In its many years as a Hollywood powerhouse, Disney has been known for many things, but few have been more successful or had longer lasting legacies than its series of iconic Disney princess films. Since the first of them was released in 1937, the Disney princesses have had crucial roles in the building of a mega-franchise, and also in shaping the childhoods of little kids everywhere.
Over time, the common traits of Disney's princesses have shifted in keeping with what audiences want to see and what little kids are looking for in their role models. The medium itself has changed with time, too, as Disney has moved away from traditional 2D drawn animation to computer-generated art.
But at the core of every Disney princess film, audiences can expect to find the same hopeful, positive messaging - though some films are executed much more successfully than others. Here's how we rank the princesses, including some unofficial modern era princesses as well.
The 2012 film Brave was Pixar's first attempt at a Disney princess film. While the overall themes of the classic Disney princess plot were still there, the execution of the attempt was far less than successful. The most glaring problem of all? Merida herself.
While certainly one of the most independent and strong-willed princesses of them all, Merida is also entirely unlikable, utterly childish and selfish and at times downright cruel. Coupled with one of the more emotionally manipulative plots in all of the Disney canon, Brave is a princess film that's better left forgotten altogether.
12 Sleeping Beauty
There's no way of ignoring the many glaring problems in the story of Sleeping Beauty. Viewed through any remotely socially conscious lens, it's hard to find a good take on a plot that is driven by a man falling in love with and rescuing an unconscious girl all by kissing her when she's essentially in a vegetative state.
But putting the many problematic aspects aside, Sleeping Beauty is still one of the classics. When she is awake, Aurora or Briar Rose is an effortlessly natural princess, full of grace and kindness, and the adorable fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather alone make the film worth watching.
11 The Princess and the Frog
2009's The Princess and the Frog was a film that was a long time coming. Featuring the first Disney princess of African American descent, the film had so much promise and so much riding on it - but failed to live up to expectations in some key ways.
To be fair, Tiana is a wonderful character, the first full time employed Disney princess and smart as a whip. She's also accompanied by some great Disney animal sidekicks, including Raymond the firefly and Louis the alligator. But the film stumbles in its execution of a strong, empowering narrative by having its primary princess of color spend over half the film as a frog. Tiana would've been better served by pretty much any other plot.
Perhaps one of the darkest princess films of them all in many ways, Tangled nevertheless manages to be a perfectly sunny, optimistic film in the way that viewers have expected Disney princess tales to be. Mother Gothel is a villain for the ages, truly manipulative and cruel and frightening.
But it's Rapunzel and Flynn who steal the show here, along with hilarious animal sidekicks Pascal and Maximus. Tangled plays out like an adventure film more than a conventional princess film in many ways once Rapunzel and Flynn are on their journey together, but the film's heartbreaking and heartwarming final act manages to convey everything about what makes Disney princess films so uniquely special.
9 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
As the original Disney princess film, 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs will always have that special distinction working in its favor. While also weighed down by some of the creepy plot problems that plague Sleeping Beauty, Snow White nevertheless manages to craft a much more fully realized world, including the adorable dwarfs.
The artistry of Snow White's design is also breathtaking, as it was the first full length animated film that Disney ever produced. Even over 80 years after its release, Snow White still holds up in every way, even if it may be less action-packed than the successful princess films of later years.
Pocahontas's categorization as a Disney princess film is one that sometimes stirs up conversation, as she is not strictly a princess, but the daughter of Powhatan, a Native American chief. As that makes her virtually a princess, she is considered among the princess canon, and rightly so.
Although Pocahontas is rife with historical inaccuracies and revisionism, the film itself is beautiful, featuring one of the only happy endings in the Disney princess canon that doesn't find our heroine winding up with the man she loves. Even with that bittersweet aspect, Pocahontas' journey reaches a satisfying, empowering end: we know there's more to her life than just a man.
As perhaps the strongest of the classic Disney princess films, Cinderella truly epitomizes what people think of when they think of a Disney princess. Producing some of Disney's most iconic imagery - including the lost glass slipper; the pumpkin carriage; and the fairy godmother - Cinderella is a work of art from start to finish.
Cinderella the character is also the paradigm of what Disney princesses were long expected to be. Kind to a fault and emotionally open in a way that the other female characters aren't, Cinderella is a winning character who makes a big impact on everyone she meets, whether Prince Charming or her tiny mouse companions Jaq and Gus Gus.
Aladdin may not be Princess Jasmine's film, but Jasmine still manages to be one of the most inspirational princesses of them all. Unwilling to go along with the conventional, sexist ways of life that have been handed down for generations, Jasmine is one of the first Disney princesses to truly put her foot down and stand up for what she wants for herself.
The film itself is, of course, richly filled with iconic songs and characters, including Aladdin himself, sidekicks Iago and Abu, and the larger than life Genie, voiced in a true tour de force performance by Robin Williams. A less well-developed princess character would have gotten lost in such a crowded film, but Jasmine shines bright - a true diamond in the rough.
5 Beauty and the Beast
It truly is a tale as old as time: Beauty and the Beast is, far and away, one of the most beloved Disney films of them all. Occurring right in the heyday of the Disney Renaissance, the 1991 film introduced viewers everywhere to one of the most intelligent princesses of them all: the lovable bookworm Belle.
Although there are some fairly Stockholm syndrome-like traits in Belle's relationship with the beast, which only continue Disney's worrisome trend of problematic princess and prince pairings, Belle is unequivocally one of the strongest princesses Disney has ever produced. Though she may be a beauty, it's her brains that matter most.
Just as Pocahontas counts as a princess by being the daughter of a tribal chief, so, too, does Moana. Maui himself says that if a character wears a dress and has an animal sidekick, they're a princess, and Moana certainly fits that bill. Moana continues the new trend of Disney princesses existing without a love interest, and proving that it's possible for emotionally compelling films to exist without the romance narrative.
But at the heart of Moana lies a different kind of love story. Moana is driven entirely by the love of her family, her people, and her need to keep them safe. She, more than almost any other Disney princess, embodies what it means to be a true leader. Motunui is in incredibly capable hands.
3 The Little Mermaid
As the first princess of the Disney Renaissance, Ariel represented a decidedly new type of Disney princess. Though one of the youngest of them all at only 16 years old, The Little Mermaid's Ariel is one of the most proactive of them all. Even if her plot is driven in large part by her desire for romance, Ariel is also predominantly driven by her curiosity - a real change in defining traits for the princess characters.
It's more than a little uncomfortable that Ariel is rendered voiceless for much of the film, but she nevertheless manages to thrive and connect in the world, showing that she is as resourceful and intelligent as she is kind. Aided by faithful sidekicks like Sebastian and Flounder, The Little Mermaid stands the test of the time as one of the best Disney princess films to date.
While it's easier to understand how characters like Pocahontas and Moana can wind up categorized as princesses, it's a little harder to understand how Mulan is included in this group, as she is neither royalty nor does she marry into it. But according to Disney, Mulan counts, and that's perfectly fine by us, as Mulan is perhaps one of the best Disney films ever made, not just limited to the Disney princess subgenre.
As one of the few films to perfectly blend the narratives of love of family, romantic love, and the call to adventure, Mulan is Disney's strongest version of the hero's journey, the conventional narrative set forth by Joseph Campbell that the greatest novels and films all follow. Mulan epitomizes what it means to be selfless, and being able to witness her tale of bravery is truly the greatest honor of them all.
Could any other film truly have topped this list? As a global phenomenon, a billion-dollar blockbuster, and a movie that fundamentally challenged the narrative conventions of Disney canon in a way that no other princess film had, Frozen stands heads above the rest. The dual but parallel journeys of Princess Anna and Queen Elsa imbue the film with a unique, poignant urgency, as the bond between sisters is forged and broken and repaired.
Along with lovable characters like Olaf the snowman, Sven the reindeer, and Kristoff, Elsa and Anna learn that it takes true love to thaw the most frozen of hearts, proving that they work better together than they ever did on their own. They represent a new generation of Disney heroines, improving on the mistakes of their predecessors, and paving the way to a new, fully empowered Disney future.