5. “Tangled” (2010)
This often tongue-in-cheek spin on the timeless tale of Rapunzel wins major points for its self-aware humor, ambitious and independent heroine, and incredibly catchy and smart soundtrack. Flynn Rider, Rapunzel’s rapscallion of a love interest, is a sarcastic and devilishly handsome variation on the often stoic or uncreative princes that frequently accompany the princesses (or other leading ladies) of fairy tales. The animation is artful, and the recurring motif of light can be interpreted both as a visual amuse bouche or as a deeper metaphor for the triumph of good over evil. However, “Tangled” lacks the endearing, two dimensional simplicity of older Disney films and does little to challenge the tropes of the genre in a meaningful way. Still, “Tangled” succeeds by appealing to the timeless themes of family, identity, and friendships against all odds.
4. “The Little Mermaid” (1989)
Who doesn’t love a gal whose primary form of hygiene is also a food utensil? Well, Ariel of “The Little Mermaid” has illustrated to multiple generations the value of creativity with her use of a fork as a hairbrush. Many have grown up with the image of her singing passionately atop a jagged rock, her fiery, fork-combed locks blowing behind her. This scene also occurs during what is arguably the most iconic theme song of the genre, “Part of Your World.” This mainstream classic is a childhood favorite and adulthood staple of many.
3. “Hercules” (1997)
Don’t tell the Classics majors that this less-than-accurate depiction of Ancient Greek lore ranked so high! Hercules is the first protagonist on this list who is certifiably not a princess, and much of the movie centers around the rich development of his character arc, from lost and awkward youngling to… no spoilers—although it’s safe to say that you’ve had several thousand years to find out the ending. Hercules is everything from vulnerable to enraged to sensitive to downright violent. Our hero’s tale is supported thoroughly by an innovative, gospel-style soundtrack replete with vocal runs and no shortage of sass from the narrating Nine Muses. And let’s not forget Megara! Hercules’ sassy, smart love interest turns the tables on him in more than one way, which can be very refreshing. All in all, Hercules is a hilarious and emotional depiction of one hero’s path to self-discovery.
2. “Mulan” (1998)
Here we have another questionably accurate historical narrative, but this time, it is nothing short of a masterpiece. “Mulan” has it all, from stunning two-dimensional animation to iconic numbers such as “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You.” But perhaps best of all is the movie’s namesake heroine. Starting with its beginning scene with the matchmaker, the entire movie is framed in terms of Mulan’s resistance against the patriarchal society in which she lives. Mulan knows her potential, and in the face of dire consequences, she doesn’t hesitate to trust herself and in the process acquire quite a body count for a kids’ movie. Bonus points for gratuitous scenes of Li Shang questioning his sexuality and Eddie Murphy voicing a tiny animated dragon.
1. “Moana” (2016)
It was after no little deliberation that the most recent addition to the genre was placed at number one. However, even without having to withstand the test of time, “Moana” takes the cake. First, Moana is the only princess on this list with a remotely realistic body type. Second, she is an audacious woman of color voiced by an equally audacious woman of color (Auli’i Cravalho). Third, she is the only heroine—princess or not—to have no love interest whatsoever! “Moana” is thematically very similar to “Mulan,” and its worldbuilding creates a history and a mythology new and exciting enough to captivate a wide array of audiences. On top of that, the soundtrack is marked by the instantly recognizable style of the inimitable Lin-Manuel Miranda—and yes, there is rapping, though it’s not about the founding fathers. All in all, “Moana” tells the tale of emotionally complex and stirringly realistic characters to serve as role models for movie-goers of any age.
—Staff Writer Natalie J. Gale can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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