As this Disney Princess series winds down, I’ve felt it increasingly necessary to offer a summary or recap of the major themes covered this month. Cinema Muse’s "Enchanted" review raised many of the same issues I was considering, and I realized that the film was itself an exploration of the meaning of the Disney Princess genre. It begins with an animated sequence recapping the many elements of a typical princess film – talking animals, singing heroine, dramatic entrance of hero, scene of peril, then rescue and the inevitably ensuing romance. It’s all standard fare (though delightfully tongue-in-cheek) until the heroine is sent to New York City and must fight for her romantic ideals in a world of modern sensibilities and cynicisms. The film shows her maturation as an actual individual, and her realization that true love doesn’t always come in prince-shaped packages.
We live in a post-ironic world. Our cultural touchstones are defined by this trait: Seinfeld, the Simpsons, Shrek. Our culture accepts tacitly that nothing is sacred; everything must be questioned and tested. In philosophy and science, this is expressed as professional skepticism; in arts and literature, as satire.
The problem is that our culture elevates irony almost to the level of an intrinsic good, a thing worthy in and of itself. The truth is that irony is not intrinsically meaningful; it only acquires meaning when it conveys other values that are. Irony serves a corrective function, in forcing us to reexamine and reevaluate the things we hold dear. But it cannot and ought not serve as a vehicle for expressing our social values on the whole.
This is not to deny that professional skepticism can be a force for good, nor deny that satire can be uproariously funny. My initial attraction to the sitcom “Community” was precisely for its meta-humor and its commentary on pop culture. But there is a reason that “Shrek” is merely popular while Pixar films are treated as contemporary masterpieces. Is there any hint of cynicism in “Finding Nemo,” “Ratatouille,” or “Up”? “The Incredibles” did spoof the superhero genre, but in a way that reemphasized the classic values of family and friendship. We attach tremendous value to things which convey real ideals in honest sincerity. This is incidentally my ongoing reason for my enjoyment of Community,” incidentally: for the idealism that transcends even its own satiric impulses. Idealism is infinitely more meaningful than irony.
Over the last decade, the ironic tendency became particularly pervasive in animation. Disney Studios after Mulan fell into an almost self-devouring rut of self-mockery. Dreamworks was practically born into that rut, its early offering “Prince of Egypt” notwithstanding. Only Pixar seems immune from this ironic vein, but even they were sorely tempted. For instance, the original draft of “Toy Story” featured an aggressively cynical Woody, far removed from the loyal and loveable character we find in the final cut.
Only recently have animation studios begun to rediscover their own ideals. Disney’s latest offerings – starting to a limited extent with “Enchanted” but more pronouncedly in “Bolt” and “Tangled” – have flirted with satire but are growing increasingly sincere. Dreamworks has matured considerably as a studio, and its latest fare “How to Train Your Dragon” achieved near-Pixar levels of greatness, due in my opinion due to its sincere depiction of the father-son relationship at the heart of the movie.
What then to make of “Enchanted”? This film seems to mark a turning point in Disney’s approach, from the irreverence of its prior offerings to the renewed idealism of “Tangled.” The film is predicated on satire, and uses it quite effectively as a tool to point out the Disney’s own flaws. It eviscerates the superficiality of Disney romances, the vanity of their princes and the vapidity of their princesses. But in the end, it returns to that same source of romantic idealism, only with a deepened appreciation for what the originals were trying to convey. Without idealism, we would soon become bitter and cynical; without romantic idealism, love itself would grow sterile.
True, satire is useful as a corrective, and the excesses of the Disney princess genre ought to be tempered by it. For instance, “The Little Mermaid” urges us to root for a spoiled princess who wagers her soul to the devil on the off-chance that within three days she can attract a hunky guy solely on the basis of her looks. As far as superficiality goes, “The Little Mermaid” is exhibit A, and Neophytus’ review masterfully dissected its horrid morals even while praising its energy and vibrancy.
We should not let ourselves be carried away. Disney films may well be criticized (as by Cinema Muse) for “creating and perpetuating” the sort of romantic idealism as may leave us disappointed or disconnected from reality. This criticism is just, but only to a degree. In reality and in sum, Disney films were only the most consistent in depicting and defending such idealism. Though the films occasionally went too far, they are greatly to be preferred to the excesses of cynicism that has dominated animation this past decade, and dominated modern film and television well before then.