The Evolution of disney's princes

April 16, 2016


Illustration by Muhammad Faizan
Illustration by Muhammad Faizan

Quite recently, you read about the modest, charming, beautiful Disney princesses, who fell victim to evil stepmothers, witches or were under a curse, etc., and their second half — ‘the do-nothing’ princes would usually appear at the climax of the story and rescue their beautiful damsels from the clutches of evil without doing much to beat the bad guys.

Thus, in most of these Disney stories, we hardly see gallantry or fighting skills of the princes who usually turn up at the end when much of the struggle has already been done by the princesses, fairies, dwarfs or other animals.

Disney neglected the princes who emerged with the princesses in 1937, but over the next 73 years, these Disney storytellers have gradually tried to change the image of the

“do-nothing princes” into someone really gallant and brave enough to fight evil.

The Prince — Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

The hero, or the prince, in this tale is so insignificant that he doesn’t even have a name! He appears for a brief segment in the beginning of the film to sing a song to a stranger (Snow White) sitting by a well, belting in a fluttery soprano. And of course, it’s love at first sight for them!

But you don’t see the guy much in the rest of the film that is dedicated to Snow White’s interaction with seven short mining men. In the end, he shows up just in time to kiss Snow White out of her coma and be off with her to his castle. What is there to say about the personality of a Disney prince who doesn’t even have a name!

Prince Philip — Sleeping Beauty

It was only in Sleeping Beauty (1959) that the Disney prince gets a name, Prince Phillip. And he also does many things his predecessors didn’t — he gets captured and imprisoned by Maleficent, does deeds of derring-do and talks to his horse. Yes, he also gets some dialogues to mouth this time.

But he still remains a lot like his predecessors — he falls in love at first sight, does a song-and-dance number, and of course the magic kiss.

Prince Phillip is a fuller character but he still remains something less than that because although he gets his own adventures and misadventures, he is still not really the hero of the story.

Just as Snow White had the dwarfs, and Cinderella had the mice, Sleeping Beauty has the Good Fairies. Sure, Prince Phillip is the one falling in love, getting captured and wielding the sword and shield that help him slay the dragon, but his actual heroism is just secondary to theirs. The fairies plot, plan, take action, design ways to save Aurora from the curse. When it looks like all hope is lost, they find the one tool that can save the day: the kiss.

So Phillip is just a tool the Good Fairies use in their battle against Maleficent. He exhibits bravery, love and resilience, but that is not the focus of the story.

Prince Naveen — The Princess and the Frog

In The Princess and the Frog (2009), the Disney storytellers take the Disney Prince concept almost as far as it will go. Prince Naveen is a real prince, but spoiled by his status. And instead of being internally noble and brave as any prince should be, Naveen is grasping and lazy. Here Disney filmmakers present the point that being an actual prince is also not enough, especially if he lacks any of the classic characteristics.

A spoilt brat, Prince Naveen is only interested in getting married to a rich girl, but we see the development of his character as the movie progresses and by the end, he has given up this aspiration, having fallen in love with the frog version of Tiana. He has also given up his vanity, since he elects to remain a frog. He develops a nobility that didn’t come automatically with his station.

The story is as much his as it is Tiana’s, and he has opportunities to be brave without strength, noble without stature, and charming without looks. As with the Beast, his reward for learning how to be worth loving gains him his actual handsome prince form. In a way, it is that journey, not the end-result, that makes him interesting as a character.

Prince Charming — Cinderella

This one at least has a name, ‘Prince Charming’! But is this really a name?

Disney upgraded the role of the Disney Prince in Cinderella (1950). This time the prince has a kingdom, a palace and even a minor quest. He is someone sought after and he has a task to fulfil — even if it is just to find the right sized foot!

The meeting with Cinderella, their dance at the ball, their relationship and his subsequent search for her gives him some role to play in the narrative. So even though still without a proper name, the prince is more of a genuine person who spent some time with Cinderella, was charmed by her and went on a single-minded quest for her.

But overall, the changes to the role are still fairly minor, he still does very little to actually help the Disney heroine because it is the fairy godmother and her animal friends who help her escape from her misery and her evil stepmother and sisters. There is still no heroism on his part.

Prince Eric — The Little Mermaid

Little changed for the Disney Prince over the next 30 years. His next appearance, as Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid (1989), is kind of a role reversal for this time he is the one who is in need of saving. But his character still lacks depth and all he does is gets saved, falls blurrily in love and finally realises what is going on and steers a ship into the villain.

He represents the world of humans that Ariel wants to join but we get to know every little of this world. The good thing is that Eric is actually blessed with a personality, and a realistic one at that. He’s kind and has a wicked sense of humour, but he also has doubts and sorrows. He is also vulnerable in a way no previous version had been. He can be tricked, he can need saving.

So Prince Eric does represent a small development in the concept of the Disney prince.

The Beast/Prince Adam — Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast is a trendsetter as it sees the transformation of a beast into a prince. The hero has a name but not the shiny reputation one expects. In fact, as a human, he was selfish and unkind and as the Beast, he is no better, angry at his cursed state and making the lives of his servants, now delightfully animated objects, miserable. It’s only when he takes Belle as prisoner, who’s not actually a princess, that he begins to see the light.

The first dynamic prince character that Disney produced, the Beast is all very human who learns from his mistakes and becoming compassionate and selfless. Realising that he loves her, the Beast lets Belle go to her father, though she soon returns to warn him of the angry French mob. After a fatal blow from Gaston, leaving the Beast dying in Belle’s arms, Belle saves the prince by admitting her love for him and releasing him from his curse.

In the end, he gets to be a handsome prince again after he’s learned his lesson.

Prince Edward — Enchanted

Prince Edward is the sweet, not so bright prince of Disney’s Enchanted, and the only prince that doesn’t end up with his originally intended princess. He’s handsome and well-dressed, risking everything to come to New York and save Giselle.

But he also has a huge ego and he is not too very clever. However, this prince stereotype still manages to win our hearts and the girl, though not the girl he was looking for.

Aladdin/Prince Ali — Aladdin

Aladdin is not a prince. This is the whole point of the story and the movie. He lies about being a prince, thanks to the genie he commands, just to win the hand of Princess Jasmine. But the princess doesn’t really care about Aladdin not being a prince and cares more about being lied to by him!

Perhaps not being a prince helps Aladdin to be one of Disney’s coolest heroes. He’s a smooth talker, a great singer, roguish, brave and clever. In the end, he accomplishes a lot — he defeats Jafar using his brains rather than brawn, wins Jasmine’s affections, restores the kingdom to the Sultan.

The only real downside to Aladdin is that he’s still not a prince. Aladdin, though brave and handsome, is not very strong and survives with speed and intelligence.

He is Disney’s self-evaluation of the prince-princess genre. He believes that the princess won’t fall in love with him unless he is a prince, so he makes that his first wish when he meets the genie of the lamp. In the end, he returns to his street-urchin identity by choice, and uses cleverness rather than weapons or strength to win the fight against his enemy. With Aladdin, Disney’s male lead, though not a prince, is a fully-realised character, with challenges to overcome and a personal journey to make.

Flynn Rider (a.k.a. Eugene) — Tangled

Disney then came up with Flynn Rider in Tangled (2010). In Flynn, the Disney male romantic lead has now evolved into a rogue. He is completely untrustworthy and selfish. His dream is to live alone on an island, “surrounded by enormous piles of money.”

When we meet him he has just completed a theft and then betrayed his compatriots. He has looks and charm, but unlike Aladdin or earlier princes, he knows they are just tools to him, and the way he deploys them against Rapunzel. He has neither Aladdin’s inner goodness, nor Naveen’s outer position. He is not a hidden prince, or a false prince, as the Beast and Aladdin are. He’s Eugene.

Tangled presents Eugene, in the end, as a worthwhile person for he sacrifices his own life to try to help Rapunzel get free from the witch. That is miles away from merely being a body with magic lips, or even being a sword-wielding dragon slayer.

Published in Dawn, Young World, April 16th, 2015