She’s been chained naked to rocks and attacked by sea monsters. She’s been locked in tall towers, and fed poisoned apples. She’s even been cast into a 100-year sleep.
Yes, it’s tough being a princess. Of course, there are the kisses and the handsome prince and the happily ever after, but they always seem to come at the end of a long period of waiting around in the company of evil stepmothers or jealous step-sisters. And if you’re a real princess, just getting a good night’s sleep can be difficult if Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Princess and the Pea can be believed.
But like many characters from folklore and mythology, the princess is constantly getting a makeover. Rarely these days does she just lay on her back in a coma waiting for the right man to come along and make her whole. She’s an independent woman who can – and will – fight for herself, think for herself, and create her own destiny, often outdoing the men who traditionally claim the princess as a prize for a successful quest.
And since the famous 1937 version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, produced by Walt himself, the Disney organisation has been charting the changing nature of princesses, with a festival of animated Princess movies under way this weekend at Greater Union Manuka.
Princesses go back a long way in mythology, and come from all over the globe. As far apart as Africa, China, Northern Europe and Southern America, the tales of princesses intermingle and overlap, providing a rich pool of stories for moviemakers. Take Andromeda, one of the first princesses of the ancient world.
Daughter of the King of Aethiopia (in North Africa), her foolish mother the Queen proclaimed her to be the most beautiful young woman around, more beautiful even than the sea nymphs who accompanied Poseidon on his watery travels. But it’s always a foolish mistake to boast when the gods are within earshot.
Enraged that his escorts had been dissed, Poseidon sent a sea monster to destroy the coast of Aethiopia. Sadly for the royal family, the Oracle suggested that the only way out of the crisis was to sacrifice young Andromeda.
Chained to a rock at the water’s edge, she was about to be eaten by the monster when, oh my goodness, who swings past but a handsome prince. Yes, it was Perseus to the rescue this time. And his prize for slaying the beast was, of course, the hand of the princess in marriage. It’s a familiar story, repeated over the centuries, with princes Charming, Valiant and otherwise turning up to get their girl.
But the most common form of princess story is not the princess-versus-monster tale but the transformation narrative – like the story of Cinderella, famously animated by Disney in 1950. In these stories, a young girl of noble birth finds herself disinherited (often thanks to a nasty step-mother) but is restored to her rightful place in society when she is recognised for who she really is.
Although appearing in a 17th-century collection of Italian fairytales, there are versions of the Cinderella story from ancient Greece and Tang Dynasty China. Some even think that Cordelia in Shakespeare’s King Lear is really a Cinderella. (She had two elder sisters who didn’t tell the truth, and she was wrongfully disinherited, but Shakespeare changed the happy ending to the story and killed her off rather than – as the original Lear story went – giving her the throne and a handsome hubby).
For Disney, Cinderella was a risky comeback film made after a period of poor returns at the box office, but the gamble paid off, with the transformation of Cinderella from house-bound servant to princess accompanied by animal friends and a series of musical numbers – including the legendary single Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. The film was a smash hit worldwide, and Disney’s biggest hit since its earlier princess film Snow White.
Since then, Disney has been a major player in the princess business, producing hits such as Sleeping Beauty in 1959, The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Beauty and The Beast in 1991. Increasingly, the young women in these stories developed a strong independent streak, and when it came time for an animated version of Aladdin in 1992, Princess Jasmine emerged as an active, free-spirited girl who was happy to marry a boy from the back-streets (with some wonderful help from Robin Williams as the Genie).
Drawing on representations of the princess from South American and Chinese traditions, Disney then produced Pocahontas and Mulan in the late 1990s, one the daughter of a native American chief and the other daughter of a Chinese warrior. These are highly independent princess characters, young women who are wise, resourceful and handy in a fight.
And if you want a really updated version of the princess transformation tale, it’s hard to go past Tangled, written by Dan Fogleman who created Cars and Crazy Stupid Love. Based on the fairytale Rapunzel, the traditional story and its characters have been turned on their heads in order to connect with today’s audiences. Even the name of the film – deliberately not Rapunzel – has been updated to appeal to the whole family. And when it comes to the characters, rather than being the daughter of lonely farmers, Rapunzel (voiced by Mandy Moore) is a princess, stolen at birth by the evil “mother” Gothel.
She’s brought up in a tower, innocent of the world and her true identity, and rather than being saved by a prince, it’s the cheeky, narcissistic thief Flynn Rider (voice of Zachary Levi) who comes to her rescue. Or rather she rescues him. And then makes him into a better man. Such is the duty of the modern princess. Well, who needs a prince, anyway? Maybe these days a Mr Darcy is good enough.
■ The Princess Film Festival starts on Saturday, February 9 at Greater Union Manuka. See: eventcinemas.com.au.