In the early days of the Walt Disney Company, there were three Disney Princess films: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. The first two were major critical and commercial hits and helped keep the company afloat during the bad years (the third not doing very well initially but growing in stature over the years). All three of these movies boast spectacular animation, beautiful music, and some truly chilling antagonists. They are works of art.
After the fifties there was a huge dry streak of Disney Princess films, and in 70’s and most of the 80’s the company was in a rut. Things looked bleak until the return to the Disney Princess film format with The Little Mermaid, another huge hit and a beloved classic, boasting fantastic music, gorgeous animation, exciting action scenes, and a spunky princess.
Since then there were a string of Disney Princess movies, the official ones being Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan. All of them are real spectacles, with the latter two touching on serious themes (the former dealt with racism and environmentalism, albeit rather clumsily, and the latter can easily be seen as a queer narrative, like I had).
Then, the company hit yet another rut, with something else in common with the earlier dark ages: no princess films. So when they finally started making Princess films again, the company got back on its feet.
But something’s wrong.
If you’ve read my review of The Princess and the Frog, you know I have negative feelings about it. While Tiana herself is a fantastic character, and the animation is stunning, the music isn’t really that great, the story is not very exciting, the plot is a little convoluted, everyone’s tearing the main character down, and it’s a movie about a princess being a damn frog stuck in a damn bayou. While it was better than a lot of films Disney was churning out at the time, it was nowhere near as good as the films of the 90’s.
Things did get better with Tangled. It was Disney’s first CGI film with fantastic animation, there were some truly beautiful moments, the story was fun and engaging, and Rapunzel was just so full of life. The music was a little lacking, but other than that, it was pretty close to the films of the 90’s we all know and love. Then things went downhill from there.
Although it was made by Pixar, Brave is still technically a Disney Princess movie (Merida is part of the lineup). While the mother-daughter relationship of the movie was pretty touching, the movie was so generic and basic; almost like a knockoff of a Disney Princess film than an actual Disney Princess film. There are no grand moments, no compelling set pieces, no show-stopping numbers, and the characters can be annoying.
Then we got Frozen. It’s a paper thin story riddled with plot holes and poorly developed characters and relationships but somehow, because it’s about two sisters and has no immediate romance, it’s considered the epitome of subversion of progressiveness. There, I said it. I have a feeling if it wasn’t for “Let It Go” (which is admittedly a really awesome number), this movie wouldn’t be nearly as popular.
So yeah. You got three out of four Princess movies that are underwhelming. By contrast, a lot of the non-Princess Disney films have been utterly amazing. Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia all deal with serious, even complex themes and tell exciting, heartwarming stories with lovable characters. Baymax is on his way to becoming an iconic character in his own right.
So what happened? Well, I think it’s simple: Disney’s too scared to take risks with their Princess properties. Since the Princess films have been Disney’s main money maker for so long and only now has the company gotten back on its feet, they want to keep them as safe and marketable as possible, but at the same time, they want to appease the critics who have derided the films for being antifeminist. The result? Movies that slap you in the face with “look at how progressive and self aware we are!” messages at the cost of just being able to tell a story while still somehow keeping to the status quo. You still have shoehorned romances, you still have superfluous sidekicks, you still have song numbers that technically don’t need to be in the movie, etc. (There’s a reason I usually write Disney Princess TM.)
Despite the success of their non-Princess features, Disney still believes that their Princess movies (especially Frozen) are the only movies that are the real hits and deserve their own franchise. This made sense back in the early 2000’s, when there were no non-Princess hits, but at this rate, Disney doesn’t need Princess films to be successful anymore.
So when I saw Moana and was expecting a true masterpiece but got a cookie-cutter story, it sealed the deal for me: Disney should stop (or take a break from) making Princess movies. Instead, they should focus on marketing their other huge hits. And they should, because those films have some really strong, awesome female characters. You have Vanellope Von Schweetz, a confident racer and president. You have Sgt. Calhoun, a mighty soldier coping with PTSD. You have Honey Lemon and Gogo, two women of color excelling in STEM. And you have Judy Hopps, a female rabbit committed to doing the right thing no matter what. Yet because they don’t wear pretty dresses or sing or have cute sidekicks, Disney doesn’t want to market them. And that’s really sad.
We’ll see if there’s any change when Bob Iger leaves office. Until then, I’m keeping my expectations for Disney Princess TM films low. I want more HEROINES that are able to be well-defined and strong characters in their own right who are free to be part of whatever story they want. I don’t want a Princess who has to conform to certain tropes while trying to present herself as progressive in order to appease the masses.