The Strategic Creative Choices Behind Disney Princesses' Iconic Looks
By: Domonique Salberg
Disney princesses are animated characters recognizable worldwide, primarily because of Walt Disney’s established artistic influences and the style and innovations of the company’s current artists that continue to leave an impact. With that said, in this article, the reasons behind why Disney princesses look the way they do will be revealed.
Disney Work Ethic
Strategy and hard work is no stranger to the Disney company. They do things such as employ more than 55 animators to design Pocahontas, hire painters for Sleeping Beauty, and put in years of work to finish Snow White. From these examples, it is easy to see considerable thought is put forth; however, for most viewers, the artistic choices may seem innocuous when they are quite significant.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Snow White was special to the Walt Disney company for igniting its most successful franchise, the Disney princess, and opening up the doors for Walt to become more than an animator but a filmmaker as he aspired to be. Nevertheless, this brings us to how his dream to be more than a cartoonist influenced Snow White’s look and the main thing that separated the two genres: realism. Initially drawn gangly and cartoonish, Walt disapproved and insisted everyone get back to the drawing board (main reason why it took so long to make) and create a realistic princess never seen before. Her hair was also redrawn from blonde to black, believing darker hair made Snow White more “relatable,” and she was given a larger-than-average head to look proportionate next to the dwarfs.
Cinderella was Disney’s second princess and was backed by much ambition. Furthermore, unlike Snow White, her look was set in stone from the beginning. The animators knew they wanted her to be the societal ideal, meaning the kind of woman girls wanted to be, and boys wanted to date. As a result, they made her medium height, blonde, and 120 pounds—although she is more like a strawberry blonde. According to the studio’s research, this notion comes because a “blonde more captivatingly depicted the symbol of lovelorn maidens” than a brunette or redhead.
Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora
Famous and visually impeccable, Sleeping Beauty’s Aurora was a difficult princess to get right—five years to be exact. Her style ended up standing out from the other princesses; she was designed angular and sharp. Deciding to draw her in such a way was because of artist Eyvind Earle’s detailed background designs, which Aurora needed to match. It resulted in a less round and “Disney-like” character to balance the vertical and pointy Eyvind backgrounds. But even though she lacks the softness of the other princesses, her violet eyes make up for it.
The Little Mermaid’s Ariel
Ariel stands out among the other princesses mainly because of her fiery red hair and the absence of a big fancy dress. However, her hair was not always supposed to be red but blonde since Disney thought she would be more marketable that way. Ultimately red was chosen since there was already a blonde mermaid in the live-action film Splash, and they felt it would be hard to differentiate the two. Another reason why they settled on red was that the color looked more realistic when drawing the underwater scenes, and it was easier to darken.
Beauty and the Beast’s Belle
Belle is the bookish one of the bunch and is a character with many strategic stylistic choices by the animators. For instance, they dressed her in blue to accentuate her “otherness.” Everyone else in the film is dressed in brown, orange, and beige to make her stand out. And even though she is the prettiest girl in the village, the animators gave her a “little wisp of hair” that continuously fell on her face so she would not seem too perfect. Then, her iconic gown was changed from pink to gold to distinguish her from Sleeping Beauty‘s Aurora.
Jasmine was named and modeled after the actress Jasmine Guy. But since her features proved to be too “severe,” lead animator Mark Henn decided to use an old yearbook photo of his sister as inspiration. Jasmine’s iconic blue outfit was also different from the final version: Pink. The studio thought a pink outfit would help sell more toys; however, they stuck with blue because it had an essential symbolism for water.
The tomboy of the princesses, Mulan, was a challenge for Disney animators since she spends most of the movie disguised as a man. They were particularly concerned with making her convincingly boyish instead of the typical Barbie-like proportions of the other princesses. As a result, Mulan has a more realistic body shape compared to the rest of the line-up. Nevertheless, even after taking away the Barbie dimensions, the animators thought she looked too girly. Thus, whenever Mulan is in disguise, her eyelashes and double eyelid disappear, and her eyebrows grow thicker. When she is not in disguise, they magically grow back.
The Princess and the Frog’s Tiana
The journey to find Tiana’s look was a pretty simple one for Disney animators. They based Tiana entirely on voice actress Anika Noni Rose, down to her dimples and even her left-handedness. Another detail that separates Tiana from the other princess is her myriad of gorgeous gowns. Unlike the others that have only two or three dresses, she has 11. The animators decided to give her many gowns to make up because Tiana spends a majority of the film as a frog. Plus, clever marketing reasons. They had to fit all of those dresses in the film for there to be plenty of options for future dolls and other products.
Tangled was the first princess to be computer-animated and have buck teeth. She was given several minor quirks that made her stand out among the princesses. The animators have said they approached Rapunzel in a way to keep a sense of asymmetry in her. One idea in particular during their research stood out and had a significant impact on her final design found in this quotation from a Disney animator: “I read a book about feminine beauty, and it said the key to beauty is strangeness in a woman’s face. There needs to be something slightly off, some element; it might be her nose, her lip, her tooth, or one eye higher than the other, but something. Even in Rapunzel’s teeth, the way she talks, there’s something a little bit wonky in the placement of her teeth, and things like that were designed so that she was more real, true and appealing.”
Pocahontas is the only princess based on a real person, yet she looks nothing like the historical icon. Disney animators initially did want to model the character after the real Pocahontas until they saw a picture of her. The reason behind this is pretty blunt in what they said here; “[She’s] not exactly a candidate for People’s ‘Most Beautiful’ issue…so I made a few adjustments to add an Asian feeling to her face.”