Disney’s Age Of Self-Discovery

Cora-Laine Moynihan

For decades past, girls were brought up with princesses, endless and endless numbers of beautiful, animated girls in crowns, while boys were raised idolising heroes like Spiderman and Hercules. This defined what a girl was from a boy. Pretty. Elegant. In need of rescuing. Rather than strong and resolute. These ideas moulded young children into two separate identities, reinforced for years.

Then, in 2010, children’s entertainment behemoth Disney diverted from their money-making formula of damsels in distress and knights in shining armour to something more versatile. No more princesses lost and desperate for a prince to save them. No more girls kidnapped and trapped in towers guarded by monsters. No more princes solely there to help the damsel.

Disney diverted from their money-making formula of damsels in distress and knights in shining armour to something more versatile

Tangled, an adaptation of the traditional Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Rapunzel, subtly altered the foundations of a Disney Princess movie to broaden the possibilities of the media conglomerate’s future animations. Though still containing the typical romance plot and damsel in distress concept – it’s completely flipped on its head. Yes, Rapunzel is a kidnapped princess but most of the movie follows her quest to see ‘the floating lights’ released every year on her birthday. It’s a desire she’s had since her childhood, encompassing her need for freedom, adventure, and independence. Upon finally seeing the lanterns, Rapunzel questions her life as it is alongside who she truly is, leading to the subversive conclusion that inadvertently freed young girls watching from the archetypical feminine traits that they viewed for years. However, to address the conclusion the tale’s love interest must make an appearance in this discussion. In the best way to describe it, Flynn Rider annihilates the traditional royal love interest. And it worked! Rather than a prince, Rapunzel meets an orphaned thief, who is developed outside of his relationship with the heroine. He has wants. He has dreams. He’s a well-rounded person – not just there to save the day. And that brings us back to the conclusion. Like Snow White, Princess Aurora, and Cinderella (all the leading ladies that came prior), Rapunzel is trapped, captured by the villain. But, when her thief comes to save her and is injured, she chooses to move away from her traditional role. She saves her thief instead. Sacrificing her own dreams and powers to save him. Becoming the first Disney princess to be more than just a princess.

And this fantastic narrative started a beautiful butterfly effect on later animations.

2012’s Brave followed Tangled’s singular step and transformed it into a leap. While its predecessor kept the age-old romance subplot, Brave removed it entirely – giving Merida, the Scottish Highland Princess, free reign of her story and space to discover her own identity. Although, I must add that Brave was originally a Pixar production released prior to Disney merging with the company, potentially influencing why the film deviated from the traditional princess narrative and reducing its value as an example in Disney’s change to the age of self-discovery. Yet, Merida’s wild and ambitious nature still cemented itself in the minds of young girls, encouraging them to break away from what is expected from them to seek adventures instead. Adding to this, Brave also presented relationships other than romantic entanglements. The film details the complexities of love between a mother and daughter, portraying the awkwardness and miscommunications often found in real-world maternal bonds. And this familial love over romantic has persisted in every animated Disney production since.

And that brings us to Frozen (2013).

Frozen cemented the age of self-discovery, building upon the foundations set by the above-mentioned films. The tale of two sisters isolated by tragedy and secrets was a major commercial success, overtaking Toy Story 3 as the highest grossing animated film of all time (until the Lion King remake dethroned it in 2019) due to earning $1.280 billion (£941,878,990) in worldwide box office revenue. Based upon The Snow Queen, a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, Frozen explores many profound themes such as grief, fear, discrimination, and identity. The story follows two separate princesses desperate for connection with one another all the while learning to accept themselves. Elsa is frightened of her true self, taught to hide her powers and distance herself from everyone. At the first outing from her room, Elsa completely unravels and loses control of her powers, succumbing to her fears. Anna grew up entirely alone: her parents dead and her sister locked inside a bedroom. So, when the first offer of human connection comes along, Anna leaps at it. Their journeys throughout the rest of the film watch them grow from this point and accept themselves for who they are. A message so prevalent to young girls in an age when who women are expected to be is plastered everywhere.

With such a massive impact on the world, Disney could have stopped with Frozen regarding this new age of animation. Having peaked with this production, surely there was not much else they could change? Not much else that could make that is new.

Only, there was one traditional aspect that had remained in their animations. One that still held girls back in a patriarchal, oppressive time. Princesses.

It was 2016 when Disney broke free from princesses. Moana splashed into cinemas worldwide and dismantled the stereotypical princess lead. The daughter of a Polynesian tribe’s chieftain, Moana breaks free from any conventional ideas of women and girls. She’s ambitious, curious, and resolute. No romance. No damsels. No saved by men. Moana empowers girls, telling them they can be who they want to be, achieve what they want to, and shows them anything is possible. The titular character strides through challenges, never letting them stop her in her path. And that could never have happened, had she been a traditional Disney princess.

Disney didn’t stop there either. 2021 saw the release of Encanto, a film full of subversive characters and questioning of identity. A woman capable of lifting mountains. Another able to control the weather. A man that can see the future. Another that can shape shift. Encanto is an animation for girls and boys, reminding them that they are all special in their own ways. With family relationships at the centre of the plot, it highlights the need to break free from expectations and accept each other’s identities alongside our own. It is the epitome of Disney’s age of self-discovery and all I can wonder now is what will Disney do next?

What will Disney do next?

Cora-Laine Moynihan

Featured Image courtesy of Millena Brito ? via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article trailer 1 courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios via youtube.com. No changes made to this video. 

In-article trailer 2 courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios via youtube.com. No changes made to this video. 

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