Where Have All the Princesses Gone?

Ian Bogost has a theory about Every Computer Animated Film Ever that boils down every plot into a universal structure, not too dissimilar from the monomythic Hero’s Journey. I don’t have much to add about the narrative conventions of the genre, other than to seize upon one point Bogost makes in passing and to expand upon it. The hero of nearly every computer animated film ever is, as Bogost puts it, an “anthropomorphized creature protagonist.”

As I commented on Bogost’s post, I’d argue that the “anthropomorphized creature protagonist” is a technical effect of what we might call the platform of CG films: for at least twelve of the last fourteen years (going back to Toy Story in 1995), humans, especially their faces, were simply too difficult to render in CG. So Pixar and Dreamworks had to make do with anthropomorphizing Potato Heads, cars, rats, bugs, fish, and so on.

What I find fascinating about the genre is how the technical limitations of CG transformed the more standard Disney princess story. From the late eighties to mid nineties we had Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, and Mulan. And suddenly, nothing. No more princesses.

The animated princess is a thing of the past.

A final thought: is it a coincindence that post-Toy Story we find the most “othered” princesses: Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998)? Is it a sign of multiculturalism or some sort of reaction to CG, the death rattle of pen and paper animators?

4 thoughts on “Where Have All the Princesses Gone?”

  1. Don’t call it a comeback, but do note that Disney has a new pen-and-paper animated princess movie scheduled to be released this December, The Princess and the Frog.  Apropos of your note on the “othering” of recent Disney princesses, the heroine of this movie will be Disney’s first African-American princess.  Then, next November, Disney is releasing a computer-animated Rapunzel.  Any thoughts on the return of the Disney princess movie?

  2. The easy way out is for me to say that The Princess and the Frog is the exception that proves the rule. But in truth, I think it’s all about marketing and demographics. Even during the princess hiatus of the past decade, Disney has been actively cultivating its “Disney Princess” line of products: sheets, dolls, apparel, etc. with Disney Princesses on them, targeted towards girls. We could look at The Princess and the Frog as one big marketing tie-in to the Disney Princess franchise.

    As for Rapunzel, I think computer technology has finally reached the point where humans can be more believably rendered without descending into the creepiness of the uncanny valley. So, I predict princesses will reemerge in animated films, with 1995-2010 being a kind of Disney Princesses Dark Age.

  3. It’s also worth noting that Disney has princessified almost all of its female lead characters, even the ones who aren’t princesses in the fictions of their stories. In Disney lexicon, both on celluloid and (more importantly) in theme parks, shops, and catalogs, “princess” simply means “girl.”

    1. This is definitely true. Just yesterday my 5-year-old son saw a poster of Minnie Mouse in some store window and he asked if she was “the princess” of Disney World. I’ve also noticed that Disney is marketing all of its male characters — from the questionably androgynous Peter Pan to the supremely manly Tarzan — in a “Heroes” line of products.

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