Nostalgia can be blinding. Having grown up with all the older Disney princess movies—for the purposes of this article, defined as any princess movie made before 2000 — it’s really tempting for me to think of them as the best ones. And don’t get me wrong, they are pretty awesome. The songs, the animation, their impossibly perfect hair (I’m looking at you, Ariel and Pocahontas); everything about these movies was great. But from an objective point of view, the newer Disney princess movies are generally better, for reasons ranging from better character depth to the introduction of themes that don’t obsess over finding one’s “true love.”
One of the most obvious changes between the older and newer Disney princesses are the depths of character arc. In older films, the Disney princesses were more of role models than actual people; while they worked to achieve their dreams in their prospective movies, their character didn’t actually change.
Ariel is a great example of this lacking character arc. Because of her somewhat foolish desire to be human, she not only endangers herself and her friends, but the entire ocean (as Ursula was pretty darn close to taking over everything). However, she never faces any repercussions for her recklessness and gets everything she wants by the end of the movie without learning a lesson (seriously, she gets her dad turned into a creepy ghoul thing and he never even mentions it).
This isn’t present in the newer princess movies; each character, while still morally good, has their own flaw to overcome. Tiana is a workaholic, Elsa has trust issues, Merida needs to fix the broken relationship with her mother — all flaws that the characters work on throughout the movie in order to achieve happiness, whether or not it’s the same as the dream that they originally had at the beginning.
When their flaws get in the way, these characters do face repercussions. For example, Anna of “Frozen” realizes her naiveté when Hans’s selfish desires are revealed and she endangers the whole kingdom through her mistake. From “Brave,” Merida’s desire to get her mother to change her ways, instead of examining her own, almost gets her mother permanently changed into a bear. In both cases, the princesses are able to fix things by the end of the movie, but only because they have learned to deal with their flaws.
Many say that the older Disney princesses, like Cinderella and Belle, are role models because of their perfect goodness despite their circumstances; however, I’d argue that the newer princesses are perhaps even better role models because they’re much more like real people. They have flaws that they learn to overcome, a much more inspiring character arc than learning from a character that’s already perfect to begin with.
The newer Disney princess movies introduce new themes that don’t necessarily revolve around the princess having to find a “true love” to accomplish their dreams. In fact, although many do fall in love, their prince (or attractive thief guy or, um, ice harvester?) isn’t the one who overcomes their challenges for them like it had been in older Disney movies. In “Sleeping Beauty,” Prince Phillip must save Aurora from Maleficent, in “The Little Mermaid,” Prince Eric is the one who kills Ursula (while Ariel watches helplessly), “Aladdin’s” Jasmine is stuck in an hourglass for the climax of the movie… not so in the newer movies. Tiana gets Dr. Facilier eaten by crazy voodoo monsters, Merida beats up a monster bear, and Anna jumps in front of a freaking sword. These girls achieve their goals through their own actions, independent of their princes, and achieve much more than finding true love (if their stories include romantic interests in the first place, as Elsa and Merida’s do not).
There’s a lot to love in both new and old Disney princess movies, but the newest additions are definitely the strongest in character and, perhaps, story as well. They’ve got problems to solve, monsters to fight, and they don’t need no man (though romance is certainly not unappreciated).
Oh, wait. Mulan is an exception. Her movie was made in 1998 and that’s pretty much 2000. She’s not even really a princess, okay? …dang it, Mulan.
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