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How ‘Moana’ Finally Settled The Disney Princess Debate

disney princess

Disney’s Moana was a fantastic animated musical, and one of the main reasons why has to do with its handling of the female protagonist, Moana herself.

The animation studio was essentially founded on the cornerstone of the “princess” being a driving force of fairy tale movies, which eventually evolved into increasingly more diverse types of stories. Specifically, Snow White laid the groundwork as one of the best films of all time (animated or otherwise), as well Disney’s first feature film. And they later built upon this with Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty as smart ways to repeat Snow White‘s massive success.

This ended up being a saving grace for Disney after multiple near-catastrophes with bad box office, animator strikes, and so on, though Walt still believed in experimenting with non-princess movies like Peter PanPinocchioDumbo, and of course, Mary Poppins.

Long after his death in 1966, the Disney Princess transformed from an idea to an actual media franchise worth an insane amount of money and indicative of Disney’s influence over generations of children. In the early 2000s, it became an official thing, combining the classic Disney princesses of the old days with recent heroines of the 90s renaissance. And the criteria, at the time, was confusing to say the least.

disney princess

Obviously, Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora were “inducted” into the official Disney Princess brand. Joining them was Ariel from The Little Mermaid, another obvious choice though different in the sense that she’s royalty of an underwater culture. Then Belle from Beauty and the Beast, who doesn’t technically become a princess until the very end of the movie.

Jasmine from Aladdin was another obvious choice, though striking because she was the first Disney princess to be nonwhite, and she’s more of a supporting character than a lead protagonist. Jasmine was followed up by two consecutive nonwhite Disney princesses, though: Pocahontas and Mulan. Though Tinker Bell from Peter Pan was technically a Disney Princess for a short time before getting replaced by Tiana and becoming a home video sensation.

They didn’t include Nala or Kiara from Lion King, which seems to be because animals simply don’t qualify. Same goes for Esmerelda from Hunchback of Notre Dame because she’s technically a gypsy, Megara from Hercules, and Jane from Tarzan. The first “modern” princess was Tiana from Princess and the Frog, then Rapunzel from Tangled was added as the first CG character. And the last Disney Princess in the official sense is Merida from Brave, a Pixar movie rather than a Walt Disney Animation one.

disney princess

These are the “official” Disney princesses, but that hasn’t stopped many other fans from considering the wider breadth of characters to fit the bill. Simply because the criteria isn’t always consistent (like with Tinker Bell and Mulan not being royalty). Eventually, Anna from Frozen will be added along with Moana, but no one really believes their status as princesses is held back until Disney slaps their own label on it and has their clique running around Disney World.

A lot of this might sound a bit silly and inconsequential, but there are actually heated debates held by…some…who argue over which Disney female characters are “allowed” to be called Disney princesses. And this is a big deal, in part, because countless kids look to the mainstream Disney princesses as a representation of themselves in these movies. Parents want their kids to have positive role models, and the Disney princesses, like it or not, are a major cultural force in that regard.

The more recent Disney princess from CG animated films definitely fit the more literal interpretation of what’s become such a pervasive line of business for these animated films. But Moana subtly settles this debate, I believe, once and for all. It points out that the semantics don’t matter, really, as Disney seems intent on including future princesses as it sees fit.

moana

The pivotal line between Maui and Moana is what specifically points this out. Maui tells Moana she is a “princess,” but she denies this because she’s actually the daughter of a Chief (the literal view). But Maui banters back with self-awareness on the writers’ part:

“If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, then you’re a princess.” 

What he really seems to be saying here is that it doesn’t really matter. What makes these characters “princesses” has very little to do with royal bloodlines and more with the tropes that Disney infuses in its protagonists and supporting characters. A dress and an animal sidekick are incredibly broad. so Disney can in effect say from here on out that there’s no reason to overthink this merchandising franchise they’re so clearly benefiting from.

And that’s fine because it allows Disney to incorporate as many different cultures, hair colors, and clothing styles as they can with their princess characters, but not at the expense of the story making sense. Or worse, always falling back on traditional princess tales instead of doing something as “culturealistic” as Moana and Mulan.

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Moving forward, I like to think that this line by Maui was allowed in the movie because they’re acknowledging how limiting it is to hold back the Disney Princess inclusivity for the sake of being so literal. It’s not relevant how these characters look on a family tree, but rather that they’re interesting characters who follow a consistent aesthetic and type of storytelling that’s proven incredibly successful for Disney since the 30s. Maybe one day, it won’t even be questioned whether or not a Disney princess is one because she wears a dress, especially if you consider the fact that they included Merida, a princess who is usually shown with her bow and arrow rather than a bucket of glitter.

But one thing’s for certain. The best Disney princess is obviously Lilo.


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Review: ‘Moana’ Is Disney’s Best Movie In Decades

Moana is a triumphant return to form for Disney that improves upon just about everything the studio has set up through both its recent surge of Pixar-esque entertainment, as well as the musical favorites of recent years. It’s a highlight that owes much of its existence to the success of TangledWreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, though perhaps even more directly to the 90s classics younger critics like myself grew up with. Make no mistake, though, Moana is its own quirky, beautiful masterwork.

You can watch the full review above or read a transcription published here.

Grade: A+

Extra Credits:

  • The movie stars Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne Johnson as Maui. It was directed and co-written by Ron Clements, co-directed by Don Hall, John Musker, and Chris Williams, and the screenplay is by Jared Bush.
  • Ron Clements and John Musker sound familiar? They made The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Hercules, among some other hand-drawn Disney films. This is their first feature-length computer-animated movie.
  • Original songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa’i, and Mark Mancina.
  • If Moana wins an Oscar for its music, then Miranda will be the third person ever to achieve a PEGOT (Pulitzer, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony).
  •  Moana is the first Disney princess not based on an existing fairy tale or legend, unless you count Merida from Brave as a Disney princess.
  • I didn’t cover this in the review, but Cravalho (who voices Moana) is an incredible talent for such a young age. At 14, she’s the youngest Disney Princess voice ever.
  • “Moana” means “ocean or sea” in Polynesian culture, and it’s a common word for “blue.”
  • Alan Tudyk voices the animal sidekick in this film, which is notable because this is the fifth consecutive animated Disney movie he’s worked in, starting with Wreck-It Ralph.
  • Easter eggs: The only one I managed to catch is Maui transforming into Sven, from Frozen. Also, Moana is referenced in Zootopia as a DVD called “Meona.”

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The Zootopia Episode

zootopia review

This week on the Now Conspiring podcast, we review Zootopia and chat about our favorite modern Disney movies. We also dish on the new Ghostbusters trailer, the new Finding Dory trailer, and how film critics get a bad rap.

QUESTION OF THE WEEK: What is the best recent Disney movie (starting with Meet the Robinsons)?

Go on…The Zootopia Episode

Indisputable Proof That ‘Frozen’ And ‘Tangled’ Exist In The Same Universe

I say “indisputable,” but what I really mean is “really difficult to disprove because the evidence is compelling” (and who has time for that long of a headline?)

Frozen and Tangled are two animated Disney films that exist in the post-Disney Renaissance slew of films that ended with The Princess & The Frog. They are among the first high-profile Disney films, aside from Pixar, to use computer animation as a means to retelling classic “fairy tale” stories.

tangled frozen
Fan art – Colby Entertainment

Tangled, which premiered in 2010, features the story of Rapunzel. The movie was a huge success, mostly because it brought a new kind of enjoyable movie experience to both children and adults akin to the Disney Renaissance films of the 1990s.

As you may recall, the films between The Little Mermaid (you can also count The Brave Little Toaster) and Treasure Planet were animated films that took old classic icons and modernized them for a new audience.

tangled frozen
The “Disney Renaissance” films according to The Norman Nerd.

Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King (which modernized Hamlet), Pocahontas, Hercules, Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, Tarzan, Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis and Treasure Planet all featured established stories with cutting-edge animation.

Then Lilo & Stitch happened—a Disney film that while successful, signaled a departure from the old format. Disney was going for original stories.

tangled frozen
Meet The Robinson’s

For the next few years, Disney would continue experimenting with both CGI and 2D animation, but they would only cover new stories (probably due to the success of Pixar’s original stories).

Valiant, The Wild, Home on the Range, Meet the Robinson’s and Bolt were mitigated successes that ended up being mere shadows of how captivating Disney movies really could be.

Tangled frozen
The Princess & The Frog

This culminated with the release of The Princess and the Frog, an obvious attempt at cashing in on the old formula (revitalizing an old story).The movie was well-received, but it still didn’t have the cultural impact that Disney was looking for—and they knew this a mile away.

That’s why in 2010, Disney threw a hail mary with Tangled, the first post-renaissance film to combine both strategies of the previous generations: computer animation and established storytelling.

tangled frozen

Tangled wasn’t an immediate hit culturally, but it would eventually become a mainstream staple upon DVD releases and the onslaught of meme-generation online. It was a good first start.

But Disney didn’t figure out why Tangled worked before they would make a colossal mistake in 2011, which saw the release of Mars Needs Moms—one of the biggest box office disasters in movie history.

That same year was also when they brought back Winnie the Pooh and figured out that 2D animation just wouldn’t cut it anymore—not because it doesn’t look amazing, but because the tastes of the new generation have changed.

tangled frozen
Wreck-It Ralph

Disney’s next experiment would come in 2012 with the release of Wreck-It-Ralph, an odd case study about a movie where video games come to life. The makers of the film clearly wanted to find a new groove for these movies without having to rip off old properties by featuring…well old properties from video games.

Wreck-It Ralph drew in viewers because it was a fantastic homage to dozens of iconic video game characters, even though it featured an original story and computer animation.

So, does Wreck-It Ralph exist in the same universe as Tangled and Frozen? Well, there’s actually more evidence that they take place in the same universe as The Fairly OddParents

tangled frozen
The Fairly OddParents

Hold on, let’s zoom in a little bit:

tangled frozen

Of course, it’s probably too good to be true.

By 2013, Disney had figured out that original stories coming out under their umbrella need to have something familiar for audiences to grab on to in order to gain momentum in the box office.

And then everything changed when Frozen came along.

tangled frozen
Frozen

One of the most successful animated films of all time (especially our time), Frozen finally got the Disney recipe right. Based on The Snow Queen, the movie was a familiar, but fresh take on a classic fairy tale.

Of course, it was still successful without having to be instantly familiar to children. Thanks to a viral soundtrack, fun storytelling and memorable characters, Frozen has essentially marked the beginning of a new era of Disney movies, and what is a Disney movie without some universe sharing?

Yes, Tangled and Frozen exist in the same universe for plenty of reasons, but the most important being that the two movies are of a significant recipe that is uniquely different from every other Disney film. Also, I have evidence:

tangled frozen

See that couple in the bottom-left corner of the image? That’s Flynn and Rapunzel (after her hair changes color and length) from Tangled showing up to Elsa’s coronation in Frozen.

It’s clear that the animation style is seamless enough for these characters to show up in the movie without looking out of place, and you can even see that their wardrobe has subtly shifted.

Another persistent theory you may buy into was proposed by this redditor who claims that Flynn and Rapunzel were at the coronation because Elsa and Anna’s parents died while traveling to their wedding 3 years before the events of Frozen.

He also claims that Flynn actually refers to Arendelle as “being nice this time of year,” but I’ve yet to find the actual clip of him saying that in Tangled or Tangled Ever After.

tangled frozen
Corona

Another interesting piece of evidence is how similar the settings are conceptually. Tangled is loosely based on the fairy tale about Rapunzel, which takes place in Germany. In the movie, however, their adventures take place in the fictional kingdom of Corona, rather than any real settings.

tangled frozen
Arendelle

In similar fashion, Frozen is based on a Norwegian tale, but it takes place in the fictional kingdom of Arendelle. The idea here is that Disney is trying to build new fictional kingdoms to go along with their adaptations, so you can expect to see more of this in future Disney CGI films.

Going forward, 2014’s big animated movie is Big Hero 6, which is an animated adaptation more similar to Wreck-It-Ralph than Tangled and Frozen due to its ties with “geek” culture (the movie is based on a graphic novel and features fighting robots).

tangled frozen

2015 will be even stranger, with the release of The Descendants, a Disney Channel Original Movie that calls back to the 90s era with the offspring of the protagonists from those films. If you needed more evidence that the Disney Renaissance movies shared a universe, then that should settle the discussion.

Other than that, however, there are no announced projects on the horizon that will continue the post-renaissance film sharing that has begun with Tangled and Frozen…for now.

[UPDATE]

Some clever commenters pointed out that The Little Mermaid may exist within this universe as well. The theory (which has now been propagated by Tumblr users and promoted by Buzzfeed) is that the sunken ship in The Little Mermaid is the same one that Elsa and Anna’s parents died on when it was lost at sea.

One piece of evidence has to do with the location of each movie. Tangled takes place in Germany, Frozen takes place in Norway and The Little Mermaid takes place in Denmark. In order for Elsa’s parents to travel from Norway to Germany via boat, they would have passed by Denmark. See below:

tangled frozen

I have to admit that this definitely solid evidence (and kudos to you readers who pointed it out in the comments, including my roommate who pointed out the same thing). Of course, the biggest piece of evidence is the fact that both The Little Mermaid and Frozen are based on fairy tales written by the same person: Hans Christian Andersen.

If this is all true, then that would mean Frozen and Tangled exist within the same universe as the Disney Renaissance films, albeit with some new twists to their conceptual design and settings.

Another update: a lot of people like to argue that this is somehow connected to Tarzan and/or Beauty and the Beast. Guys, it’s not. It’s just not.


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Review: ‘Frozen’

Disney is a strange company, but in the best way possible. They’re bold enough to buy the Marvel franchise, hire Pixar’s mastermind as their creative director of pretty much everything at this point, and continue crafting movies that stay true to the Disney tradition, at least by most loose definitions of the term.

By this tradition, I mean the continuation of the Disney princess phenomenon, including its most recent renaissance (as they say) of the classic Disney Princess movies reinvented to capture the cutting edge animation that reached new heights in the late 80s with The Little Mermaid, only to reach full form thanks to breakout 90s hits like Beauty and the BeastAladdin, and Mulan.

frozen
The rise of Pixar brought on a new age, however, with the onslaught of yet another renaissance in animation — one that rendered any other offering by Disney (ironically) obsolete.

Pixar was their critical and family-driven darling, and the mouse studio didn’t really have the creative direction to answer this problem for quite a while, even when DreamWorks came into its own with the introduction of Shrek and those frankly despicable minions.

This is all to say that Disney plays the long game when necessary. After the tempered success of Princess and the Frog in 2009 and Tangled a year later, it became more than clear to me and others that Lassetter’s Disney was on a true comeback, beginning with Bolt and carrying on today to Frozen.

You see, Disney has been experimenting over the past few years with what I call the “Disney-Pixar-Dreamworks” trilogy. They’ve taken the strongest elements of each animation studio and developed full-fledged Disney movies with them.

One might argue that this all started with Meet The Robinsons or the aforementioned Bolt, but these movies were mere precursors to what Disney would ultimately settle on creatively. No, this all started with Tangled, a new take on a classic Disney character named Rapunzel.

The checklist is simple:

1. Does the movie have a Disney Princess and/or fantasy setting?

2. Are the animation and storytelling in sync, as it is with Pixar?

3. Does it contain lovable side characters that shape the marketing campaign akin to Dreamworks?

This list is a complete yes to the “trilogy” that is Tangled, Wreck It Ralph, and Frozen. And it shows in how Frozen in its most basic components is a mixture of several movies and concepts: It has the character relationships of Shrek, the plucky female from Tangled, and the Broadway musical effort of Wicked (complete with the plot of two sisters at odds with each other).

This is no complaint, as Frozen manages to also maintain its own originality and charm between the pages, mostly thanks to the ambitious retelling of The Snow Queen (though the similarities between stories is slim at best), a story that isn’t told often enough complicated by Disney’s best soundtrack in years, perhaps since Mulan or Lilo and Stitch if you’re an Elvis fan.

 

frozen

The Snow Queen is an old Danish fairytale most audiences have never heard of, centering around two sisters who happen to be princesses living in a kingdom Disney has deemed Arendelle. The oldest sister, Elsa, has magic powers of no explanation: she can turn anything into snow or ice for reasons the audience is never clued in on, thankfully. As she grows older, her powers become harder to control, and for reasons I won’t spoil, she shuns her doting sister, Anna, for the majority of their childhood.

The opening sequence to Frozen is clearly gunning for the same emotional beats of Up and its first eight minutes, offering a lively, albeit sad look at the broken relationship between these two girls. You don’t have to be a sister or have one to feel the cloying sentiment in this number, aptly called Do You Want to Build a Snowman?

frozen

After an unfortunate incident, Elsa unintentionally curses the kingdom with an eternal winter (even though it’s summer), covering the land in snow and paranormal snow creatures. She runs away in order to isolate herself and is pursued by Anna and some of her new friends, a group of misfit characters to put it kindly.

Plot-wise, the story is strong and well-written, focusing more on its comedic timing than anything all that dramatic, but the music seems to be the tool that delivers the film’s most poignant moments, including some key lessons meant to empower young girls, including a twist on the romantic love story that is sure to delight parents.

The characters, for the most part, are likable and effortless in their inclusion as this is Anna and Elsa’s story.  When we are introduced to Kristoff and his reindeer Sven, who have a friendship reminiscent of Han Solo and Chewbacca, the movie succeeds at making them a worthwhile addition without distracting from the main plot. Even Olaf, who should have been annoying in hindsight, provided the levity and fun required of him in a film that could otherwise be deemed dark and heavy-handed.

frozen

The only complaint worth lodging at Frozen in my view is the ending, as it goes with many animated movies of recent years. It’s not terrible in any sense, but it is a slight let down in how the film builds and executes, aside from a minor twist on the material involving the impact of the two sisters and their relationship. For every other character, there’s little for them to do by the final minutes.

Other than that, Frozen is a fantastic installment in the Disney archives, providing a new and fun adventure that children and nostalgic young adults like myself will enjoy thoroughly.

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