by Emma Street
There is probably no film studio more closely associated with fairy tales than Disney. Since the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 there has been a string of heroines in search of happily ever afters, although not without some barren spells, like the 30 years from the poor box office performance of Sleeping Beauty in 1959 until The Little Mermaid in 1989, the comeback which started a sequence that runs right up to 2010’s Tangled.
Disney heroines have changed a lot in seventy-odd years. Where once they were docile and obedient they’re now more headstrong and opinionated. If Snow White and the Seven Dwarves had been made in 2011 or The Princess and the Frog in the 1950s, the films would have turned out very differently.
Disney knows the value of its princesses and is not shy about exploiting them in every way possible. You can barely throw a rock in your average high street without hitting Disney Princess themed duvet sets, laptops, travel pillows and waffle irons. If you can’t find a rock to throw, there’s probably an interactive bright pink Princess projectile of some kind nearby instead. Disney only get away with such cynical merchandising because people do want to watch the films of course. Generally my teenage daughter regards anything pre-1980s as ridiculously antiquated and hard to watch but she’s always been happy to watch Disney even when the film in question is over 70 years old.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was famously the first full-length animated feature film. Compared to later Disney animations, Snow White often gives the impression of being a bunch of short cartoons about the dwarves with the Snow White story providing an over-arching narrative. Scenes where the dwarves wash themselves or snore musically while sleeping in the kitchen seem a bit odd to a modern viewer, as though they wandered over from a Donald Duck or Alice short.
Apparently, Walt Disney’s original intention was to have even more dwarf comedy action – a whole soup-eating scene was cut from the final film. A blessing really as what the film really needs is more time with Snow White, her step mother and the prince. We are provided with no backstory other than what’s covered in the animated picture book at the beginning of the film (a recurring technique in Disney films). Surprisingly Snow White and the Queen do not share any scenes at all before the scene where thanks to the Queen’s boggle-eyed hag disguise, Snow White is persuaded that poisoned apples count as one of her five a day.
When it comes to love, Snow White is ridiculously passive. The only way that she can think of to find true love is by wishing, which she sings about at length in her opening scene. When the prince does turn up, she flees – adopting the classic hiding-behind-a-wall approach to courtship.
The prince gets hardly any screen time at all. He doesn’t even get a name. Singing about how much he fancies the girl he’s just spotted is basically his lot until the final scene. To be fair to the lad, though, he certainly seems keen. The fact she seems to be one of the palace’s servants doesn’t deter him at the beginning of the film. Nor her apparently being dead at the end.
You can’t help wishing that Snow would give it a bit more thought before she goes galloping off with him on his white charger. She barely knows the guy. At this point in the film, she has a more meaningful relationship with Grumpy. I know his kiss saved her from a wicked spell, but that’s hardly legally binding. It’s not like Snow White’s the best judge of character either given that she clearly had no idea that her step-mum was a psychotic murderous bitch.
Things weren’t much better in the 1950s. Both Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora follow the passive example set by Snow White. Cinderella is similarly downtrodden at the beginning of the film although her desire to get to the ball does seem to be more about getting out of the house for an evening than necessarily finding her true love. She does make some attempt to control her own life but is pretty reliant on the outside help provided by her Fairy Godmother in order to do this. Having given her goddaughter everything she could desire, the Fairy Godmother provides one rule – be home by midnight. Infuriatingly Cinderella completely manages to lose track time of time. The carelessness still bugs me. I’m not the most organised of people but I think if a magical godparent turned up and gave me the moon on a stick I’d remember her one stipulation.
Cinders doesn’t actually realise that it’s the prince she’s dancing with at the ball. Afterwards she says to her animal companions ‘I’m sure even the prince couldn’t be more…’ and stares off into the distance dreamily. She then goes on to say ‘Well, it’s over and that’s that.’ which seems a fairly defeatist attitude to take towards your future happiness. Cinderella relies on a whole host of people to sort her life out – her Fairy Godmother, the prince, the king, the arch-duke, the dog and a whole bunch of mice in hats. It’s lucky it all turned out so spiffingly really.
Like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty heroine Aurora’s approach to life is to wish for stuff. Well dreaming rather than wishing, but the outcome is pretty much the same. She sings a song, a passing prince hears it, joins in the chorus and they’re both in love with one another before the final stanza. This scenario was repeated a third time in 2007’s knowing self-parody, Enchanted.
Like Cinderella, she has no idea that her dance partner is the prince. She arranges to meet him that same night but when she’s told that she is already betrothed to another, unhappy as she is about the arrangement, she doesn’t openly defy it. Philip on the other hand refuses to go along with the plan, racing off to keep his assignation with the “peasant girl”. Clearly it’s a lot easier to be headstrong when you’re a boy. After Aurora succumbs to the spell and pricks her finger, she – like Snow White – is awoken by true love’s kiss. Here, Philip does actually know that’s the deal unlike the prince in Snow White who clearly couldn’t resist a quick smooch with the unconscious object of his affections.
The 1970s and 1980s were not great years for Disney animation and certainly not for female leads. The Black Cauldron had a princess called Eilonwy. I can’t remember a thing about her though and Disney aren’t particularly keen to keep her in the spotlight either. There isn’t even an Eilonwy beach towel set.
With The Little Mermaid (1989) Disney got its groove back at last. I was fifteen by this point and had spent my childhood watching repeats of old Disney movies when they were shown at the local cinema during the school holidays. Did all cinemas use to do that? Young people would scarcely believe it these days accustomed as they are to three new films in the cinema every half-term and a shelf full of DVDs at home. Sure we had video but a pre-recorded Disney video in the 80s would have cost roughly the same as a four door saloon car.
Ariel was a new kind of Disney heroine. She had an attitude and a longing for adventure unlike her timid fatalistic counterparts of the 30s and 50s. She also had an ambition – to leave the sea and experience the life of the land-dwelling folk. However, not sitting around waiting for other people to sort your life for you does mean having to make your own decisions, which Ariel turns out not to be great at (three days of land-legs in return for her voice?) although it all turns out swimmingly in the end, so to speak.
The Little Mermaid is based on an original story by Hans Christian Andersen , which is worth mentioning here because the ending of the film is completely different. Far from living happily ever after, in Andersen’s story the little mermaid died and the prince married another girl. Personally, I’m happy Disney changed it. Andersen could be a miserable bastard sometimes – my mother still hasn’t gotten over reading “The Red Shoes” to me when I was six.
Belle, the heroine of Beauty and the Beast (1991) appears in the opening number expressing a desire to escape “this provincial life”. She is the first of our heroines whose cleverness and book-learning are explicitly referred to. Although amongst the folk of her village, this makes her a bit odd.
Of all the Disney romances, that of Belle and the Beast is probably the dodgiest. The Beast imprisons Belle’s father for no good reason other than that’s the sort of thing the Beast does. Belle offers herself in her father’s place. The Beast is not a bright lad. Thoughts travel across his face like cows meandering across a country road. “Wait a minute – hot young girl rather than old man – yes that does seem like a bargain.”
The Beast is really a prince of course. The opening title sequence informs us that the Prince was rude to an enchantress posing as a door-to-door rose seller and was therefore cursed to remain a beast until he learns to love and be loved in return in order to break the spell. In the film’s big musical number “Be our Guest”, Lumiere – former palace-somebody turned candlestick – sings that it’s been 10 years since the spell was cast. I do hope he was exaggerating. Otherwise the Beast was only eleven at the time of the supposed offence, which makes the punishment seem a bit harsh.
Belle shows a lot more initiative than Snow White or Aurora would have done. She escapes for one thing. But having done so, she is attacked by wolves. The Beast saves her but not before falling over gracefully with non-specific Disney injuries. She’s a strong lass is Belle – the next scene sees the unconscious Beast on top of a horse with Belle leading it back to the castle. Later on she pulls the Beast onto a balcony.
After they have fallen in love, the Beast encourages Belle to leave and save her father with the words “you are no longer my prisoner”. Which is charming.
Like Ariel and Belle, Jasmine, from 1993’s Aladdin, was opinionated and headstrong but still in need of the odd bit of rescuing. In the case of Aladdin it’s by the boy who dreams of life at the palace which he manages to fulfil by conveniently meeting the girl of his dreams. Like Eric and Ariel, and the Beast and Belle, Jasmine and Aladdin have to strive to overcome their differences in order to be together. They’ve got it a bit easier though; at least they’re the same species.
The latest generation of Disney princesses – Tiana in The Princess and the Frog and Rapunzel in Tangled – are very different from their early counterparts. They make their own decisions and have their own plans. Neither is looking for romance. Love is something which happens to them while they’re busy doing other things. Tiana wants to start her own restaurant and gets sidetracked when she kisses the frog prince and becomes a frog herself. The only reason she’d agreed to kiss the frog in the first place was in exchange for cash. As a heroine is, these days, expected to get to know her prince before riding off into the sunset with him, the boys have become more important characters themselves, complete with character arcs – the princes in Snow White and Cinderella didn’t even get proper names for themselves, let alone a personality between them. Frog Prince Naveen changes from a callow pleasure-seeker to a personable young man in the course of the story. Tangled’s chancer and thief Flynn Rider turns over a whole new leaf. If you want proof that Disney princes and princesses have moved with the times, it’s in Flynn’s last few lines in Tangled: “But I know what the big question is? Did Rapunzel and I ever get married? Well I am happy to say after years and years of asking, I finally said yes.”
I love a happy ending as much as anyone but was delighted that at last a couple didn’t have to tie the knot by the final scene. Take some time, people. Get to know one another.