The recent Beauty and the Beast reimagined the animated classic in live-action — and hoped to redraw its heroine in the process. As Disney continues to give every beloved animated classic a shiny live-action remake (or in the case of The Lion King, photorealistic animation wash), the company has taken the opportunity to correct the issues of the originals that don’t stand up under a modern eye.
There’s a reason why the Jim Crow scenes are absent from the latest Dumbo and why Maleficent gave a twist to ol’ true love’s kiss. On the heels of more female-focused movies like Frozen and Moana, it would appear that Disney also felt the need to update Beauty and the Beast. Emma Watson’s version of Belle wasn’t just a pretty bookworm in the new version, she also invented things, and without a corset.
The change wasn’t entirely successful. Belle’s “empowerment” missed the mark of what made Belle such an appealing heroine in the first place: she was a heroine with specific interests and wants, who played an active part in the movie. Disney sought to update her to make her more of a heroine of the 2010s than a heroine of the 1990s by giving her more to do. Unfortunately, hobbies are not the pillars of a character arc.
In comparison, Aladdin, Disney’s latest live-action remake, gets the “fix” right, giving Princess Jasmine an arc that doesn’t feel like set dressing. It stays true to the character and what made her appealing, but also gives her more agency and a story that is not entirely reliant on Aladdin.
Why the Disney princesses meant so much, but don’t hold up
The Disney heroines from the early Disney Renaissance — Ariel, Belle, and Jasmine —represented a new type of Disney heroine. Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora, the princesses of Disney’s Golden Age, were passive. While they had some wants of their own, they didn’t pursue those goals. Things happened to them; they reacted.
Ariel was the first Disney princess character who unapologetically went after what she wanted. Whether viewers today interpret that as living with humans or getting with Eric, Ariel was still active in her own story. She sought out the sea witch, and she made the deal that cost her her voice. By contrast, Snow White wished for a prince, but most of the movie is the Huntsman chasing her, the Queen pursuing her, and the prince kissing her. Every plot point is something done to her.
With Disney’s history littered with passive princesses, Ariel, a 16-year-old defying her father for true love, going after her dreams, and getting her happy ending, felt revolutionary.
Belle and Jasmine followed Ariel’s lead. Both expressed desire for something more. Belle sang a whole song about wanting adventure. Jasmine despised the idea of an arranged marriage and longed for life outside the palace walls. And both took active roles in making that change happen: Belle made the agreement with the Beast to take her father’s place; Jasmine snuck out of the palace in order to see more of the world. These were not the classic Disney princesses.
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, budding bookworms, would-be collectors, and little rebels found themselves drawn to the new princesses, earning them special places in the hearts of nostalgic fans. Today, these princesses fall short of where modern female audiences want them to go. All three movies, ultimately, are love stories. Instead of the heroines fully getting what they seek, they fall in love. In the end, Ariel lives on land, but by tying herself to a man; Belle never gets adventure in the great wide somewhere and instead marries the Beast; Jasmine goes beyond the palace walls for the duration of a song and then returns to her royal lifestyle to be with Aladdin.
The endings are romantic and, in context, fulfilling, but when we look at the standard that the newer, modern Disney heroines set, it’s easy to see why a modern audience isn’t as happy with the final romantic couplings coming at the expense of the heroine’s dreams.
The new Disney heroine has specific wants. Her journey is about going after her dreams and learning from her flaws. If the movie has a love interest, it is rarely about him. The Frozen sisters and Moana are the two big tent poles, but the driven, flawed Disney heroine goes back as early as Mulan.
The Disney heroines who become role models today have clear goals that define their stories from beginning to end. The most direct case in point: Moana. Like Belle and Jasmine before, she dreams of a great wide open, but unlike them, she spends the entire movie learning how to sail and navigate, and eventually how to save her island. She tries, she fails, and she experiences moments of insecurity before she finally rises up and realizes what she needs to do.
Surrounded by plenty of female-driven stories, bringing the ’90s molds of Belle and Jasmine to the live-action table wasn’t going to hold up. Disney knew it had to do something, especially as criticism of the Disney princess line mounted in the 2010s: critics wrote essays and books, researchers conducted studies about the effects of the line on young girls, and actresses declared they don’t let their daughters watch certain princess movies. But based on initial remake attempts, Disney didn’t really know what the problem was.
What Beauty and the Beast did wrong, and Aladdin did right
Instead of sharpening Belle’s nebulous “adventure in the great wide somewhere,” the 2017 Beauty and the Beast tacks on other hobbies. In addition to being a budding adventurer, she’s also a proponent for literacy and an inventor. None of this setup is negative — female protagonists can have varying interests. In fact, they should have varying interests.
But Belle’s interests don’t shape the plot, which more or less sticks to the original. Beyond one scene, Belle’s inventing prowess is never brought up again; other than a brief trip to Paris by way of a magical book, her desire to see more of the world is never explored; her love of reading, her most notable trait, gets regressed — instead of bonding with the Beast by inspiring him to read, he mansplains Romeo and Juliet to her and she finds it charming.
In the end, she marries the Beast and seems content to live the rest of her life in a cushy castle. But what of her literacy campaign for the small town? No mention of her inventions? Not even a throwaway line about seeing the great wide somewhere for their honeymoon?
For those initially drawn to Belle because of her love of books and her dreams of adventure, seeing the random science hobby tacked on because her original personality wasn’t “feminist” enough is another falling rose petal. After all, it wasn’t Belle’s quirks and personality that dated the original Beauty and the Beast, rather the fact that those quirks and personality did not get a resolution worthy of her character. Nothing about Belle’s resolution changes in the live-action take.
The 2019 Jasmine could very easily fall into this trap, but Aladdin elevates the princess by giving her a parallel arc with the hero. Instead of accumulating hobbies, Jasmine’s original wants are fleshed out: she doesn’t want to just voice her opinion, she wants to be in a position of power where her voice will be heard.
“It felt right that we should challenge Jasmine in this incarnation,” director Guy Ritchie told Polygon during the press tour for the film. “She needed the equivalent of a challenge that, say, Aladdin has, but in her own way.”
This Jasmine doesn’t reject an arranged marriage because she wants to fall in love; she rejects an arranged marriage because then a foreign husband will assume the position of sultan, when really she is the best person for the role. No one will care for her people like she does — certainly not a man who only wants to marry her for her beauty, and the power and money that come with the title of sultan. Jasmine wishes to be a good ruler for the people of Agrabah.
In the new Aladdin, the reason she’s outside the palace isn’t to escape an arranged marriage, but to familiarize herself with the people of Agrabah. She despises the fact that her father keeps her locked up, not just because she wants to see more of the world, but because she cannot help her people unless she knows what they need.
The setup echoes the original Jasmine, but brings specificity to her general desires. Aladdin gives her a goal that — like a Moana or an Elsa — she works towards and eventually sees through.
In the beginning, pressure from her father, Jafar, and the general state of Agrabah society for thousands of years weighs on Jasmine, and while she wants more, she is still hesitant to defy them. Sneaking out of the palace, meeting Aladdin, and eventually facing Jafar are all moments of genuine bravery. The plot of the original Aladdin focused on Aladdin finding the courage to be true to himself; the redux also has Jasmine finding the courage to stand up for herself and, eventually, for who she loves.
As Jafar’s power grows out of control, Jasmine belts out “Speechless” — the only song added to the movie — and gives a rousing speech to rally the people around her to defy Jafar. The moment feels earned. Her personality and interests aren’t just there to check items off of a list; they drive the princess’ story forward and give it a resolution worthy of her. Instead of her father letting her marry Aladdin, she proves herself as a worthy leader and, with her newfound confidence, makes the active choice to go after the man she loves.