It’s a good job Disney has anchored the fairytale sector of its operation around princesses. Princes are pretty much expendable these days. They’re so last century. And when they do turn up in movies, they’re not exactly marriage material anyway. As in Frozen, where one literal prince plots to seize the royal throne, and another figurative prince – the hero Kristoff – is not even required to deliver the curse-breaking “love’s true kiss”. The princess sisters can do it for themselves, thanks. Disney’s latest offering, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, follows a similar modern tradition. A lavish special-effects fantasia inspired by the fairytale/ballet, it centres on a young girl who enters a magical world and discovers she is really a princess. The nutcracker of the title is a loyal, brave, eligible soldier (British actor Jayden Fowora-Knight), but romance is not remotely on the cards. Not any more. A princess needs a prince like a fish needs a prenup.Most of the old fairytales would be better without the princes too, it seems. Earlier this month, Kristen Bell – Frozen’s Princess Anna herself – admitted that she shows her young daughters classic Disney films more for purposes of education than entertainment. “Don’t you think that it’s weird that the prince kisses Snow White without her permission?” Bell says she asked her daughters. “Because you can not kiss someone if they’re sleeping!”
Keira Knightley added a note of awkwardness to her recent promotional rounds for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms by revealing that she, too, had banned certain Disney films from the house, including Cinderella: “She waits around for a rich guy to rescue her. Don’t. Rescue yourself,” Knightley says she told her daughter. And The Little Mermaid: “Do not give your voice up for a man.” The family film machine is increasingly giving us tales of girl-centred self-empowerment. This year Disney has already put out the live-action A Wrinkle in Time – in which a science-minded girl navigates strange realms, aided by three “witches”. Its previous princess, Moana, partnered up with a muscular, mythical male hero named Maui, but he was more interested in retrieving his giant fish hook than wooing the heroine. No symbolism to unpick there. Female-led family adventures are now the norm: Alice in Wonderland, Frozen, Finding Dory, Brave, the list goes on. And answering Knightley’s prayers, these heroines usually do rescue themselves.Where we still see prince-type figures, they tend to be dicks. The subversion may have begun at the turn of the century, with Dreamworks’ delightfully sacrilegious Shrek. Shrek himself was the diametric opposite of Prince Charming material – ugly, ill-mannered and flatulent. The aristocratic suitor Lord Farquaad was the villain: a short, snobbish despot who was so cowardly, he even outsourced the princess-rescuing. Understandably, Princess Fiona chooses genuine, farts-and-all love with Shrek over a secure but loveless future with Farquaad.
Shrek 2 gave us an even less appealing Prince Charming: a vain mummy’s boy who wears a hairnet under his helmet to protect his flowing blonde locks. The prince figure in Disney’s Tangled is cut from a similar cloth: he thinks he can subdue Rapunzel with his smouldering good looks. It fails. And as for Enchanted, James Marsden’s Prince Edward is a total cheeseball, whose olde worlde courting and ideas of “true love’s kiss” just doesn’t wash once Amy Adams’ princess gets a taste of 21st century New York, and rugged divorce lawyer Patrick Dempsey. “True love’s kiss” didn’t cut it for Prince Philip in Maleficent either. His prolonged, non-consensual kiss on the lips fails to awaken Elle Fanning’s Aurora; it is left to Angelina Jolie’s maligned witch to lift the curse – with a kiss on the forehead.
In darker times, when marrying up was the only realistic prospect of a better life for women, finding your prince was like winning the lottery; now it looks more like surrendering to the patriarchy. And let’s face it, real life has done the tradition of princehood few favours lately. We all remember how Charles and Diana’s “fairytale wedding” panned out. Their sons, William and Harry, wisely resisted attaching similar sentiments to their own nuptials.
But feminist awakening and god-awful masculine role models might not be the only forces driving the demotion of princes. Today’s family films are far more focused on … family. They are interested in the kind of love that binds families together, rather than the kind that breaks them apart – by taking young women out into the big wide world, or a strange royal household. The break-up of the family is now these movies’ chief anxiety. Look at Pixar’s recent output: Finding Nemo, Finding Dory, Inside Out, Coco, The Incredibles – all stories of family units under threat. As are the likes of Frozen and A Wrinkle in Time (the heroine is seeking her missing father). The Nutcracker and the Four Realms follows suit. In ETA Hoffmann’s original Nutcracker story, written in 1816, the soldier-toy of the title effectively comes to life at the end and marries the young heroine. Disney’s new version (spoiler alert) ends with the girl standing in for her dead mother in a dance with her father. Only slightly less creepy than Sleeping Beauty.
Perhaps these films speak to guilty parents too busy to spend quality time with their own children (just stick them in front of a DVD, it’ll be fine). Perhaps they are nostalgic for a nuclear-family model that ceased to be the norm decades ago. And perhaps, in prioritising family ties over romantic or emotional or even sexual ones, they are actually doing children a disservice.
Once upon a time, long before they were sanitised by the likes of Disney, fairytales were cruel and violent – the television and pornography of the pre-media age, as John Updike famously put it. In the original 17th-century Sleeping Beauty, to give just one example (cover your daughters’ ears, Kristen Bell), the unconscious maiden is not kissed – but raped. She becomes pregnant and gives birth to twins before she wakes up. But fairytales were also instructive – a coded preparation of youngsters for the strange and terrifying adult world. In removing the romantic or sexual undertones, we could be throwing out the prince with the bath water.
It is possible to have your wedding cake and eat it. Both versions of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast managed to tell a complex story that both ticked these modern boxes and fulfilled its fairytale function. It is another story of family break-up, it puts forth a strong, independent, virtuous heroine, and it could be read as a fable about accepting outsiders (and rejecting preening alpha-males such as Gaston). Unlike so many others, though, Beauty and the Beast is a love story, with a genuine male romantic lead. It broaches the possibility that girls might one day find themselves hitched to a large, hairy, initially terrifying male partner, but if you make the best of it, it’ll probably turn out alright.