A surprising number of animated classics have been created during my lifetime. Two important revolutions happened in America at the end of the 20th century: the “Disney Renaissance” and the arrival of computer-based animation. While the explosive impact of 3D was hard to miss, another important factor was subtle and sociopolitical.
The Little Mermaid was a regression in one sense, to the animated Broadway-musical royal romances that defined early Disney animation. In another sense, it broke new ground for the format. Ariel is the titular 19th-century ocean-dwelling heroine who makes a faustian deal to win the heart of Prince Eric, a boring but beautiful human. As only the fourth official Disney Princess, she does something other than be in distress, which is notable. The box office returns were impressive, and the royal romance was back in a big way. However, that whole singing princess trope hasn’t transcended its gendered appeal to this day. Consider that Pixar out-earned Disney at the box office without featuring a princess for 17 years. Or consider Halloween costume sales.
Anyway, let’s continue. Belle is also an “interesting princess” with all the book learning and such, but her character has more depth in that she learns to love a hideous creature. There’s not much else that needs to be said here, but imagine if the genders were switched!
Jasmine is the bride of Aladdin. She is notable for being non-European and owning a tiger. Perhaps because boys would balk at Beauty and the Beast, the action in that movie revolves around the illegitimate title prince. The Lion King doesn’t actually marry an official Disney Princess, which is just as well because lions are polygynous cannibals.
Pocahontas is next, featuring a quasi-historical (Native) American. The wheels were coming off the royal romance gravy train by this time, and her movie was slightly overshadowed by Pixar’s explosive debut. Animation would be changed forever; 2D was suddenly old-fashioned and unmarketable (see The Iron Giant). While its shiny new rendering process got a lot of attention, Toy Story was also at the vanguard of a different narrative technique. Gone were the musical numbers and pretty princesses – the only romance in Toy Story is between Woody and Bo Peep, and the framing device literally casts them as role-playing toys.
That stroke of genius allowed the franchise to explore mature themes like jealousy, existential angst, and the social contract, while basing all the action around a child and his possessions. Perhaps there is some significance to Andy’s gender and the fact that his pretend play always involves aggressive conflict between good and evil. The neighbor Sid takes this to a perverted extreme, obliterating and mutilating toys, while his sister Hannah has them share idle gossip over tea.
In any case, Pixar’s movies have avoided the royal romance trope almost entirely. Shrek absolutely wallowed in fairy-tale nonsense, and eventually The Princess and the Frog and Tangled introduced Tiana and Rapunzel as the first Black and 3D Disney Princesses, respectively. Meanwhile, Finding Nemo celebrated guardianship and adventure, The Incredibles focused on ability and the family unit, and Ratatouille studied ambition and creative expression. The latter did have a romantic subplot and a peerage aspect which was subversive at best.
To get to the point, Merida the Brave is scheduled to become the first official Pixar Princess in July. This is interesting for several reasons: First, she stays single until the end of the movie! Her three would-be suitors are not very charming, to say the least. Second, she doesn’t sing, except for one Gaelic lullaby. Finally, Merida isn’t actually the first romantic female lead in a Pixar movie. That honor goes to EVE, a machine with a fusion reactor and a minimalist design supervised by Jony Ive. Clever.
I’m leaving out several other animated features of note, like Wallace and Gromit, Persepolis, and Coraline, and that isn’t even mentioning Miyazaki or the rest of Japan. Here’s to all these great artists, and congratulations to Princess Merida!