The Evolution of the Disney Princess - From Sleeping Beauty to Frozen
The classic Disney Princess used to be a pretty ubiquitous group; Snow White, Cinderella, Aurora, Ariel, and Belle—all white women who subscribed to classic notions of femininity. After the success of Disney’s Feature Animation Division with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the defining characteristics of the Disney Princess began to broaden. Films like Aladdin, Pocahontas, and Mulan brought much-needed diversity into the exclusive group. Though there were some progressions of the form, like Mulan’s struggle with her gender identity, the stories mainly revolved around romance and the importance of finding one’s true love. That was until Frozen. Frozen was a clear departure from Disney’s past fairytales. From Aurora to Elsa there have been major changes in aesthetic, narrative, and leadership.
Sleeping Beauty was released in 1959. The film follows Disney’s aesthetic tradition of pleasing pastel colors, serene pastoral settings, and stylized human characters. Disney Feature Animation follows in the fine arts traditions of “mimetic and idealized figurations” and natural color palettes (Kemper 2015). As is the case in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Sleeping Beauty utilizes the cel process which still reigned as the main animation convention at the time. The use of the cel process is evident through the beautifully illustrated yet stagnate backgrounds that are in stark contrast with the cel; the animated figures in the foreground have different dimensions, luminosities, and have much less detailed design than the settings they appear in (Kemper, 2019).
Sleeping Beauty begins with a glistening storybook. As it opens, a voiceover narration details the birth of Princess Aurora accompanied by swelling orchestral music. We literally enter the story during the annual holiday that was decreed for the princess’s first birthday. Aurora’s future husband is already determined as Prince Phillip to unite their respective kingdoms. Prince Phillip walks over to his newborn bride to be and grimaces. He appears to be several years older than her.
Each of the three Good Fairies are meant to leave the princess with a gift. She is gifted with beauty and song when Maleficent interrupts the ceremony curses Aurora to die on her sixteenth birthday. The third Good Fairy, has not yet gifted the child anything. Though she is not powerful enough to reverse the curse, she is able to relegate the sentence to an eternal sleep which she can be woken from with a true love’s kiss. The fairies preemptively decide that taking Aurora into their care and swearing off their magic is the safest thing for her.
Like many Disney princesses, Aurora is a bit of a loner. She is forbidden to talk to strangers, so her friends are made up entirely of forest animals. She has very little human interaction. She reveals to her animal companions that her one dream is to meet a prince and fall in love. Amidst this proclamation, we’re reintroduced to Prince Phillip; he hides behind a tree while he admires Aurora from a distance. After gawking for a moment, he grabs her from behind and joins her in song. Aurora is initially alarmed by his presence, but the animals change the tone of the interaction by softening their shocked expressions into a swoon. The interaction serves to normalize the prince’s behavior; his voyeuristic and scopophilic tendencies are forgiven because they are in the service of true love. Neither Aurora nor Phillip know the true identity of the other, so their love is considered pure.
The Good Fairies then inform Aurora of her identity as the Princess and that she is betrothed to Prince Phillip. This reduces her to a blubbering mess because she is not aware that Prince Phillip is the same man as the man she fell in love with earlier in the day. Ultimately, Aurora is unable to resist Maleficent’s evil plotting and the only thing that can save her is the Prince. The Prince must overcome many challenges whilst Aurora lies motionless in perpetual sleep. Her position as a damsel and the fact that she’s a supporting character in her own story reinforces her passivity. She is not active in her own life; her husband, fate, and talents were all bestowed upon her.
All in all, Sleeping Beauty promotes very heteronormative notions regarding love and gender norms. Aurora is neither a self-actualized nor complex character. Instead, she lacks vision of her life and potential happiness without a man to provide it for her. Her one dream is to be someone’s wife. When the Good Fairies tell the King and Queen of their plan to keep Aurora safe, they refer to her as a “precious possession,” further solidifying her status as an object to be gazed upon. The fairies also reinforce gender roles as they are incredibly domestic workers; they fight over cooking, making dresses, and cleaning. Maleficent, on the other hand, embodies the trope of a women scorned; she is vengeful, evil, ruthless, and has every intention of tearing down her fellow woman.
With very limited innovation in the animation sphere, Disney found novelty coming from one of their very own Cal Arts alums, John Lasseter. After receiving an Academy Award for the short-film “Tin Toy,” Disney made a deal with Pixar for three computer-animated films and the rights to any sequels. After the unprecedent successes of Pixar’s releases and the waning of Disney’s own Animation Division, newly appointed CEO, Bob Iger, recognized Pixar’s necessity for Disney’s viability in animation. In 2006, Pixar was acquired by Disney for $7.4 billion and John Lasseter was named the chief creative officer of both studios (Kemper, 2019). This marked a major shift in the aesthetics and narratives of Disney Animation.
Frozen is the second storybook film that breaks from the two-dimensional tradition after Tangled (2010). The use of computer animation introduces much more dynamic movements, special effects, and more photorealistic storytelling. Elsa and Anna are much more stylized than the traditional princesses. Their heads are bigger with huge, prominent eyes that dwarf their other facial features and are completely disproportionate with their tiny bodies. They wear a significant amount of makeup—heavy eyeshadow and prominent lipstick. The colors span a much larger range and exhibit much more vibrancy. The overall pacing is much faster than 2D animation could ever allow and there is significantly more shot-diversity. In addition to the traditional pans and zooms that were frequented by 2D animation, Frozen utilizes aerial shots, swish pans, dollies, and tracking shots, infusing the story with much more dynamism.
True to the classic fairytales of the past, Frozen is also a musical, but the music is much more accessible than the operatic stylings featured in Sleeping Beauty; these songs are made for sing-a-longs. “Let it Go” was on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 33 weeks in 2014 and won the Academy Award for Best Original Song (Billboard).
Frozen foregoes the storybook beginning that set the tone for so many before it. Instead, it delves right into the action. The viewer is immediately immersed in the kingdom of Arendelle—catching glimpses into citizens everyday life and swiftly meeting the royal family. Elsa is born with magical powers, but they are as volatile as the young girl’s emotions and she ends up badly injuring her little sister, Anna. The family’s solution is to erase Anna’s memory of the powers; the combination of the traumatic accident and the secret powers alienate the once close sisters. As the two grow up, they grow apart and having to grieve the loss of their parents alone further drives a wedge between them.
Despite their whiteness and microscopic waste-lines, Elsa and Anna are much more relatable than the past princesses. Anna awakens on coronation day with drool coming down her chin and a rough case of bedhead. Anna is ostensibly lonely. She hasn’t interacted with anyone outside her giant, absent castle. Like Aurora, she is very sheltered. Instead of animal companions, Anna talks to the paintings on the walls. She’s understandably jubilant at the prospect of having visitors for her sister’s coronation ceremony.
Anna is a hopeless romantic who was forced to spend her childhood and adolescence alone due to a guarded family secret. When Anna has a meet-cute with Prince Hans, the story seems like it would follow the formula of every other fairytale, but Frozen throws a lot of twists and turns at the audience. Instead of happily blessing her sister’s proposal of marriage, Elsa concedes that they couldn’t possibly have found true love after only one day. This is an active subversion to the “true love” that is featured in the forefront of the classic Disney fairytale. Traditionally, “true love” can overcome any obstacle and is widely revered by all as something to treasure. The Good Fairies never question Aurora’s feelings for the Prince after only one day. Anna’s hysterical reaction causes Elsa to reveal her powers, instilling fear in the entire kingdom and setting off an eternal winter. Anna leaves Hans in charge as she attempts to get Elsa back to fix her mistakes. Along the way, she meets Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf. Anna’s journey seems like it’s for naught as Elsa does not want to hear what Anna is trying to tell her. In her emotional state, Elsa accidentally strikes Anna in the heart. Kristoff takes Anna to his troll family to heal her, but they inform them that only an act of true love can thaw a frozen heart.
Kristoff takes Anna back to Arendelle for a true love’s kiss from Hans—assuming that this is the act of true love that will save her. As Hans leans in to kiss her, however, he devastates her by saying, “Oh, Anna. If only there was someone out there who loved you” and then proceeds to lock her in a cellar (Frozen, 2013). Anna is in a race against time for some act of true love to save her, but she’s not waiting for it to happen to her; she’s actively chasing it—turning the passive damsel in distress trope on its head. Anna is about to reconcile with Kristoff when she notices Elsa in danger from Hans; she decides to sacrifice herself for her sister. Elsa cries into Anna’s frozen arms and realizes that love thaws. The act of true love comes from sisters, not from a male savior. Elsa restores summer in Arendelle and sets everything right.
Similar to Aurora not being in charge of her curse, Elsa believes her case to be the same. Ultimately however, Elsa does have control and agency over her storyline. She is eventually able to view her curse as a gift, but there is a journey to get there. After growing up with the mantra “conceal, don’t feel,” Elsa learns the opposite is true (Frozen, 2013). In so many cases, female emotionality is considered a weakness, but Frozen makes it a strength. Because women feel deeply, they can do beautiful, wonderful things once they silence the patriarchal demons that distract them from realizing their full potential. The key to Elsa’s control is letting herself feel and channeling her emotions into love. This is such a positive lesson for the impressionable young audience.
Frozen is the most successful animated film of all time. With a whopping worldwide gross of $1.29 billion, Frozen absolutely diminishes the $51 million that Sleeping Beauty made in its lifetime (Box Office Mojo). There is something to say for this success. The animation audience has matured overtime and demands more complex content. John Lasseter infused Frozen with Pixar’s signature humor and aesthetic, but his main contribution is heart. More than anything, Frozen is a coming of age story between two sisters—a human story. Their royalty plays a very small part in distinguishing the characters from every other.
The diversification and liberation of Disney animation content is due in large part to Lasseter’s influence. He kicked out the old guard and brought in new voices and fresh perspectives. Frozen had a female co-director, writer, casting director, and producer. Women also permeated throughout production management, as well as the art department, sound department, and animation department. This is in stark contrast to the all-male crew responsible for Sleeping Beauty.
It’s interesting to consider the future of the Disney Princess. With John Lasseter’s firing for inappropriate conduct and the acquisition of Twentieth Century Fox and LucasFilm, the fate of Walt Disney’s Animation Division seems largely unknown. I can only hope that the future brings more realized female characters that set good examples for the young girls that largely make up their audience; more stories that emphasize the content of someone’s character over their physical appearance.
Sleeping Beauty. Dir. Clyde Geronimi. Walt Disney Productions, 1959. Film.
Frozen. Dir. Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck. Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2013. Film.
Kemper, Tom. Toy Story: A Critical Reading. Palgrave, 2015.
Kemper, Tom. Week 1 Lecture. 9 January 2019.
Kemper, Tom. Business Practices Lecture. 20 March 2019.
“Idina Menzel Let It Go Chart History.” Billboard, https://www.billboard.com/music/idina-menzel/chart-history/hot-100/song/807510
“Frozen (2013).” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=main&id=frozen2013.htm
“Sleeping Beauty (1959).” Box Office Mojo, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=sleepingbeauty.htm