For many critics, the problem with princesses lies in their singular goal of marrying princes. It's a little limiting, to be frank. No matter what the girl's deal, she always seems to end up wanting nothing more than domestic bliss with some upright fellow of emphatic shoulders and noble blood.
I think Disney's princesses were once shallow. Appallingly so. But as the princess genre was refined, the love interests improved. They became increasingly more realistic; they enjoyed better character development... they became quite shaggable, really.
The Disney Princess line began in 1937 with Snow White. And so the first Disney Prince was... well, he didn't have a name.
The Prince, 1937It is damn near impossible to say a useful thing about this guy. He is "handsome" (not really) and "charming" (probably, but we haven't any evidence). He's kind of a necrophiliac, but... a nice one. He is good at carrying things, for instance young women. That's all I got.
Prince Charming, 1950Cinderella's fella also suffers from a lack of identity. He wears gloves and those funny shoulder things that look like hairbrushes. His only signifier is the addition of "Charming" after his royal title, which is slightly ironic given how completely rude and dismissive he is of every woman except for Cinderella.
Prince Philip, 1959Finally a prince you can distinguish from other princes! Philip was named after the English-speaking world's most famous prince at the time - that is, Queen Elizabeth's hubby, Prince Philip of Edinburgh. He's cheery, slightly impertinent, and he manages to snag a decent amount of screentime - mainly because the title character falls asleep in the middle of her own damn movie and someone has to come fill in and entertain us.
Philip's chief character traits are his highly personal relationship with his horse, his devastatingly good looks, and his cheekiness. He's all right, but frankly, going by what we see from him onscreen, wouldn't sustain a girl's interest for more than a dance or two before she went home to bed.
Prince Eric, 1989Now Eric isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but there's no denying he's a huge sweetie. He's noble and romantic. He dreams of true love, and he gets a huge crush on a mystery chick not just because she's gorgeous and talented, but because she saved his arse from a shipwreck, which was pretty nice of her.
This is the first Disney Prince to have any kind of declared personal ambition or goal. He wants love - but he's actually not at all interested in marrying a princess. He's met plenty and they were not to his taste. It's the girl from the wrong side of the horizon that finally captures his heart.
The Beast, 1991The Beast is another Disney first, and I'm not talking about the tail. He's the first Prince whose values undergo a change during the course of the film. Unlike Eric, he begins extremely preoccupied by matters of class, breeding, and looks. Despite being transformed into an inhuman tower of fur and fangs, this prince spends years locked away, believing the same as he always did - that beauty is everything - even though this means he, as a hideous beast, is nothing.
In this story, it is an eccentric peasant girl who teaches him to view the world differently. The Beast shares equal focus in this film with his love interest. He is a flawed and vulnerable person - and this makes him a character that the viewer can really fall in love with, too.
Aladdin, 1992I wasn't certain I should include Aladdin in this list, given he is the only male main character in the line-up (so his film can't really be classed with the "Disney Princess" lot). But Jasmine is a regular inclusion in the Princess stable, so her boyfriend is relevant here.
Aladdin is another character who grows and changes during the course of the story. He learns, in time, that Jasmine doesn't give a rat's arse whether he's a blue-blood or not. His slum background and his criminal history don't have to be a black mark on his character.
What's more, Aladdin's kindness and morality are not limited to displays for the benefit of beautiful ladies in the forest. He offers food to starving children when he himself is starving. He rescues Jasmine from an angry fruit vendor without knowing who she is or what she looks like (as she is wearing a heavy veil).
Captain Shang, 1998Shang might seem a little simple at first. He's a captain in the Chinese Army, not some free-spirit layabout dawdling in a clearing. He's got soldiers to train and superiors to mollify. He only notices Mulan because she's the first to solve his tactical riddle; he only really notices Mulan because it becomes apparent she's a right little transvestite. Shang's psychological journey from that point is about learning to accept Mulan's difference and respect her many great talents, achievements and skills, regardless of her gender.
Shang represents the idea that you can be loved and wanted for who you are. I prefer to read Mulan as a story about gender identity, and in that context, Shang shows us that Mulan is deserving of respect and is a valid object of desire, despite her non-traditional femininity.
Prince Naveen, 2009Here we return to the concept of the flawed prince who learns something through his meeting with the princess. However, unlike in Beauty and the Beast, where only the Beast undergoes change, in The Princess and the Frog, both parties have something to teach each other.
Tiana is ambitious and career-driven, but somewhere between back-to-back shifts at the coffee house she has lost hold of what makes all her efforts matter: love. She is disconnected from her friends and oblivious to everyone's dreams but her own.
Naveen is a hedonistic prince who has spent his entire life livin' large, wooing pretty ladies, strumming a banjo and generally chilling out. He doesn't give a thought to what makes it all possible - not until he is cut off from his cash source and has to find a new one. He enjoys love of the unconditional kind, but has never bothered working to build trust or respect.
This film, although commercially a flop, provides the best role model relationship of all the Disney Princesses. Not from the first: Tiana works too hard and Naveen plays too hard. Both think the other is completely ridiculous. But both learn to recognise the failures of their own absolutism by meeting and learning from other another.
Flynn Rider, 2010To be honest, there's nothing much new to say about Flynn that hasn't been covered by the flawed-but-learning analysis of Beast, the poor-boy-tries-to-be-bad-but-his-goodness-shines-through narrative of Aladdin, or the floppy-haired hotness of Prince Eric.
I just friggin' love this picture.