princess for her own gain, we have a mother who tries to instill a sense of duty in her daughter against the girl's wishes. It's only by appreciating her mother's wisdom that she grows as a character. This is another departure. While previous princess characters experienced no growth or even stagnated a little (I'm looking at you, Belle!), these princesses experienced character growth. The next of these princesses was the video-game character Vanellope von Schweetz from Wreck-it Ralph. Again, not canon due to youth. A street-urchin "glitch," she lives to race but is thwarted by the other characters in her game, mostly the crazy, sugar-crazed villain King Candy. Her first action is stealing the hard-won medal of game "bad guy" Ralph, and using it to enter a race with a homemade car. Vanellope is voiced by profane comedian Sarah Silverman, and frequently calls Ralph a stinkbrain. Although Ralph does eventually help her, she rescues herself be crossing the finish line on her own, thus resetting the game's code and revealing her princess status. She and Ralph stay friends, but do not marry.
Which bring me back to Frozen. Here, we have two princesses, one who is an inadvertent "evil queen" due to ice powers she cannot control. Although originally meant as the villain, Queen Elsa is as much a victim of her own powers as her subjects. Her sister Anna is the hero in this story. Although paired with two possible love interests, she does not marry in the end. Also, she is under a curse that can only be broken by an act of true love. Naturally, we all think Handsome Prince Hans will kiss her and break the spell. Instead, he leaves her in a cold room to freeze to death. The first entity to show her that act of love that puts his needs before his own is the snow golem Olaf. (That really should have counted. Seriously, he's a snowman building a fire to keep a friend from freezing to death! How is that not putting someone else's needs before your own?) In the end, the act of love that rescues Anna is her own sacrifice to save her sister, not the act of any man.
Over the past 67 years, the Disney Princesses have changed a great deal. With this new era, let us hope that we keep getting dynamic characters.