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The Disney Princesses & What Makes Them Extra Special

Some of Disney’s leading ladies are in fact princesses, while others are not royals, per se, but are officially considered Disney Princesses nevertheless. Then there are some, who are of a princess status, but are not counted amongst those typically thought of as “official” Disney Princesses. Princess Leia from Star Wars is a perfect example, as are several others, like the lesser-popularized Princess Eilonwy from Disney’s The Black Cauldron (1985). There are also those who debuted on television rather than the big screen, like Princess Sofia from Sofia the First and Elena from Elena of Avalor. Then let’s not forget about animal nobility as seen in The Lion King, A Bug’s Life, Robin Hood, and many others. All the same, when we generally think of “the Disney Princesses” several key players come to mind instantly. Here’s our in-depth look at Disney’s “official” Princesses in order of their debut, along with what makes each one extra special.

 

13. Snow White

Snow White made her big screen debut in 1937 in what was Disney’s first full-length feature film—Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. An animated milestone and accomplishment on many accounts, Snow White’s story drew inspiration from the old German story Schneewittchen, which was later collected into a compilation by the Grimm Brothers. By all official accounts, the title protagonist is in fact an actual princess, as her birth parents were king and queen. And as far as Snow White herself goes, in the way of special qualities, she possesses many. In fact, she’s really the one who set the very precedent for all Disney Princesses, which still exists even today—of their being kindhearted, likeable, and of humbling natures, rather than appearing snobby or vain, as is the traditional portrayal of beautiful females of nobility outside of Disney. Another interesting side note about Snow White is the fact that she is only 14 years old! This makes her both the oldest and the youngest of all Disney Princesses—oldest given she was the very first, youngest by actual age at the time her story takes place.

Credit: Disney

12. Cinderella

The Cinderella story has been told time and again, in countless different formats and versions, and across many different regions around the world. But the Walt Disney Company released its animated feature-length film of the classic story, back in 1950, adapted largely from the beloved French presentation. There is a lot to be said about the title character and her many attributes. First, she displays the same kindhearted nature first epitomized by Snow White over a decade earlier. Both heroines are so genteel that they even appear to have a companionship with animals in nature. Cinderella’s abilities to confer with everything, from mice to birds can even loosely be attributed to a special gift or talent, to say the least. Cinderella is a hardworking, diligent role model in just about every way, and while she longs for something more, she remains humble through all of life’s plights and problems. And in living up to the standard of humility, it should also be noted that Cinderella was the first official Disney Princess who was not actually born into nobility, but rather married into it. She carried this claim to fame for several decades prior to the 1990s.

Aurora

11. Aurora

Disney’s 1959 animated film adaptation of Sleeping Beauty was loosely inspired by the French retelling of an earlier, darker, Italian tale that follows the same general storyline. Princess Aurora (alternately known as Briar Rose) is arguably the least proactive of all Disney Princesses. She has far less spoken lines than any other to date and does spend a good portion of her screen time in a comatose state of being, to say the least. All the same, she possesses many unique qualities that define her as a one-of-a-kind original. Despite being born into regality, for most of her life she was raised by three fairies living in the forest rather than having grown up in the confines of a castle. As is the case with the other two predecessor princesses before her, these conditions helped to foster a sense of humility and sweetness into her overall persona. While both Snow White’s boreal living arrangements with seven dwarfs and Cinderella’s simple countryside dwellings with animals as her primary companions also represent deviant living conditions, Aurora’s unique upbringing was the first to be under the guidance of magical beings.

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Prince Eric and Ariel

10. Ariel

Ariel swam onto the scene three decades after Aurora with Disney’s1989 animated feature film release of The Little Mermaid. Based on the classic Danish fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen, Disney’s modifications to the original storyline make their version a far happier one. All the same, as Disney’s next heroine, Ariel redefines several key standards for what an official Disney Princess is and how she is supposed behave. She also serves as the precursor for more diverse trends that have since emerged and continue even to this day. For starters, let’s examine Ariel’s life and upbringing. The fact that she grew up in a palace and is the daughter of King Triton may not seem so “fishy” in regards to her being a princess. But the fact that she is part fish earns her the claim to fame as being the first ever non-human “official” Disney Princess. What’s more, Ariel is admittedly far more willful than her previous, more compliant princess predecessors. She is the first one we get to see actively disobey a parent on screen and “stand” her ground—an ironic use of the term. When all is said and done, it was Ariel who set new precedents of originality and uniqueness for Disney Princesses going forward.

Belle and Child

9. Belle

With the release of Beauty and the Beast a few years later in 1991 we were introduced to Belle—the fifth “official” Disney Princess and the second one to emerge from humble, more common birth origins. Another example in which Disney adapted an upbeat, revised storyline taken from a much darker original tale, the basic love arc between a beautiful girl and a beast remains the same in the retelling, along with the fact that it is set in France. In fact, Belle was the very first of all the Disney Princesses to be designated an actual nationality, in which her country of origin is stated my name in the film. With all others before her there were only loose references alluding to regional lands without any actually being specified. But Belle’s novel firsts don’t end there. While she retains a ladylikeness, feminine charm, and even exudes qualities of domesticity, she is by no means the typical female of the day. In fact, she is constantly ostracized for being the town oddball, choosing to enrich her mind with books at a time and place when doing so was frowned upon by society. So while many would typically view a princess figure as being with the “in crowd,” Belle was one of the very first to break with such ideals and set a new concept into place, challenging tradition and demonstrating firsthand that being different and not fitting in can be a very good thing.

Jasmine

8. Jasmine

Up until the1992 release of the animated film Aladdin, all the official Disney Princesses had been the protagonists of their stories. This changed when Princess Jasmine came on the scene. In one of the most significant breaks with all previous official Disney Princesses before, Jasmine is really the love interest of the title character in this movie, though arguably more popular with audiences. She also represents the very first Disney Princess to not be of Caucasian descent. As the independent, headstrong daughter of the Sultan, Jasmine’s demeanor is part Ariel and Belle in several respects. Like Ariel, she knows her mind and what she wants out of love, and even sneaks out disguised as someone else to experience a different lease on life. Like Belle, she is knowledgeable, free-thinking, and lovingly committed to and devoted to her father. Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, she does not let society norms and traditions dictate to her who she should marry.

Pocahontas
Photo Credit: Disney

7. Pocahontas

With the release of this animated film from1995 came Disney’s first presentation of a princess of American origins, in the truest sense. As the daughter of the Powhatan Chief, the title character of the film keeps to the more common (though not exclusive) theme of having been born into some form of elite standing, but still breaks from traditional Disney Princess standards on several accounts. And we’re not just talking about the fact that she’s the first one to ever sport a tattoo, (which some parents have trouble turning a blind eye to). We could name countless distinguishing traits in Pocahontas as character as well as her unique story, which in itself is worth noting as being the very first Disney animated Princess feature that draws inspiration from a true (though fictionalized) historical account rather than a retelling of a classic fairytale. But one of the most notable facts people like to take note of is that she is the first Disney Princess that doesn’t end up with her original love interest in a happily ever after scenario.

6. Mulan

The establishment of so many new Disney Princesses in such a short span of time throughout the1990s is perhaps what initially jumpstarted the trend toward more diverse female heroines in Disney films going forward. And in continuation with deviating from previously established norms, Disney revealed their most diverse protagonist, up until that point, with the 1998 release of Mulan. Taken from an old Chinese legend, the unique storyline and dilemma here work in tandem with the titular protagonist’s already established insecurities to fit into society norms. Unlike Ariel, whose disobedience is of a more willful and self-serving nature, Mulan’s disobedience to her family is done out of love and protection, despite the cost of shame and dishonor. And while we’ve had glimpses in previous films of Disney heroines disguising themselves (like Princess Jasmine), Mulan takes the boldest move of all by imitating a man and joining up to fight invaders to her homeland. And while Mulan is not the first officially pegged Disney Princess to be not born into nobility, she is in fact the very first and only one to not achieve royal standing through marriage.

5. Tiana

Disney Princesses were to be in short supply for more than a decade following Mulan’s incorporation. But that all changed when Tiana came onto the scene in 2009, reviving a brand new interest in Disney Princesses in general, which has continued since. Tiana is the main protagonist from Disney’s The Princess of the Frog, a film that presents many notable Disney firsts. Unlike so many other Disney Princess movies before, The Princess and the Frog is not an exact retelling of a preexisting classic fairytale, though it does draw inspiration from the Grimm Brother’s The Frog Prince story. That fairytale is even referenced in the movie, as a childhood story Tiana knows well. All the same, this drives home the fact that they are entirely different themes, as does a most unique plot twist, which leads to a reversal in the idea of transforming a frog into a hansom prince by a kiss. The movie also represents the first time Disney has deviated from the timeline, setting, and cultural background posed in its originally inspired tale. The Princess and the Frog is set during the 1920s in New Orleans, U.S.A. and features an African American female in the titular role. Being the only Disney Princess from the (not so distant) 20th century makes Tiana the most modern and arguably most relatable one of all. And as is the case with a handful of others, her status as a royal is achieved through marriage rather than birth, making her an easy-to-relate to everyday girl with hopes, dreams, and ambitions, crown aside.

Rapunzel

4. Rapunzel

Disney unveiled its next princess a year later in 2010 with the release of Tangled. For this film, Disney once again defaulted to the idea of revisiting a classic fairytale widely known around the globe and re-recorded by the Grimm Brothers. In this case, the story is Rapunzel. Like other adaptations by Disney, Tangled spins a much more family-friendly tale, though all the key elements to the original story are preserved, including the plot about a baby being abducted and raised by a witch in isolation in a tower, not to mention the biggest detail of all—the massively long and ornate blond hair! For Tangled, Disney added a background story to how Rapunzel’s hair came to be, along with the concept that it actually possesses magical healing qualities. So while many other Disney Princesses before have been touched by magical enchantments in one way or another, Rapunzel stands out as the very first of her kind to actually possess magical abilities of sorts. Another first Rapunzel touts among Disney Princesses is that she was the very first one to be computer animated rather than hand-drawn in traditional format. While not immediately aware of her background origins, Rapunzel is another Disney Princess who was born into nobility.

Merida

3. Merida

While Disney had already bought Pixar several years prior, it wasn’t until the year 2012 that we got our very first (and so far only) Disney·Pixar Princess in Merida. As the leading female heroine of the computer-animated movie Brave, Merida is revolutionary for her uniqueness among Disney Princesses in myriad ways, in addition to the aforementioned fact that Brave is a Disney·Pixar collaboration. We’ll grant that having been born into nobility as the daughter of the king and queen is nothing new, but the seemingly unending ways in which Merida breaks from her other princess-laden traditions are to be noticed. She is somewhat of a tomboy—preferring the great outdoors and perfecting her “unladylike” skills at archery to holding court in a formal palace with garnished garments and all the other pomp that comes with it. And while we’ve seen daughters behave willfully to some extent or another with their fathers, Merida tends to butt heads with her mother in a territory not previously explored in depth. In fact, this is what initially drives the plot, which leads to the acknowledgment of another first for Disney—an entirely original storyline with absolutely no basis taken from any preexisting themes or inspirations. Lastly, Merida joins the handful of other Disney Princess tradition breakers in that she remains single throughout the film, without a viable love interest.

Anna and Elsa

2. Elsa and Anna

Believe it or not, most Disney sources do not credit these dual protagonists, who first made their screen debut in the 2013 computer-animated film Frozen, as being “official” Disney Princesses. Surprised? We were, so much so, that we couldn’t just not acknowledge them. They are, after all, undeniably princesses—having been born to the king and queen, with Elsa later assuming the thrown as queen. One thing that makes Frozen stand out from other Disney Princess films is the fact that rather than featuring just one protagonist, here you have two—sisters Elsa and Anna. Another interesting upheaval to tradition is the fact that one sister possesses magical abilities—the second time we’ve seen such a situation involving a Disney Princess. This creates a lot of personal struggles for Elsa and makes her both estranged and aloof to the world and most importantly her sister, whom she longs to protect. Despite the fact that Anna, the younger sister, is the more traditional of the two in the way of Disney Princesses (she’s the one without powers and has a love interest(s)), she too has a lot to overcome with personal struggles and feeling a sense of isolation—in this case being shut out by her own sister, whom she loves dearly. The story for Frozen does have loosely based plot elements taken from Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Ice Queen, but remains its own unique collaboration.

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1. Moana

Moana is the newest addition to join the ranks of “official” Disney Princesses as the title protagonist of the 2016 computer-animated film Moana. Being the daughter of the village chief, who leads the people of a small island in the South Pacific, does give Moana a “higher up” standing as far as regal status is concerned. And it is repeated throughout the movie that her family’s responsibilities will one day be hers to oversee. But that’s not the main thing that makes Moana special; it’s the idea that the ocean is “calling” to her to fulfill some great destiny. We see this even in clips where she is a fearless, tiny tyke. Being “chosen” to do something great from a higher power, to save her island and her people (not to mention right a wrong and restore the heart of a god) certainly garners a sense of one being “special” and unique—there’s no denying that. On another nonconforming side note, Moana’s story follows the same path in originality first paved in Brave; there were no preexisting stories or inspirations the film was based off of. Moana is also the latest example of Disney Princesses to not have a love interest of any kind.

Each and every Disney Princess is unique in her own special way. But despite their obvious differences, all share commendable commonalities in morale and stand strong as spirited role models any girl would be proud to follow. And with new Disney Princesses forever emerging, we predict many more will be gracing our presence in the coming years. 

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