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In my review of Disney’s most recent princess movie, Frozen, I praised it as being a more modern rendition of Disney’s classic princess formula. While I tried to briefly explain what I mean by that, my thoughts on Frozen understandably left some people a little confused. After all, what about out-of-the-box hits like Brave or Mulan? Those are both great princess movies featuring protagonists and stories unlike any of the other Disney princess movies, aren’t they? In this post, I want to clarify what I mean when I say Frozen is an improvement of the classic Disney princess formula and why I put Mulan and Brave in slightly different categories. To start, let me define what I consider to be the classic formula.

Princess Protagonist + Romance-focused Plot = Classic Disney Princess Formula

The basic elements of the classic Disney princess formula are a princess protagonist (born royal or married into it) and a plot centered around romance. That is not to say that there are not other plots in the movie other than romance, but that romance plays a starring role in the story. The classic formula is called such because these are the basic elements of the oldest Disney princess movies (Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) and remains the dominate formula in their princess films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Princess and the Frog, Tangled).

On a side note, Jasmine from Aladdin is an exception to the formula because she is not the protagonist of the movie she appears in, but rather the female lead and love interest of the protagonist, Aladdin. Anyway, now let me break down why Mulan, Brave, and Frozen do or don’t fit this formula.

Mulan: Non-princess Female Protagonist = Not a Disney Princess MovieDownloadedFile-1

I’ve written about this before, but it never hurts to say it again. Disney markets Mulan as a princess. In fact, the only time we see Mulan nowadays in when a dolled up version of her appears in banners brimming with all the lovely ladies of Disney’s princess stories or in other princess-themed Disney merchandise. Therefore, it’s easy to forget that Mulan has no connection to royalty other than saving the Emperor’s hide at the end of her already epic adventure.

While Disney may call Mulan a princess, I see no reason to put her in that category. Her story is much closer to the many male-centered Disney adventures that focus on the growth of a young male protagonist and his relationship with friends and/or family. The only real similarity that I see is that Mulan is a story centered on a woman, just like Disney’s princess movies. That, however, doesn’t mean I have to include her in the princess category and since comparing Disney princess movies to Mulan is like comparing them to The Lion King or Hercules, I don’t. That comparison is fine and doable, but it’s different from comparing a princess movie to a princess movie.

Brave: Princess Protagonist + Non-romance-focused Plot = Non-Traditional Princess Movieimages-26

Brave, on the other hand, is a movie I count as a Disney princess movie because it does feature a princess protagonist. I would, however, consider this movie to be a non-traditional Disney princess movie. Why? Because Brave throws out the romance plot so central to the majority of Disney princess movies in favor of focusing on a mother-daughter relationship. Of course, other Disney princess movies I’ve classified as classic, romance-based plots feature other types of relationships, too, like Ariel’s relationship with her father, but the type of relationship that is most central to those plots is the romance. In Bravethe main plot revolves around how the heroine and her mother come to understand each other when they are forced to work together to undo a spell, pushing what may have been a sub-plot (the heroine’s relationship with her parents) in another princess movie to the forefront.

Frozen: Princess Protagonist + Romance Plot + Non-romance Focused Plot = Tweaked Classic FormulaDisney-Frozen

Frozen falls somewhere in between the pure classic formula and the non-traditional formula, but because the protagonist is a princess and romance, while not the only important plot, is still a central plot, I’m considering it an upgraded version of the classic formula. It mixes elements of the classic formula (romance) with aspects of non-traditional princess movies like Brave (focus on relationships other than romantic ones).

As I said earlier, some of the Disney movies I’ve placed under the category of “classic formula” do have other sub-plots dealing with non-romantic relationships and wishes for freedom/adventure, but those sub-plots are just that–sub-plots. They take a backseat to the main romance plot or are wrapped up tightly in it. For example, getting a chance to see a new world is acted on and achieved only through Ariel’s romance with Prince Eric; Jasmine and Rapunzel ultimately only get their desired freedom through their relationships with their love interests; Tiana has dreams of owning and running her own restaurant, but the story is not about her accomplishing that dream, but of her romantic relationship with Prince Naveen, etc. On the other hand, Anna’s romance and her wish to help/have a relationship again with her sister are equally important in Frozen. Romance is the focus of a good portion of the movie, but obtaining goal A doesn’t get overshadowed by romance nor does Anna’s romantic relationship mean the achievement of that goal.

Pocahontas probably falls somewhere in this group, too. The protagonist is a princess, but unlike Brave, there is a strong romance-focused plot. Like Frozen, there is also another strong plot running alongside the romance–the tension between the English settlers and Pocahontas’ tribe, which the heroine and her love interest try to bridge. However, it’s been years since I’ve seen Pocahontas so, that’s one I need to revisit.

Anyway, that’s it! To some, it may seem that I’m splitting hairs, but I hope this makes my stance a little clearer.

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This past weekend, I finally got around to seeing the not-so-new newest Disney Princess movie, The Princess and the Frog. As readers of my blog will know, there are very few Disney movies with female leads that I like. However, I was curious to see if they would bring more modern ideas to this movie (since it was made it 2009), I had to take a look at it.

The basic story is Tiana, a young woman from New Orleans, is a big dreamer and is working hard to start her own restaurant when a prince comes to town. Prince Naveen is looking for a rich woman to marry because, although he’s a prince he’s been cut off from his family’s money and doesn’t want to give up the good life. Along the way, he falls victim to a man of black magic, Dr. Facilier and is turned into a frog. When Tiana comes across him with his new green look, Naveen mistakes her for a princess and, thinking of the story of The Princess and the Frog, convinces her to kiss him. Unfortunately, not only does it not work, Tiana is turned into a frog, too. Now they both must find a way to turn human again while trying to escape Facilier’s dark plans.

Obviously, this was the first time Disney featured a black women as lead (wow! if weren’t 2011, that’d be so forward thinking!) and rather than make her a pretty little princess, she’s an independent young woman who has big dreams. I appreciated that Tiana wanted to own her own successful restaurant. While she is interested in something that is traditionally associated with women, that would be a job a woman may have actually been able to get at that time Tiana’s story is set and frankly, the fact that Disney has even given us a career-driven heroine is amazing. Many Disney princesses are trapped/restricted/in trouble in some way from the start of the movie (Aurora, Jasmine, Cinderella, Snow White) and either don’t give independence or adventure a thought or don’t do anything on their own to achieve it. Tiana, however, is driven very much by her desire. She works her butt off and isn’t reliant on anyone. I also liked the fact that Tiana is not the damsel-in-distress here. Naveen and Tiana have an equal amount of problems to deal with.

Of course, I knew I should savor these radical-coming-from-Disney aspects. I could feel the shadow of tired, traditional thought processes creeping up on the entire movie just like those voodoo shadows kept creeping up on Tiana and her friends.

My first big issue showed up in the form of Tiana’s friend, Lottie. Lottie is pure and simply “the blonde girl” and Disney makes that very clear from the start. She’s rich, spoiled, talkative to a fault, not too bright, etc. Disney loves stereotypes so, it seems they tried to make the second most prominent female character in the movie as stereotypical as they could to balance out Tiana’s modern character. (No damsel-in-distress? Send in the blonde stereotype!) She’s introduced as the girl who can’t seem to shut up and is determined to meet the prince just because he’s a prince. She’s blind to Tiana or anyone else’s troubles until the end of the movie because she is so absorbed in herself. When it seems like the prince won’t show up to a party Lottie is throwing, she starts sobbing like a child, pointedly ruining her mascara, after she wasted the whole evening waiting for him to show up, but immediately cheers up when he comes. You don’t have to watch this character for more than a few minutes to figure out she’s a complete blonde girl stereotype. Disney really likes taking baby steps, don’t they?

Prince Naveen from Disney's The Princess and the Frog

But Lottie is not the only stereotypical thing in the movie. The prince who changes into a frog is more like “the jerk who (finally) changed into an adult” but it’s not really his character I have a problem with; it’s how Disney handles him. Prince Naveen, as he’s called, isn’t a really bad guy; he just doesn’t act like an adult, but instead more like an immature teen. He thinks he’s the best thing that happened to women (not to mention some other problematic traits) and only changes after he meets and falls in love with Tiana. Oh no. Here we go again. Is it so unusual and wrong that the prince undergoes character change? No, it’s fun to see character change, but by having him change because he meets “the love of his life” we’re returning to the overused jerk-will-change-after-he-falls-in-love scenario. As pretty as that sounds, it’s really not the message to be sending out to kids (or adults, for that matter). Ok, so not everyone is a sponge that absorbs this harmful and unrealistic expectation, but when we have so many stories repeating this fable, some are bound to internalize this. How many women how you heard say “Oh, he’ll change”?

(On a more positive note, I did like that Disney showed some vulnerability in Naveen. Not only is he in a bit of a pinch, but he also admits that because he’s been so spoiled by people he has–if any–very few skills with which he can take care of himself. Guys have problems, too, but in some of the most traditional Disney movies (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty) the guys are perfect (in a cardboard cutout kind of way).)

My final and biggest problem with Disney’s The Princess and the Frog was how Disney handled Tiana’s ambitions of a big career. While Tiana does get her business in the end, the lesson in this movie is finding out what we want vs. what we need. Guess what Tiana wanted and what she needed? Yep, she needed love while she only wanted a career. Love is important, but love comes in many forms and the fact that Disney is essentially telling girls to give up their career dreams if they have to choose between one or the other is very old-fashioned. Running a successful business also is more than just getting money; it’s a way to independence not too much another type of fulfillment. If a girl wants both a guy and career, that’s wonderful. Many women end up with both now (whether it was their dream or not). If a girl wants to dream about a career rather than a guy, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, either. But by presenting it the way Disney did, want vs. need, it seemed to me like they were saying if a girl must choose, she should choose the guy. All I can say after watching Disney’s The Princess and the Frog is “Wake up, Disney! It’s 2011!”

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