01 March 2011

What if Disney Replaced Its Princesses?

My all time favorite Disney animated film is Mulan. It is also my all time favorite film. While there are other movies out there that are funnier, or more technically accomplished or even more heartrending (and I can think of an example of each in the medium of animation), Mulan was a film that connected with me emotionally in a way no other film had before.

And while it is a strange hybrid of musical and war movie, gender inquiry and slapstick comedy, bildungsroman and buddy movie, and strangely bloodless it is more importantly, the last Disney film to come out before the creation of The Disney Princess marketing scheme.

Mulan came out in 1998 and Andy Mooney invented the marketing concept of Disney Princesses in 1999. Mulan, the character, is one of the "official" Disney Princesses, though she is neither to the manor born nor married to a prince. Perhaps because of this she is not marketed in the same manner as the other princesses. She is often not included in images of the Disney Princesses. Mulan items like dolls, lunch boxes, and t-shirts are hard, if not impossible to come by (trust me I know).
She seems to exist in a barely recognized no-mans (no-princess?) land.

In this she is similar to another female Disney character, Lilo, whose film (Lilo and Stitch) was written and directed by the head writers of Mulan. Stitch merchandise is available all over the place, but Lilo merchandise dried up soon after the release of the film. But I digress.

I've been thinking about this a lot, especially since the release of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter," a book that examines Disney's Princess marketing that targets girls as young as two. Princesses are fascinating characters. They have all sorts of advantages (beauty, kindness, grace, magical protectors, wealth, proximity to the halls of state power, and Disney ones are loaded up with spunk) and yet they are victims. Victims of spells, kidnapping, witches, poison, and occasionally less princess-y problems like wolves, near drowning, and bad parents. This inherent tension drives many princess stories, though the continual victimhood of princesses is problematic if it is the sole presentational of womanhood available to girls.

(For instance I myself played "princess" dress-up as a preschooler, but my best friend and I also played a dress up game in which we were nuns hiding from the CIA. No, I have no idea where that came from.)

Critiquing the Disney Princesses and Disney's massive marketing machine is easy though. Instead, let's imagine that Andy Mooney had never made his way to Disney from Nike marketing. And let's imagine that instead of making $304,320,254, which is what Mulan made, that it made $783,841,776, which is what The Lion King, the highest grossing American made traditional cell animated movie, made. (Yes, that IS a lot of qualifiers.) Suddenly the future of Disney animated films looks different.

No longer are we living in a pink pink pink Disney Princess world, but the multi-color, multi-cultural world of Disney Warriors.

And what would that film list look like?

To apologize for Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney produces a film version of the story of Joan of Arc. Because it's a kids movie it ends after Joan leads her army into Saint-Pierre-le-Moƻtier, rousts the English and is granted nobility. Critics complain that it doesn't include her capture, trial or death, until a New Yorker reviewer points out that ending a film with a wedding is just as ridiculous.

Realizing that chicks with armor and apologies work in their favor, Disney does a three for one with it's next film, apologizing to the Brits for Joan of Arc AND apologizing to the Brits for The Black Cauldron. This time they take the legendary story of Boadicea, and much like they did in my not fantasy world with Hercules, twist it into kid friendly fare. This Finding Nemo-like story follows a desperate mother and her kidnapped daughters who will be forced into marriage with the evil Roman warlord. A huge hit with ex-colonies everywhere, it creates an important dialogue on what motherhood means and how many ways a woman can be a mother.

On a roll, Disney decides to throw a bone to the boys, and create the most subversive Western to boot. (Think of this one as the anti-Pocahontas, anti-Brother Bear film) The story of Daheste, an Apache woman warrior who fought alongside Geronimo, is re-imagined from her childhood when she learns English from a pioneer boy. He grows up to join the cavalry, and during peace times she works with the US military as a scout and translator. But in the end she remains tru to her people. The end of the film, when Daheste is hauled off in chains to Florida while her childhood friend watches was derided as both too dark for children and "anti-American." Disney marketing takes the stance that stories of struggle and complex moral choices ARE American stories, and besides, if you'd stayed until after the credits, you would have seen the scene where Daheste finally returns to Arizona as an old woman and her train is met by her childhood friend. It's not a huge financial success, but Disney finally wins the Academy Award for Best Picture.

High on their Boudica success (remember, these films are in production forever) Disney greenlit, not Tarzan, but another tale of colonial Africa. Taking the real life female Dahoney warriors (who numbered as much as 1/3 of the army) and their battle with a neighboring country during the 1700s. Critics praise Disney for finally creating a film about black characters. And Dahoney warrior woman imagery because prominent in rap videos. Some conservative critics decry the increase of female on male violence in inner city schools, as the fault of the film, but as the handful of cases they latch on to are actually all self defense, they eventually have to shut up because they look like idiots. Krav-maga and karate classes around the country report 1000% increases in female enrollment.

Disney then proceeds to "mix-it up" with some animal stories, and a few folk tale retellings. Even in this world they misstep with "Dinosaurs." Some wonder how they are going to keep feeding the massive marketing machine that has sprung up around their Women Warriors. Other studios begin to fill the gap: there's a live action film about Gertrude Bell, the female Lawrence of Arabia, and Dreamworks makes a follow up to Prince of Egypt about Judith, the Jewish woman, who when her people are under siege, cuts off the head of the general Holofernes while he sleeps in her tent. A stop motion version of Talking With Dragons is directed by Henry Selick for Tim Burton's stop motion studio (my world, okay?). Disney's sci-fi update of "The Secret Garden" (instead of Treasure Island) is beloved by a few, but mostly confuses audiences. But don't count Disney out.

After years of production they release the animated epic to end all animated epics. It receives a PG-13 rating and Disney laughs it off, claiming they were sure it would get an R. The film is retelling of the story of Rani Lakshmi Bai and The Indian Mutiny of 1857. Sumptuous water color backgrounds, Bollywood style animated songs and choreography, intense battle scenes involving hundreds of charachters, an entirely new digital animation of smoke, and touching love scenes between the rebel leader and the widowed Lakshmi. Lakshmi is voiced by Parmindar Nagra from Bend It Like Beckham and she is the FIRST actress to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for an animated role. She doesn't win, and everyone swears she was robbed. Disney smartly markets the story of the Mutiny as a companion to the story of the American Revolution, and hints that is when their next movie will be set. Gene Siskel compares it favorably to Casa Blanca and Roger Ebert says it will be taught in film schools around the world, right after Lawrence of Arabia.

And we never have to encounter the Disney Princess half-marathon.

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