The Disney Princesses are some of the most enduring icons in all of pop culture. Snow White debuted in Disney's first feature-length animated film, and through the years many more have joined her in a very exclusive club. Most recently we saw them all together in not-insignificant roles in Ralph Breaks the Internet, but the way we saw them there shows just how far the Disney Princess has come and gives us a hint of just where they might be going in the future. It mainly has to do with being updated for the changing times.
These princesses all came from classic Grimm Fairy Tales, and while each was the main character of their story, if truth be told, they're all pretty passive characters in their respective stories. In most cases, the story happens to the princess rather than them really taking an active part in it. In two out of the three, the Princess ends up literally unconscious and needs to be rescued by a prince. Only Cinderella really gets to have the last laugh over her antagonist.
This second generation of princesses was far more modern. With the exception of Jasmine, each was the true protagonist of their story, driving the plot forward by their actions. Also, while each one does successfully find romance, in a couple of cases that was only a byproduct of an unrelated quest. Not every princess was defined by finding a prince anymore.
It was shortly after this era, in about 2000, when the concept of Disney's princesses was turned into the Disney Princess. The name is now a brand and it's one of the most successful things that Disney has ever done.
With the creation of the Disney Princess as a brand, things got a little serious. Rules were created for what was required in order to become an "official" Disney Princess (rules which eventually led to Tinker Bell being removed from the group, while initially being part of it). The characters began to have dolls and other toys sold under the label of Disney Princess.
Since then, only three more official Disney Princesses have been named, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog, Rapunzel from Tangled, and most recently, Merida from Brave. These princesses took the ideas of the Disney Renaissance princesses to the next level. None of them go looking for love, one actively rejects being coupled up.
Since Merida became an official Disney princess, an odd thing has happened. We've seen no more "official" princesses even though there are three newer, very strong, candidates for the position: Anna and Elsa from Frozen and Moana.
In the case of Anna and Elsa, it seems that they have not, and will not, be named Disney Princesses because Frozen is already a bigger merchandising name on its own that the Princesses are. Why bundle Anna and Elsa dolls in with the rest when they're selling just fine on their own? It seems the same may also be true of Moana. Merida was officially made a Disney Princess less than a year after her movie came out. Moana has been around for two years now and there's no sign of her becoming an official Disney Princess.
In Ralph Breaks the Internet, we see both the official Disney Princesses along with the recent favorites of Anna, Elsa, and Moana. They're hanging out together and apparently enjoying each other's company, even if nobody can understand Merida. It's a fun sequence full of a lot of laughs, not a few of them at the expense at the Disney princess tropes. The way so many of them get captured, enchanted, cursed or whatever.
The movie also has fun with the idea that the princesses lived "happily ever after" thanks to a "big strong man." Of course, this is a bit of rewriting history, because it's not like that isn't exactly what the movies wanted us to believe. Here, nobody was apparently going after romance. Instead, they were all just chasing dreams. Not entirely untrue, but certainly a reframing of the situation in many cases.
However, this is probably an important rewriting of history because the fact is that some of the Disney Princesses, especially that first batch, feel more than a little dated today. If the Disney Princess is going to survive into future generations, then Disney needs to not only create new, more modern characters, but also find a way to keep those earlier ones from being left behind by time.
Even a character like The Little Mermaid's Ariel, who looks progressive when compared to Sleeping Beauty's Aurora, is starting to show her age. A woman who gives up her voice so that she might meet a handsome guy? There's a reason somebody like Keira Knightley, who is clearly a big Disney supporter otherwise (the studio has been very good for her career), doesn't let her daughter watch that movie.
At the end of Ralph Breaks the Internet, we see more of this Disney Princess evolution as the group of them become action heroes, coming to Ralph's rescue. Everybody from Snow White to Moana gets in on the action, and they all look great doing it.
I don't expect to see an entirely new line of movie sequels that reframe these princesses as action heroines, though I absolutely expect to see a full line of dolls based on the Ralph Breaks the Internet versions of the characters.
These moments in Ralph Breaks the Internet are likely not created in a vacuum either. It's likely that, whatever form we see Disney Princesses take, both in the case of potential new members to the club or the way the current ones are portrayed, we're going to see something that looks closer to what we saw in Ralph then what we saw in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
There's nothing really wrong with these changes. Pop culture always changes over time. It's why we look at Snow White or Sleeping Beauty differently today than people did 50 years ago. The original films will always be with us and they're too important for Disney's history for the studio to start pretending they don't exist.
What's more, sometimes pop culture needs to change if it wants to continue being relevant. That's what we're probably seeing here. The princesses are getting some of the best revues of any moment in Ralph Breaks the Internet, so with that endorsement, we'll likely see a lot more of these new takes on the classic characters. That's not a bad thing.