I’m as guilty as anyone of occasionally framing issues of onscreen representation in terms of how they might impact hypothetical kids watching and internalizing the messages. Yet I was also a kid who grew up having absolutely no problem juggling a deep love of Disney princesses with a staunch belief in gender equality. In fact, far from being something toxic I had to overcome, I see my early (and ongoing) love of Disney princesses as a complete net positive in my current career as a feminist pop culture critic. It inspired my love of film history and musical theater, and I still think fondly of each and every animated heroine I idolized as a kid. Whatever “just sit around and wait for a prince!” messaging Disney princesses theoretically brainwash into young girls clearly didn’t happen to me. Which isn’t to say that it hasn’t happened to others, but is maybe to say that little kids perhaps don’t take the media they consume quite as literally as we worry they do.
And yet there’s no doubt that the Disney princess—which is both a specific line of characters and a broader colloquial idea that condenses 80-plus years of history into one cultural stereotype—remains one of our most controversial cultural ideas. (For some perspective, the first Disney princess debuted under Franklin Roosevelt, the latest under Barack Obama.) The question of whether or not to let their kids engage in “princess culture” is still one many parents agonize over across endless think-pieces. Keira Knightley received rapturous applause when she recently told Ellen DeGeneres she’s banned her 3-year-old daughter from watching Cinderella and The Little Mermaid because of their problematic messaging. Ever since sister-focused Frozen explicitly built its marketing around the idea that its heroines “aren’t like other princesses,” each new Disney princess flick is now destined to be endlessly scrutinized for its feminist credentials against a vague sense of the nebulous “Disney princess” stereotype.
The latest bit of Disney content to pat itself on the back for doing something self-referential and empowering with its princess lineup isn’t actually a princess movie, it’s Ralph Breaks The Internet, the sprawling Wreck-It Ralph sequel that features a much-hyped sequence in which all the Disney princesses appear together. And though our short-term cultural memory about all things princess means the whole thing will likely be hailed as a subversive game-changer, the good news for Ralph Breaks The Internet fans is that Disney has actually been doing this kind of thing for a long time now! Every princess film since 1989 has to some extent been challenging the passive princess stereotype. And Disney gave that stereotype an even more explicitly subversive twist in its pitch perfect 2007 musical fantasy romantic comedy, Enchanted.
The story of a naïve animated would-be princess named Giselle (Amy Adams) who accidentally winds up in the complicated real world of New York City, Enchanted director Kevin Lima had a very specific sense of exactly what he was lampooning. He designed Giselle to be “about 80 percent Snow White, with some traits borrowed from Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty” plus a little of Ariel’s spunkiness thrown in. Unsurprisingly, given the eras in which they were made, 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, 1950’s Cinderella, and 1959’s Sleeping Beauty are the least progressive Disney princess films and the ones most ripe for parody. (1989’s The Little Mermaid kicked off the Disney renaissance, and Ariel serves as a transition point between the older princesses and the newer, more empowered ones that followed.) Enchanted is happy to poke fun at dated princess tropes (“We shall be married in the morning!” Prince Edward proclaims moments after meeting Giselle—a far funnier gag than Frozen’s attempts to do the same), but it’s never mean-spirited in its humor.
In fact, whereas Bill Kelly’s original script was a racier, more sardonic take on the material, Lima realized the film would work far better as a loving homage to Disney rather than a cynical Shrek-like takedown of Disney tropes. He brought Kelly back onto the project, and they set about crafting a version that was both a light parody of and an earnest tribute to the Disney princess legacy. To some extent it was canny brand management. Disney Animation was in a huge rut in the early 2000s, vaguely chasing the look and feel of its subsidiary Pixar and not finding much success in the process. Enchanted helped revitalize interest in the Disney princess genre and kicked off a new princess era that would eventually lead to mega-hits like Frozen and Moana.
Yet when you read interviews with Lima, it’s clear his enthusiasm for the material is entirely genuine—the equivalent of J.J. Abrams’ excitement at getting to play around in the Star Wars sandbox. A lifelong Disney fan and animator who had worked on classics like Beauty And The Beast and Aladdin before directing A Goofy Movie, Tarzan, and the live action 102 Dalmatians, Lima was thrilled to get the chance to return to 2-D animation for Enchanted’s opening and closing sequences. Because Disney no longer even employed a cel animation team, those 13 minutes of animation had to be done by another studio.
Directing both the animated and live action portions of Enchanted, Lima packed the film with enough Disney easter eggs to make your average Marvel movie look like an empty nest by comparison. From recreating specific shots to recruiting Disney princess voice actors to play minor roles to naming a fictional law firm after the composers of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, Lima has claimed there are literally thousands of easter eggs and references in the film, at least some of which are categorized on a whole Wikipedia page devoted just to the topic. Lima also brought an animator’s eye to the composition, physical comedy, and visual jokes of Enchanted.
Yet Lima’s best efforts likely would’ve been for naught if Enchanted hadn’t found the right star. Disney wanted a big name, but Lima fought to cast an unknown who could fully embody Giselle. Enchanted has one of those famed casting processes where hundreds of people audition but none of them quite work until suddenly the right person walks into the room and magic happens. Speaking about Amy Adams’ audition, Lima told The Hollywood Reporter, “What she brought (to it) and what I was looking for the whole time was someone who didn’t judge the character’s naïveté, an actor who could disappear into the role and never wink at the role while they were playing it (and) never think that what they were doing was ridiculous. And she was a revelation.”
It would be truly impossible to overstate how fantastic Adams is in this star-making turn—both when it comes to selling the film’s comedic tone and when it comes to giving actual heft to Giselle’s emotional arc. The only actor who comes even close to rivaling her is James Marsden as the hilariously dunderheaded Prince Edward, who follows Giselle to New York to rescue her. Both Adams and Marsden also get to show off their hugely impressive singing voices in a series of uber-catchy songs written by Disney vets Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz—two creators who, as they pointed out at the time, had already been putting tongue-in-cheek jokes in Disney animated films for years.
As the film’s straight man and love interest, Patrick Dempsey—then at the peak of his Grey’s Anatomy fame—has the least showy role in the film. But he delivers just the right grounding counterbalance to Giselle’s whimsy as a world-weary divorce lawyer Robert, who discourages his 6-year-old daughter from reading fairy tales because he doesn’t want to “set her up to believe in this dreams-come-true nonsense.” What makes Enchanted work so well is that it’s simultaneously a modern day romantic comedy and an old-fashioned fairy tale romance. Robert and Giselle are a classic opposites-attract rom-com pairing, each of them pushing the other to find balance in their perspectives (Giselle gains some pragmatism, Robert some optimism). Yet because of its fairy tale roots, Enchanted also gets away with imbuing their pairing with a mythic romantic quality too. Enchanted is both incredibly funny and genuinely romantic, which is easier said than done in a rom-com. I always find myself surprised by just how much I’m swept away by the film’s climatic dance sequence—an homage to the big dance in Beauty And The Beast.
It’s in Giselle’s positive impact on Robert—and, indeed, her positive influence on pretty much everyone she meets—that Enchanted makes its strongest argument for the value of the Disney princess, even in her most archetypal form. Giselle sees the best in others, approaches problems optimistically, and never judges books by their covers. When her call for woodland friends is answered by the vermin of New York City, it’s both a hilarious gag and a chance for the movie to demonstrate Giselle’s radical kindness. Soon enough she’s happily singing to three helpful cockroaches perched on her finger—a demented nod to Mary Poppins and a perfect encapsulation of Enchanted’s core ethos.
Indeed, in our rush to condemn the early Disney princesses as just “waiting around for a man to rescue them,” we sometimes throw out the glass slipper with the bathwater. As this provocatively titled but incredibly intelligent ScreenPrism video essay convincingly argues, “[Cinderella] isn’t a story about a man stepping in to save a helpless woman, it’s about a woman who faces adversity head-on, who chooses kindness and optimism even when it’s hard, and who uses her own creativity and inner strength to rescue herself.” Though Enchanted offers a brief action climax where Giselle picks up a sword to save Robert (while kicking off her heels no less—take that Jurassic World!), it doesn’t transform her into a quippy badass in order to prove she’s a strong character. Instead, like Cinderella, Enchanted argues there’s inherent strength in kindness, empathy, and compassion—traits traditionally associated with femininity and therefore frequently undervalued.
Enchanted is the rare film that perfectly achieves everything it sets out to be, which leaves us just to quibble about whether its aims were high enough to begin with. One of the big critiques against the Disney princess genre—and against media aimed at women in general—is how often it centers on romance. I’ll admit that’s an aspect of the Disney princess legacy I’m still parsing. Romance was such a normalized part of my media diet from such a young age that it’s almost impossible for me to imagine anything else. And maybe there’s something weird about that. On the other hand, is it any weirder than centering so much kids’ media on violent crime fighters? I genuinely don’t know, but I do think that in the way we understand that kids can watch Batman cartoons without immediately setting out to be vigilantes, it’s equally possible for kids to watch Disney princess films—or romantic comedies in general, for that matter—and not immediately try to emulate every exact plot point in their life.
Growing up, the Disney princess genre gave me a diverse lineup of female protagonists in a whole bunch of different narrative contexts. In 2018, when we’re 20 films into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and not one of them has had a solo female lead, I do think there’s a lot of value in genres like romantic comedies and Disney princess films, which have been proudly putting women front and center for decades (that’s something I wrote about more for Boing Boing). Perhaps the best way to grapple with Disney princesses is just to be cognizant of the context in which they were made, both as a franchise and as individual characters. Once we appreciate how far the Disney princess has come, maybe we can stop praising Disney for finally subverting something it’s actually spent the past 30 years subverting.
Next time: Why are Hallmark Christmas movies so addictive?