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New Escapist Column! On the Quiet Revolution of Disney’s Modern Princess Movies…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the release of Encanto this weekend, it seemed like a good opportunity to talk about the animated “princess” movies being produced by Disney.

Disney has always been associated with these movies, dating back to the breakout success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. However, the company has also long had a complicated relationship to them, and in particular the way in which they are perceived as movies aimed at young girls. However, the past decade has seen the studio clever and consistently reinventing this archetypal “fairy tale” sort of story for the twenty-first century, to the point that it’s arguably that the run of movies from Tangled onwards has been the most consistent of the studio’s output.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Encanto

One of the most interesting and overlooked entertainment trends in the past decade has been the extent to which Disney’s animated films have quietly become the studio’s most reliable output, ahead of higher-profile properties like Star Wars or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Indeed, it’s possible to argue at least convincingly that Disney’s animated films have been more consistent in quality than those from Pixar, even allowing for Pixar’s success with movies like Inside Out.

The studio entered the twenty-first century in a state of crisis over its traditional animated features. There was a perception that the studio’s classic “princess movies” like Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid or Pocahontas or Mulan were outdated, and that the studio needed to reconfigure its image to appeal to young male demographics. The acquisition of other brands like Star Wars eased the pressure somewhat, and the studio’s animated output has become more comfortable in its own skin with female-led animated projects including Tangled, Frozen, Moana, Frozen II and Raya and the Last Dragon.

Family portrait.

The studio’s animation division has spent the past decade tinkering with the formula and assumptions that drive these sorts of films, in some ways cutting to what was always the heart of the genre. Love stories are now optional for female leads. Villains are more complex and multifaceted. Themes are richer and more ambitious. It’s perhaps too much to suggest that Disney has spent the past decade quietly and carefully deconstructing and then reconstructing the familiar “princess movie” storytelling engine, but it’s also not inaccurate. The studio has done this in a careful and considered manner, never feeling false or cynical.

In some ways, Encanto feels like the culmination of this larger trend. It is a movie that is instantly recognisable as part of the familiar animated “princess movie” template, a musical about a young woman in a remote location coming into her own to find her identity. It’s a stunning piece of animation, with a charming cast and some catchy musical numbers. However, it’s also a surprisingly thoughtful and clever subversion of some of the core ingredients in these sorts of movies. It’s a story about a lead character whose epic adventure begins at home, who finds herself without needing to leave the house.

Food for thought.

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