Category Archives: Analysis

Little Women vs Sound of Music

In 2013, I was still at acting school working towards my music theatre degree. One task for the 2000s music unit was to write a comparison between two similar musicals to present in class. Now, sadly I never got to present mine because of time constraints. What better way to rectify this than to edit the essay and post it here?

In 2005 the short-lived musical Little Women opened on Broadway, starring Sutton Foster as Jo March, music by Jason Howland and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Based on the classic 1869 novel by Louisa May Alcott, Little Women had a huge responsibility bringing one of the most beloved stories of all time to the stage? Did it succeed? Not really. And why does it bear so many striking similarities to the beloved 1959 Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music?

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Little Women opens as Jo, an ‘impassioned girl of 19,’ receives her twenty-second letter of rejection from a prominent publisher. They tell her that her story is ‘tasteless’, ‘vulgar’ and she is advised to go home and have children, as “All women are made to do,”

This could quite possibly be the most half-hearted attempt to shoehorn in the misogyny of the era that I have ever seen. It’s a single line that’s never brought up again or even necessary to begin with. What did sexism have to do with Little Women in the first place? The answer is very little. In fact, I’m spending more time bitching about it on this blog than the show does. Moving on.
Jo reads her Operatic Tragedy to her mentor Professor Bhaer. Truthfully, her story is tasteless and vulgar. The Professor diplomatically suggests she could do better but like any good protagonist (there may be a hint of sarcasm here) Jo is too in love with her own work to take his advice on board.

And this is where the problems with characterisation starts. You see Jo’s most prominent traits. She’s passionate, opinionated and rather argumentative. And that’s pretty much where the character development stops for Little Women. The audience is only ever show the most basic character traits. Meg is romantic. Jo is passionate. Beth is sweet. Amy is pretentious. Marmee is….the mother. None of the characters are given enough expansion to seem human. They’re just stereotypes, if you could even call it that. Don’t believe me? Take Laurie’s introduction as Exhibit A.

The scene flashes back to two years earlier as Jo prepares her sisters, Meg, Beth and Amy, to perform an operatic tragedy that she has written. Now, I may be thinking too hard about it, but it seems even then, Jo had an unhealthy, almost sinister obsession with blood-and-guts in her stories. If I was a publisher receiving manuscripts like this, I wouldn’t publish them either. I’d be seeking a restraining order.
Anyway, feeling sad that their father is away at war, Jo brazenly decides to steal a Christmas tree from next door…because she claims to be full of energy and needs a task to do. We’re off to a great start here. Your main character steals a Christmas tree for literally no reason whatsoever. Is this a charming character trait or should we be emotionally disturbed?

When the rightful owner of the tree comes to give Jo the verbal bashing she deserves, Jo meets Laurie, her first of two love interests. The following dialogue, I kid you not, is far and away the most jarring introduction to a character ever written in the history of musical theatre.

He loves his trees. I’m Theodore Lawrence the Third. But everyone calls me Laurie. I’ve come to live here. In Concord. I play the piccolo. I can sleep standing up. And I won a medal at school for holding my breath for nearly three minutes before passing out. I think it was terrifically daring of you chopping down grandfather’s tree. Well, goodbye.”

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I did NOT just read that.

Call me a serial nitpicker, but this is just straight up badly written.

The whole book is like this. There’s literally never a genuine line of dialogue that doesn’t feel forced, contrived, or simply tell-don’t-show. All the critics generally agreed that the musical was like a speed-read of the novel, having the most obvious emotions and events but without anything that make is feel true or natural. There’s nothing for the audience to connect with. No character apart from Jo is given significant stage time to become anything. I don’t know how actors can work with a script like that. Even a great actress like Sutton Foster would struggle to make this work.
I’m sorry, but I’m struggling to analyse this musical here because there’s little to analyse except how bland it is!!!!

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Hades feels my pain

Now that I’ve got that out of my system, let’s continue.

The Sound of Music obviously by Rogers and Hammerstein has obviously had far more success both on stage and screen, but it bears striking similarities to the story of Little Women. To describe the story from The Sound of Music is almost silly. We all know it. We’ve all seen it and we all love it. Both The Sound of Music and Little Women have a passionate young female lead searching for her place in the world. Both are energetic and outspoken protagonists who fall in love with an unlikely suitor. Both focus on a family, both are adapted from books and are both well-loved stories. Both Jo and Maria are beloved characters in the Western world, but why does Maria feel more human to the audience? And her romance, for that matter?

Julie Andrews in "Sound Of Music" - 20th Century Fox - Released March 2, 1965

The most beautiful sound I ever heard….

Maria is a young woman who wants to be a nun, but her free spirit is deemed unsuitable to the role. She is sent to be the governess to the seven Von Trapp children.Their widowed father has forbidden all happiness and music from their lives, but Maria’s enthusiasm and good heart soon wins him over, transforming their lives under the shadow of Nazi Germany. Maria learns that things do not always turn out the way you expect and is asble to accept that her life changes from the direction she believed it was going to take. She does not fight her mistakes. She accepts them, she learns from them and she does all she can to help people change for the better. Jo fights everything to get her way. She refuses to change or see that maybe, just maybe, she’s wrong.
The other characters in the Sound of Music are also far more developed, whether they are leads or supporting cast. Captain Von Trapp, by contrast with Professor Bhaer, is much more sympathetic and relateable. The Captain is given a legitimate backstory about losing his wife and how his grief has caused him to become cold and distant from his children. But through Maria’s influence he is able to change his ways and become a loving father as meaning is brought back into his life.
Professor Bhaer is given no backstory or any distinct objectives thoughout Little Women and he is not very interesting as a result. This doesn’t necessarily make him a bad character, he’s likeable enough but he’s not explored particularly deeply.

Even the side characters in the Sound of Music are more interesting. There are seven children in the family and yet we all remember them because they’re all given distince, memorable personalities. Liesl of course forms the secondary romance with Rolfe, which also does not end in the typical fashion of happily ever after. Rolfe joins the Nazis, and Liesl has to accept that she can’t be with him, which is a far more realistic outcome than Laurie marrying Amy after being rejected by Jo. Even Elsa Schraeder, who very nearly steals the Captain’s heart, is given some very good scenes to work with. She could very easily have been considered an antagonist, but she has an understable motivation for wanting Maria out of the way. But in the end she realises that she was wrong and leaves of her own accord. How often do you see something like that in a love story? EVER?

As for Little Women, in terms of my most hated writing mistake of all, the dreaded tell-don’t-show, this is a script to behold.
In Act 2, after Beth dies, Marmee says to Jo “Nobody did more for Beth than you did!” Great, what exactly did she do for Beth? All we saw or heard of Jo doing was taking Beth to the beach and at the risk of sounding heartless, Beth seems pretty energetic for someone who’s apparently on their deathbed. The same goes for when Professor Bhaer is apparently falling in love with Jo. He is not seen a great deal and his one solo number is him wondering whether he has feelings for her. There is no real feeling of time passing or the characters developing in new ways. And does Jo develop feelings for the Professor herself? It’s insinuated in their final duet, but not explored in the least.

Look, it’s an adaptation of a very famous and dense book. But there’s adapting a novel to the stage and there’s stripping out anything that gave it substance, which is exactly what the creative minds behind Little Women have done. The stage directions are kind of generic, the dialogue is all over the place and it thinks it’s saying a lot more than it actually is.

Oh, and you can forget about character subtlety or underlying themes. At one point Amy burns Jo’s writing out of sheer spite, because she really doesn’t have a motivation or anything like that. You don’t need to wonder what might happen to their relationship as a result, because it’s obvious that Amy burning Jo’s work is going to cause sparks to fly, pun fully and unashamedly intended.
The little substance that desperately tries to appear just gets whacked over your head. Enthusiasm is important! Family is everything! Jo is a total nightmare at times, but it’s ok because she’s PASSIONATE!

The Sound of Music however devotes time for all the subplots to be fully realised. The main story is of course Maria’s journey towards changing the family for the better and finding romance in the end The moments where Little Women somewhat shines are the scenes where the family interacts, much like in the Sound of Music. It seems the strength of Little Women comes more from the cast, and particularly the actress playing Jo whereas the The Sound of Music is so charming and well written it can stand on its own as a wonderful piece of theatre without relying on talented actors to gloss over the flaws in the script.

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You can still have incredible actors though 🙂

Another aspect of The Sound of Music which cannot be ignored is the near-perfect score. My Favourite Things, Do-Re-Mi, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria and the title number are just some of the songs that are now standards. There’s no denying that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a score that was far more memorable and enduring. Little Women’s score screams that it was rushed out. The melodies get the job done, although they aren’t all that phenomenal, just sort of bland and generic and the lyrics were very accurately described by the Broadway critics as “uneven”. Granted, I have heard far worse (Love Never Dies springs to mind), but any line which goes I work and I eat/life is muffins and jam is going to make me snicker. Little Women’s score is pleasant enough but the music has not and will not become ingrained in the world’s mind as The Sound of Music has. Another reason for this is that every song in The Sound of Music fits the narrative and drives the emotion and story. Little Women does not. Take for example the scene where Jo and Meg are going to the ball. The resulting musical number is how to respond if they’re asked to dance.
Yeah, um, what’s the point of that? Does it develop the characters? Does it have any bearing on the story at all? You could sum that up in a few sentences! It doesn’t call for a musical number!

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In case you’re wondering, Little Women only ran for 137 performances.

In my opinion, The Sound of Music is the stronger theatrical production overall for several reasons. A stronger protagonist, a more developed cast, a more believable romance and more memorable music.

Little Women‘s failing was in the writing, both script and score, and there was honestly no excuse for this being the case. This isn’t a dumb jukebox musical like Mamma Mia or Moulin Rouge where you shoehorn in every tired cliché known to man. This is a beloved classic story that has meant a lot to five generations of women.
Little Women frustrates me because I KNOW there’s a good musical in there somewhere. It had so much potential with more guided adaptation and dramaturgy. The music could have been something very special if there was more time and effort put into it. It could have been so much more.

Maybe one day Little Women can be given the theatrical treatment it deserves. But if you’re looking for a classic story of family, love and courage done right, I’ll point to The Sound of Music every single time.

Is RENT a Masterpiece?

It’s the show that inspired many and has a devoted cult following of RENT heads. It won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and is said to be groundbreaking. It’s the show that caused people to camp outside the theatre in the hope of $20 tickets. Jonathan Larson’s RENT.

Opening on Broadway in 1996, RENT is loosely based on the opera La Boheme. Over a year, it follows the lives of  eight Bohemian friends (Mark, Roger, Mimi, Joanne, Maureen, Collins, Angel and Benny) who are living in New York during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Mimi, Roger, Angel and Collins are all living with the disease. Mimi battles drug addiction. Roger dreams of writing ‘one great song’ before he goes. Mark works on a film. Angel and Collins are deeply in love. Lawyer Joanne struggles with her girlfriend Maureen’s flirtatious nature. Maureen stages protests and Benny has turned his back on his Bohemian principles.

Of course, what really propels the memory of RENT is composer/lyricist/writer Jonathan Larson’s tragic death the night before the first Off-Broadway preview at the age of 35. But the show must go on, and go on it did. RENT was a huge hit with audiences, winning Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Original Score and Best Supporting Actor, as well as 6 Drama Desk Awards. It ran on Broadway til 2008 and has spawned many productions and tours worldwide. A film was released in 2005 starring most of the original cast and the final Broadway performance was pro-shot on DVD. Like I said before, fans of the show (Rent-heads) have been known to literally camp outside the theatre in the hope of getting tickets.
As I said before, RENT won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, becoming one of just eight musicals in history to win the honour. All awards aside though, RENT is usually touted as a masterpiece of theatre and evokes a powerful reaction from RENT-heads. It’s a popular choice for community theatre and just a few days ago a 20th anniversary tour was announced. I myself was involved in a production of RENT while studying my musical theatre degree and had the time of my life.

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By the way, who’s had to sing Seasons of Love in choir singing?

However, is RENT really the masterpiece it’s often proclaimed as? Is it worthy of the pedestal it’s placed upon?

Well, quite honestly, no.

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RENT heads assemble

Wait, RENT heads! Don’t scream for my blood!

I don’t hate RENT. I like it. I think it’s a good show. I just don’t think it’s perfect. I think it has some glaring flaws that people overlook on a phenomenal scale. That doesn’t make RENT a bad musical. It should be watched and celebrated, all aspects acknowledged. Maybe consider this as an acknowledgement of what doesn’t work in RENT, as so much has been said and written about what does work. Maybe it’s time to consider the other side.

The characters aren’t all that well developed

If you read the casting brief/character descriptions, all the characters call for ‘excellent’, ‘strong’ or ‘good’ actors. This struck me as being oddly specific.
On first glance this seems like a no-brainer. Generally speaking, the arts require ‘good’ performers. But I have a theory about this, and some people might not like it. I believe that the reason RENT needs particularly talented actors/singers is not just due to the vocally demanding nature of the show. It’s because the characters are written quite sketchily. There’s little to no backstory given for them, and not many of them change and grow in the story. At least, not in an obvious way. It’s up to the actors to portray these characters and make them real. This requires performers who are exceptionally skilled in their craft working overtime to make these characters into three dimensional personalities. And the character who is the hardest?

Maureen

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I know a lot of people are going to hate me for this, but it has to be said. Maureen is the weakest character in the show. I’m always astounded by how many people love Maureen. I think Benny has more to work with than her.
Maureen, a bisexual performance artist, is Mark’s ex-girlfriend, leaving him for lesbian lawyer Joanne. And that’s pretty much the extent of her characterisation. The only aspect of her personality is how apparently ‘sexy’ she is. She’s irresistible to both genders. Men and women alike fall over themselves to get to her. Apparently. It’s all tell-don’t-show. Sure, she kisses another woman in front of Joanne, but Maureen initiates it all. Never once do you see anyone begging to go to bed with her or flirting with her. It’s all Maureen and the other characters talking about it.
Maureen expects Joanne to be completely ok with this. She has no sense of loyalty or commitment to her partner and revels in her supreme attractiveness. Oh, and in case it wasn’t obvious, she’s a serial cheater. Yet we’re all supposed to be accepting of this as a delightfully quirky character trait.
All this wouldn’t be a problem if this was part of a character arc. But of all the characters, Maureen is the only one to get precisely no development. She doesn’t change, learn anything or develop in any way, shape or form. She just has an on-off relationship with Joanne which eventually becomes permanently on. This is NOT character development, despite what many people think.
To her credit, she’s got some great fun songs, and she does stage protests, but you don’t really get the sense that this is for the good of others. I think there’s a lot of truth to Benny’s statement “Maureen is protesting losing her performance space. Not my attitude,”
MAUREEN IS NOT A WELL WRITTEN CHARACTER. Run, Joanne! Run!

There’s a lot of ‘tell-don’t-show’, and many plot threads don’t add up

Regular readers of my blog will know how much I loathe the dreaded ‘tell-don’t-show’. For those not aware, ‘tell-don’t-show’ is any time the writer decides to state something about a character or story detail while providing no commentary or proof. The Twilight Saga had this in spades.
In RENT, there’s a fair bit of this too, and it starts with the casting brief. The character descriptions gives a lot of details that are not in the show, or are only given the most flimsy of air time. Benny ‘eventually realises his friends are more important’. Only in a single act of paying for Angel’s funeral. And by the way, I never understood why Benny is supposed to be such a douchebag. They never actually say what their problem with him is. Wait, I tell a lie. It’s because he dared to get married. Granted, he isn’t the nicest guy around but is it possible that he became this way because all his friends turned their backs on him? “Ever since our wedding, I’m dirt!” Anyone?
The timelines don’t add up either. Mark says he’s going to fix Maureen’s equipment and then suddenly he’s back with Collins and Angel having not gone!
Then, in a fashion that would make your average Disney Princess shake their heads, Angel and Collins fall in love after a few hours. Yes, it is a few hours. The show opens December 24th, 9pm, Eastern Standard time. There’s a Life Support Meeting at 9:30. Maureen’s protest takes place at midnight. Angel says he’s ‘been hearing violins all night’. No. It’s been two hours MAXIMUM and last I looked that is not all night. This is not love at first sight, which, you know, doesn’t exist in reality. You can have lust, attraction and interest at first sight, but real love takes a lot of time to develop.
And while I’m on the subject, what the hell is Mimi doing with seducing Roger? Let’s think about this logically for a moment. She has HIV, and she’s trying to sleep with a guy who isn’t interested. Yes, he has HIV too, but she doesn’t know that. There’s no way to spin that this is an incredibly selfish thing to do, but it’s totally ok because ‘no day but today’. But don’t worry, once he finds out she has HIV too, boom! They’re in love. At least their love story has conflict and legitimate problems. I can’t justify her actions though. Nobody can. I may like RENT, but these are some pretty serious flaws in both character and story.
Joanne is ‘committed to helping those less fortunate’. When? When do we ever see that happen? Mimi says “Angel was one of my closest friends”. WHEN?!? I don’t think they even share a single line of dialogue. Mimi has ‘lived a lot of life’. How? What information do we get about this in the show? Is it her drug addiction that’s hardly mentioned at all? Speaking of which….

The Movie: Good or Bad?

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Does fan service work?

I’m a lot more forgiving of the 2005 film version than most people are. It’s one of the few movie musicals of this day where all the actors could sing and act effectively. The problem was, with the exception of Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms, the actors were all far too old for these characters. They’re meant to be playing 20-somethings while pushing forty. I have nothing against older actors, but this is incredibly distracting. Having the original cast to make the fans happy was a very bad idea. Fan service is not always a good thing.
I loved the way some songs were handled, such as Another Day, One Song Glory and the opening number with the burning eviction notices. But at the risk of being controversial, there is one plot point which I think the film did BETTER than the stage show.
Mimi’s drug addiction.

In the stage show, Mimi apparently struggles with a heroin addiction. We never see her use. She buys it once in front of the audience. She doesn’t have any symptoms, she never tries to quit for real and it’s really not interesting. But in the movie, we see her genuinely struggle. Film has the power of montage and visuals, so we can see a lot more. I really believed Mimi’s battle in the film, because they showed there was one to have. I didn’t in the stage show. There was little sense of actual urgency in the script. It’s all up to the actors and director to try and add some sense into everything.

Despite popular opinion, it’s not groundbreaking

RENT is often professed as groundbreaking. I disagree. Rock musicals had been around since the 70s with shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar. As for the subject matter and characters, it’s pretty similar to HAIR.
Although if someone has a counter claim on how RENT is groundbreaking, I’m all ears.

Now, what DO I like about RENT?

I love the music. The music is undeniably excellent. It’s catchy, melodic, fits the style of the show and really does drive the emotion and story. People say the lyrics are terrible. Well, they’re definitely not Sondheim, but I’ve listened to Love Never Dies and NOTHING could be worse than those.
Not to say that some of the songs aren’t unnecessary or less-than-good. For instance, you’ve got Roger’s big songs. Roger’s driving point is that he wants to write ‘one great song’ before he dies. One Song Glory is the song he sings about his dream, and it’s far better than the great song he ends up writing. Your Eyes is…well, it’s not exactly terrible, but it’s not memorable or engaging and doesn’t make a lot of sense. Mimi’s eyes aren’t a recurring theme or something Roger continually refers to. He only says ‘brown eyes’ in a passing line and that’s not particularly enthralling.
Mimi, if you think this song is worth coming back to life for, it’s really not.

 

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Sorry to disappoint

And then you have Santa Fe, the most pointless song of all. It’s not necessarily a bad song, per se, but it’s just so….meaningless. This is a filler song to behold. Think about it. You could take Santa Fe out of the show and it would make absolutely no difference. I think it’s only there to give Collins something to do other than fawn over Angel.
Whenever I hear a pointless song in a musical, and let’s face it, most musicals have at least one song you could get rid of and lose nothing, I call it the Santa Fe of (musical). In the production I did, our rather brilliant director made Santa Fe a drug trip. He did the impossible. He made Santa Fe interesting.
The musical is also very well paced. There’s action, but there’s enough moments of silence and quietness so there’s time to breathe. And even though it’s flawed, I love the subject matter and what the musical was trying to say.

RENT isn’t a bad show. It’s unfinished. RENT needed another rewrite or two after the road test of previews. I think a lot of the fans see things in the script which are hinted at, tantalisingly close to reality but because Larson died, it was never completed.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this COULD have been a pretty spectacular musical. There’s something very special in RENT, it’s just not fully realised.  You can see what Larson was trying to accomplish. If he had lived, we’d probably have a more polished and better show. But would it have been as successful? We’ll never know.

Take RENT for what it is: not a masterpiece, but a work in progress that became a musical phenomenon. And I for one, will enjoy the aspects of the show that I enjoy, relish in the memories of the 2013 production and wonder at what might have been.

Take it or leave it.

Best and Worst of the Disney Women Part 2

Last time, I talked about the Best, the Underrated and the honourable mentions. This time, I’ll be looking at the not so great princesses. The ones with zero personality. The princesses with questionable morals or motives. But before I do, I’ll be starting with the one princess who I think always gets an unfair bad rap.

Unfairly Hated

Cinderella (Cinderella, 1950)

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We’ve all heard the feminist whining about this one. There have been countless articles written about how unempowering and dangerous the Disney princesses are to girls, and Cinderella usually makes the top of the list. They complain that Cinderella just sits around, does nothing and dreams of a better life while making no effort to improve her current situation.
NO
Cinderella’s stepmother Lady Tremaine is one of Disney’s greatest villains. She is a classic example of a controlling narcissistic person, and the instigator in a highly abusive relationship. Abuse victims such as Cinderella have no control and no power in a situation like this. Their abusers give them a sense of powerlessness.
However, this doesn’t make Cinderella a bad character. I actually find her quite admirable. She’s patient, kind-hearted and still manages to find happiness in her everyday existence while putting up with three people controlling every aspect of her life. I don’t know about anyone else, but there has to be some good morals there. And since when did being patient and kind become undesirable traits? Cinderella is emotionally strong. Physical toughness does not a strong woman make. This is a different kind of strength. One that I think deserves more attention and appreciation. Go watch the movie again if you ever get the chance. It holds up pretty well.

Mixed Bag

Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989)

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I’m just going to go on record here by saying I liked The Little Mermaid when I was a little girl but my fear of Ursula kept it from being my favourite. I’m serious. Even seeing a picture of Ursula was enough to send me into terror.
I loved Ariel though. I spent hours in the bathtub trying to make my hair flow like hers, and I constantly wished to sing like her (now that I’m a professional singer, I realise that my own voice is unique and great in its own way). However, as I got older, I heard that Ariel was either loved or hated. And going back to the movie, I can see both sides. She’s definitely a whiny teenager. She gives up everything for a man she’s never even spoken to. And yeah, she really doesn’t grow, change or particularly learn anything by the end of the movie. She gets exactly what she wants.
But at the same time, she has a drive and a passion that’s certainly admirable. So, is Ariel a bad character? No. She’s too flawed to be among the best princesses, but still likeable enough to avoid the worst list.

Pocahontas (Pocahontas, 1995)
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Oh, how I adored this movie. Absolutely loved it. Then a couple of years ago I watched it again at the age of 20. And I sadly had to conclude that Pocahontas wasn’t anywhere near as good as I remembered. Not to say the movie doesn’t have some very strong elements. The music is excellent and the art design is amazing. But the story is so dull and predictable and the characters are straight up boring, including Pocahontas. They try to make her adventurous and free-spirited but she’s still not very interesting. However, what saves her from being on the Worst list is that she does contribute to the story and is the one to stand against the fighting. Sadly, Pocahontas is a classic example of seeing a film without the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Drum roll please, for the weakest Disney Princesses.

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WORST

Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937)

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I don’t know whether to blame the fact that it’s a fairy tale and therefore written this way, or that it was made in 1937, but I don’t think Snow White even gets that excuse. The dwarves have really fun and memorable personalities. The Evil Queen is terrifyingly awesome. So why on earth did they have to make Snow White so utterly bland?
She’s not bad or anything, just dull. Sure, she’s nice but she doesn’t really do much except scream and cry. Although to be fair she does have a bit of substance when it comes to cleaning and making the dwarves do things. There’s that. She’s not quite as bad as….

Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty, 1959)

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Aurora is rock bottom. The weakest Disney princess of them all. Go watch Sleeping Beauty again and marvel at how completely useless Aurora is. She does nothing, hardly appears on screen and has little personality. Her weakness is highlighted by the other great characters in the film. The fairies are a riot. Maleficent is incredible. The kings are charming and funny. The climax is one of the greatest in any Disney film. But Aurora and Prince Phillip are a total waste of space. We’re supposed to care that she’s fallen asleep. You need to want them to end up together. And honestly, I really don’t care about either of them. Eighteen minutes of screen time for the title character doesn’t leave a lot of room for development. And that’s not a good thing.
Princess Aurora is the essence of why people hate the Disney Princesses. She is every stereotype. Boring. Bland. Whiny. Meets a man for 5 minutes and decides he’s the one. If I ever watch the movie again, I think I’ll have the fast forward button on standby.

So there’s my list of Best and Worst Disney Women. Do you agree? Disagree? Think I missed a really important one? Let me know in the comments.

Next Week: Top Ten Touching Simpsons Moments.

 

Best and Worst of the Disney Women Part 1

Everyone loves Disney. Don’t lie. Everyone does. It’s the most magical and beloved name in cinema and pop culture. It’s often the first thing we are introduced to as children. My very first trip to the movie theatre was in 1994 when I was two years old. We saw The Lion King, naturally. I remember nothing about watching the film that day, but I definitely remember buying the ticket. I still have it all these years later, too 🙂

For a brand as revered as this, it’s only fitting that Disney has had its fair share of controversy over the years. Everything from racial sensitivity to plagiarism. But nothing seems to spark debate quite as much as the Disney Princesses.
When you come down to it, with the amount of films made by Disney, the majority actually aren’t necessarily even about the princesses, or fantasy, or faraway castles. Sure, they’re the ones we associate most closely with the brand, but overall they’re not the most common. It’s just the marketing and popularity that makes it seem so wide in the Disney universe. We love them, we sing their songs, we dream of being them.
And now it’s time for me to talk about the best and worst of the Disney women.
Now, if you’re wondering why someone is missing from the list, chances are I haven’t seen the movie. Also, a word of caution. If you came here looking for a feminist rant, you’re going to be sadly disappointed (or maybe not?). What you’re about to read will most definitely NOT be from a feminazi point of view, because that’s simply not how I do things. Besides, there have been plenty of words written from that perspective already. If there is a slightly feminist edge or question to a character, I will address it. But no more. What I’m looking at here is from a writing and character developmental standpoint. Which of the Disney females is well developed? Who is bland and forgettable? Which ones are loved for the right reasons? Who deserves more recognition? And who are the bad role models? Come along with me and find out in Best and Worst of the Disney Women Part 1.

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Just add some Mickey ears and we’re halfway there

BEST

Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991)

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Beauty and the Beast was the first ever animated film to be nominated for Best Film at the Oscars, and part of what makes the movie so incredibly good is Belle.
Belle is by far my favourite official Disney princess, and I know I am not alone in this. She’s one of the best animated characters ever.  She is a shining example of Disney adapting a character to the point of improvement from the original tale.
Belle is kind, smart, ahead of her time and a total bookworm. She’s the subject of gossip in a small town, but despite the loneliness it causes her, she refuses to change. Gaston pursues Belle relentlessly, and she can’t imagine a more horrible concept than being his wife. Again, Gaston is the town hero. Everyone thinks Belle is insane for rejecting him. But she’s secure enough in herself to make her choices. Belle is looking from something different. She’s not necessarily looking for romance or a prince. She wants something greater than herself. Something bigger. Her love of books made me feel validated. Like Belle, I was a huge bookworm. I was reading fluently at the age of three. My mother didn’t read picture books to me and my older brother. We read novels. I would sit next to her and read along, sounding out words I didn’t know. And that’s how I learned to read. Because of this, people thought I was weird. But seeing Belle and how she was so unashamed in her enthusiasm for books, I felt validated.
The creators of Beauty and the Beast said the biggest update for Belle’s story was having her make the choice to remain at the Beast’s castle. Some say Beauty and the Beast is just Stockholm Syndrome. And I disrespectfully disagree. Belle is initially frightened by the Beast, but still selflessly sacrifices her freedom for her father. She has the air of someone who really has lost everything. The Beast eventually identifies with Belle as a person, and falls in love with her. Belle only falls in love with the Beast when he stops being….well, beastly. Not only that, but she stands up to him and doesn’t take his abuse sitting down.
Oh, and the clincher? When he says she can leave, she flipping leaves.

Go Belle.

Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009)

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Tiana’s biggest claim to fame is that she’s the first black Disney princess. But that’s not why she’s on my list. Tiana is a kickass leading lady. She’s the first Disney princess to be a workaholic. She has a dream of opening her own restaurant, and she works like a Trojan to realise it. Her story arc comes from finding a balance between work and living. She teaches viewers that while following your dreams is of vital importance, you don’t want to get so caught up in the pursuit that you forget to live. But at the same time she’s smart, determined, has a good heart and a willingness to change.
I’m not going to talk about the alleged racial prejudice or historical accuracy of the movie because it’s completely pointless. Tiana is an awesome character regardless of her skin colour and that’s that.

Princess Anna (Frozen, 2013)

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Look, I agree with everyone that Frozen is WAY too overdone and is everywhere. But hey, I still think it’s an excellent movie. The story is great, has excellent twists and a very likeable cast of characters. And as much as I enjoy Elsa, I’m putting Anna on the list here because she’s the character who does everything. Sure, she makes dumb decisions such as getting engaged to Hans on the day she meets him (and I love how they make fun of it) but she actually learns from them, and the movie shows exactly why she throws herself at him. She’s been shut away her whole life so she would something like that. However, she’s definitely a strong woman. When Elsa runs away, Anna is the one who says ‘this is my problem, and I will go take care of it.’ AND SHE FREAKING DOES IT! I actually wish Anna got a bit more appreciation. I work on weekends for a party company and I regularly play Anna, but it’s mostly appearances alongside Elsa and all the kids want to talk to Elsa. Anna’s the one who gets things done. Let’s give her the limelight.
And for the record, while I do think the film has been marketed to death, I would much prefer children watch Frozen repeatedly than Twilight or anything like that. Frozen may not be the first Disney movie to teach different lessons or that girls don’t need a man to save you, but it’s probably the one that did it most successfully and most creatively.

Underrated

Megara (Hercules, 1997)

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I absolutely love Megara. She’s one of the best women Disney ever brought out, and she’s criminally underrated. I’m always astounded by how many people don’t know who she is.
In 2013 I actually got to play Meg in Hercules Saves Christmas, an original Christmas pantomime based heavily on the Disney flick. Along with Wendla Bergmann in Spring Awakening, Meg is my most favourite role to date.
One of the most common complaints against the Disney princesses is how quickly they fall in love. Enter Megara, who is not only uninterested in romance, she outright rejects it. Having sold her soul to Hades in exchange for saving her lover’s life, Meg was left devastated when she was rejected by him. She’s sassy, sarcastic and tough on the exterior to hide the pain. Her character arc of learning to forgive and trust people again, to the point of being willing to sacrifice her freedom and life for Hercules shows just how far she’s willing to go. Not to mention she has I Won’t Say (I’m in Love), easily one of the best songs in any Disney film.
From a critical point of view, Hercules is not the best Disney movie by a long shot. It’s a flawed film with a ton of recycled characters, a story angle that’s been done to death and a very strange overall tone (I love the muses and the music, but seriously, how does gospel fit into Greek mythology?) but it’s saved by Meg and Hades, good music and some really funny jokes. Meg is a great example of what rejection can do to a person and that it’s possible to overcome the hurt. I think that’s awesome. When I get to Disneyland next year, I hope I get to meet her. And Belle. Oh, and another reason Meg is awesome? She’s voiced by the stunning Susan Egan.

Jane (Tarzan, 1999)

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Jane Porter is how a damsel-in-distress SHOULD be portrayed. Yes, she has to be saved a lot, but she’s still an interesting, eccentric character. Your basic fish-out-of-water, and therefore justifying the need to throw her into peril, Jane still contributes to the plot by educating Tarzan and being the catalyst that introduces him to the human world. I find her very enjoyable and engaging, hence her place in the underrated list.

Honorable Mentions

Esmerelda (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1996)

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She’s brave, smart, resourceful, kind, has some serious attitude and fights for justice, even at risk of her own life.

Princess Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992)

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Jasmine sees herself as more than she’s treated as. She knows she’s worth more than a creature of porcelain beauty and deserves someone who loves her for who she is, not her title or because it’s her ‘duty’.

Alice (Alice in Wonderland, 1951)Wendy Darling (Peter Pan, 1953)

I’m putting these two in the same basket because a) they’re very similar (two young girls whisked off on a magical adventure) and b) they’re voiced by the same actress (Kathryn Beaumont).
Much of what makes these two characters memorable is due to the voice acting of Kathryn Beaumont. Alice and Wendy could be completely bland and boring but she turns them into something really interesting and fun.

Rapunzel (Tangled, 2010)

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Tangled was a Disney movie I kind of avoided for a while, but I’m so glad I finally watched it. Rapunzel is a fun, energetic teenage girl who shows remarkable strength and spirit. In fact, the only thing that really prevents her from being in the best Disney princesses is the less-than-great voice acting. The set up to Tangled is ingenious, the characters are well written and well designed, but the voice acting for Rapunzel and Flynn Rider, to a degree is just distracting enough to take me out of the world. It’s a shame.

Mulan (Mulan, 1998)

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I’d dearly love to place Mulan at the top in the ‘Best’ category, but I can’t do it in good conscience. Why? Because as tough as she is, she’s also a character that’s been done a million times. The oppressed free spirit trying to find a place where she belongs. Not a bad message, but one we’ve seen. Her scenes where she’s disguised is what pulls her through, and she’s definitely a strong woman. Sorry Mulan. I love you, but you’re nothing original.

Next time? Part 2: The Worst Disney Women