Who doesn’t like at least one Disney movie? Whether it’s a Marvel movie or one of its more mature movies (fun fact: did you know that Armageddon is actually a Disney film since Disney owned its production company by the 1980s), Disney’s wide scope of subsidiaries means that at least one of your favorite movies is backed by good old Mickey Mouse himself.
While I enjoy movies suited for grown-ups, every now and then, I love going back to my childhood to watch the occasional Disney Princess movie. I grew up watching these movies wishing I could be one of the official Disney Princesses (and even the unofficial Disney Princesses, too) who were beautiful and fair, and wearing the fairest pink princess dress in the land. But as I grew older, so did Disney’s lineup of princesses who showed that a princess was more than just her beauty.
If you want to watch a Disney Princess movie marathon, you don’t have to watch it in order. The Disney Princess franchise features characters that come from their own independent series, so it’s not like Marvel where there’s a specific chronological order to watch the movies or else the timeline won’t make sense.
But if you want to see how Disney’s princesses have developed in the last 80 years or so and how animation has gone from rudimentary animation to some of the best effects, here’s the chronological timeline of Disney Princesses and their movies.
#1: Snow White (1937)
If you want to start with the classic, you definitely have to start your movie marathon with Snow White. This is the Walt Disney Animation Studios’ first animated feature film and, at the time, the biggest financial risk for the studio.
Prior to Snow White, Walt Disney and his team focused solely on animated shorts because, at the time, nobody had ever heard of an animated feature-length film. Hollywood’s film industry thought no one would be willing to pay a 90-minute animation and believed Snow White would flop. During production, Walt and Roy Disney spent around $1.7 million – this was over ten times the budget they would spend for one short film. Adjusted for inflation, production costs would have been around $30 million today. To continue funding the project, Disney had to bet all his assets on Snow White’s success to get a loan.
Despite the naysayers, however, Snow White proved to be a success, earning $8 million ($142 million today) during its release. Because of its success, it was constantly being re-released in movie theaters and wasn’t available for home video release until the 1990s. It changed the face of filmmaking and opened the floodgates for more animated films to come. In 1989, it was preserved in the National Film Registry after the United States Library of Congress deemed it a significant piece of work worth keeping.
While Snow White can be considered the O.G. princess of the bunch that set the foundation for the rest of Disney’s animated films, including the rest of the animated princesses. The film is based on the 1812 German fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm and is about a beautiful princess who hides in the forest with seven dwarves after her stepmother tries to kill her to remain the fairest woman in the land.
Unfortunately, since Snow White is a product of its time, the plot is considered the most anti-feminist of all the Disney Princess films. The film fails the Bechdel Test and features two kinds of women: the evil one, and the one who needs men (specifically, seven dwarves, a prince, and a repentant huntsman) to save her from peril while her roles are delegated to flower-picking, cooking, and cleaning.
You can’t blame Disney for having source material that dates back to the 19th century, but if you want to see how Disney Princesses go from eating poisoned apples to actively saving lives, this is the movie you want to start with.
#2: Cinderella (1950)
Disney released 10 more animated feature films before releasing Cinderella in 1950. Based on two fairy tales: the French Cinderella by Charles Perrault and the German Ashputtel by the Brothers Grimm. In this film, Cinderella is a beautiful young woman forced at a young age to work as a maid for her stepmother and stepsisters after her father dies. When the king’s son refuses to marry, the royal palace holds a ball for all eligible young women and Cinderella sneaks off to the ball to with the help of her mice friends and her fairy godmother.
Her character is symbolized by her iconic glass slippers. And while it is implied that her father was a nobleman, Cinderella is the first Disney Princess who has to marry into royalty. Unfortunately, like Snow White, Cinderella is criticized for being anti-feminist as the movie can be interpreted to mean that the only way for a woman to be free is to be beautiful and attract the attention of a wealthy man. However, she’s a step above Snow White in a way that Cinderella has some form of agency and does not give up despite the injustices she has suffered.
#3: Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Technically speaking, Princess Aurora should have been the fourth Disney Princess on this list after Tinkerbell of the 1953 film, Peter Pan. However, after Tinkerbell was removed from the roster in 2005 (so that she could be the headliner of Disney’s other franchise, Disney Fairies), Aurora technically became the third oldest princess on the list.
The third official Disney Princess appearing in Disney’s 16th animated feature film, Princess Aurora is based on French, German, and Russian stories. She is the daughter of a king and queen betrothed to a prince of a neighboring kingdom at birth. However, her parents anger the evil fairy Maleficent and she is cursed to die on her 16th birthday. To protect Aurora, three fairies agree to raise her in secret until the day after her 16th birthday so that they can avoid the prophecy.
While the Disney Princess website says Aurora encourages children to be curious and “always wonder,” but critics point out how Aurora had very little involvement in her own story. She was not aware of her curse nor did she do anything to stop it. In fact, despite it being a movie about Princess Aurora, Philip got much more time featuring himself slaying the dragon. When I try to recall the movie, some of the most memorable parts include the fairies using magic to prepare Aurora’s 16th birthday party and Maleficent taunting Philip.
#4: The Little Mermaid (1989)
The Little Mermaid’s princess, Ariel, is the first Disney Princess that isn’t fully human – at least, not until the end of the movie. The film is based on the eponymous Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, except that it has a much more child-friendly ending compared to the original story (read: each step Andersen’s mermaid took felt like she was stepping on knives and when the prince marries a princess instead of her, she cannot bring herself to murder the prince to become human again and accepts her death as she turns into sea foam).
In this Disney-esque less brutal version of the tale, Ariel is the youngest and most rebellious of King Triton’s seven daughters. Despite her father’s warnings about mankind, Ariel is drawn to a young prince and strikes a deal with a sea witch to make her a human in exchange for her voice.
This is Disney’s 28th animated feature film. Despite the progress Cinderella and Aurora had made after Snow White and that she was created during Disney’s “Renaissance” period, critics found Ariel regressing feminist progress as her curiosity to see the world outside of her own is mostly motivated by her infatuation for a prince she has seen but never spoken to.
In mid-2019, Disney announced a live-action remake of the film and casted singer and actress Halle Bailey as Ariel. This was met with praise and criticism because while Bailey was known to be a talented singer, some people weren’t happy that Bailey, a Black American, does not resemble the white and red-haired Ariel in the animated film. Whether you like or dislike the casting choice, I’m more interested to see how Disney will resolve adapting a film with a supposedly anti-feminist character into a time with more empowered women.
#5: Beauty & the Beast (1991)
Fifth on your watch list should be Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s 30th animated film based on a French fairy tale. In this film, book-loving Belle sacrifices her own freedom in exchange for her father’s when he is imprisoned by a Beast, whom she teaches how to love. Her love for him breaks the spell keeping him a beast and transforms him into a handsome prince.
After four Disney princesses that miss the mark on modern-day feminism, Belle is the first active princess (she married into royalty) who is independent, intelligent, and will actively argue and resist when she can. Though she requires Beast’s help in some instances such as when she is caught by a pack of wolves, she is the first princess that doesn’t fit the stereotypical role of weak women with no agency of her own. And as we see later on, we see that Belle paves the way for stronger, more independent women.
#6: Aladdin (1992)
While Princess Jasmine isn’t the main character or the eponymous character in Disney’s 31st animated film, she is still the leading lady who continues Belle’s streak of empowered Disney Princesses. The film is based on the story “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” from the folk tale of One Thousand and One Nights. While she is the first princess who isn’t the main character or titular character of her story, she is the first non-European princess.
In the movie, a street urchin named Aladdin falls in love with Princess Jasmine while she is disguised as a commoner roaming around the city. After getting his hands on a magic lamp, Aladdin tricks everyone into thinking he is a prince in order to earn a chance to win the princess’ love and marry her.
While Jasmine isn’t the main character and is subject to a very patriarchal setting (as the daughter of the Sultan, she must marry by her 16th birthday and is forbidden from leaving the palace), her personality is far from the demure princess of Disney’s earlier days. Her curiosity to see outside the palace walls is driven solely by her own motivations, not because of a man. She is also fierce and confident, showing her outright refusal to marry suitors she does not like.
#7: Pocahontas (1995)
The seventh Disney Princess on this list in Disney’s 33rd animated film, the eponymous Pocahontas, is the first Native American Princess. Technically, she’s not a princess because her father is a chief, not a king, and she does not marry a prince. But in European standards of ruling, she is someone born into the Native American equivalent of a royal family. Pocahontas is also the first Disney character based on real historical figure, except for a few important details that would have shown just how cruel the colonizers really were.
In the film, Pocahontas’ tribe come across British colonizers trying to conquer the New World. She falls in love with Captain John Smith and seeks to stop the tension between her people and the English settlers.
#8: Mulan (1998)
Mulan is the eighth official Disney Princess even if, technically, she was neither born nor married into the royal family of China. However, aside from her royal status, Mulan met the criteria for empowering Disney Princesses that Disney wanted to add to their roster and became an honorary princess in the list. Unlike Pocahontas, Mulan was based on a Chinese legend and may or may not have been a real historical figure in ancient China. Her film is Disney’s 36th animated film.
In the film, China defends itself from invading Huns and requires one man from every family to serve in the imperial army. With the Fa family having only one man, Mulan disguises herself as a man and takes her elderly father’s place in the army. She later becomes the savior of China after saving the emperor and the royal household.
#9: The Princess and the Frog (2009)
The ninth film on your list is Disney’s 49th animated film and presents the first Black American Princess: Princess Tiana. It is based on a novel that was based on the Brothers Grimm tale The Frog Prince.
Tiana is a New Orleans-based young woman working as a waitress to save enough money to start her own restaurant. A visiting prince is turned into a frog and mistakes Tiana for a princess whose kiss can turn him back to a human. However, she is turned to a frog herself and they have to find a way to undo the spell.
The Princess and the Frog signals the beginning of a new wave of Disney Princesses. While some of these princesses have romantic relationships with men, this is no longer the focus of each movies. These princesses are now more independent and headstrong.
#10: Tangled (2010)
The 10th Disney princess featured in Disney’s 50th animated film, Rapunzel is the first princess used in a CGI film. Tangled is based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, though with some changes to the original story. In the original fairy tale, Rapunzel’s parents aren’t royalty and lost their daughter because of Rapunzel’s mother has pregnancy cravings that drive her father to steal Rapunzel vegetables from a witch’s garden. In exchange for getting Rapunzel for his wife, the couple must give the witch their child.
In the Disney film, however, the pregnant queen consumes a magic flower that heals her and gives her a golden-haired child whose hair has the flower’s healing abilities. Unknown to the king and queen, a witch had been using that flower to keep herself young, so she kidnaps the princess and keeps her hidden in a tower so she can use the girl’s hair to remain young.
#11: Brave (2012)
The princess in this film, Merida, is the 11th Disney Princess (and the first Pixar princess) and the first princess who does not fit the stereotypical beauty of the other princesses, does not sing, and does not have a romantic interest as she turns down all three of the suitors in her film. In fact, her whole character arc is based on the fact that she shuns all the typical princess and lady-like activities in favor of more free-spirited activities.
In Brave, Merida’s parents expect her to by a proper princess and marry the son of one of three allied clans, but Merida wants to be free and do what she wants. After attempting to challenge her suitors for her own hand, Merida wishes for a way to change her fate.
#12: Moana (2016)
The twelfth and final princess of the Disney Princess roster (as of 2019), Moana is the first Polynesian Princess and the first story not to be based on stories or legends. She is the second princess without a romantic interest and focuses more on her own adventure.
As Moana is ready to take her place as the next village chief of Motunui, strange circumstances drive Moana to believe they have to leave the island, but her father refuses to let her go out of fear of the ocean. However, she discovers that she was chosen to leave the island and restore the heart of Te Fiti before the darkness consumes Motunui and all other islands in the ocean.
#13: Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)
While there are only 12 Disney Princesses with their own movie, why not cap off your Disney Princess marathon with a movie that features all 12 princesses! The sequel of Wreck-It Ralph, titled Ralph Breaks the Internet, features all the official Disney Princesses as well as Princess Anna and Queen Elsa from Frozen. Though Vanellope Von Schweetz isn’t an official Disney Princess, it is refreshing to see her and all the other princesses get together.
And they’re not just there for the novelty: these princesses have an important role in the movie. If you haven’t watched the movie yet and want to avoid spoilers, don’t watch the video below.
Remember, you’re free to watch the Disney Princess movies in any order (though I recommend watching Ralph Break the Internet last. But if you want to see the evolution of how Disney creates their princesses for millions of young girls (and boys!) to emulate, try watching it based on the year of their release. You’ll see how Disney’s ideal princess starts with a young woman with no decisions of her own and ends with independent women who don’t need any man to save them.