The new Disney movie Disenchanted stumbles in plenty of ways, but one thing it does right is bother to ask what happens after “happily ever after”—particularly as it pertains to that most durable of contemporary heroines, the Disney Princess. Dismissed as antifeminist, then reclaimed as plenty feminist; pilloried for lack of diversity, then diversified; and stubbornly beloved pretty much the whole time by children everywhere, the Disney Princesses have been through a lot over the past century. Now Amy Adams has to bring middle-aged regrets onto their plates! Disenchanted’s rivalry between a former princess and a suburban mom turned sorta-evil queen also raises the question of pitting princesses against each other in pointless, pitiless battle. So let’s think about what makes a great Disney princess, and rank them all on one free-for-all list!
As with any royal undertaking, there must be ground rules, declared by fiat: First, this list will go beyond the scope of the officially recognized Disney Princesses Product Line, because we’re not soulless monsters. Second, because maybe we are no soulless monsters, no television-only princesses will be permitted. No disrespect meant to Elena of Avalor or Sofia the First, but their mythologies are simply too complicated to warrant consideration alongside the stars of 70-minute features. Third, live-action reincarnations of previously animated princesses will not count as separate entries, or even at all, because those Disney remakes are mostly just VR karaoke—pretenders to the throne, in other words. Finally, princesses now owned by Disney because of acquisition do not count, except for one specific sort-of-exception to be named during the list.
Here is every Disney princess, ranked:
22. Eilonwy (The Black Cauldron)
Just because this movie nearly destroyed Disney Animation for good doesn’t mean its princess should be stricken from the record! Eilonwy, who meets the weak-willed hero during his slow and underpopulated search for his all-powerful pig (this is a boring, bad movie), sets sort of a Luna Lovegood model of the serenely loopy English-accented quasi-mystic (she follows around a glowing bauble). It’s a likable and even welcome variation on the princess type, but this character is really given her due in the Chronicles of Prydain books that Disney bastardized to make The Black Cauldron. In this telling, her fashion (and bone-structure) bites heavily from the non-royal get-up of #21—meaning even her blatant thievery is on the bland side. The best thing about this version of Eilonwy is that she likely wouldn’t get too fussed about placing last on the list.
21. Aurora (Sleeping Beauty)
The sweet nature of the old-school Disney Princesses has probably gotten a bad rap in recent years; a female character doesn’t need to be a badass warrior to be some little girl’s hero, and the kindness of a character like Cinderella should not be underestimated. That said: Is Aurora from Sleeping Beauty good, or merely, in the Stephen Sondheim distinction of the word, nice?
20. Mia Thermopolis (The Princess Diaries; The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement)
People love Anne Hathaway’s gawky-to-glam makeover in the Princess Diaries movies so much that she may yet get roped into doing a decades-later third installment. Hathaway certainly showed off an early form of her star power in these typically cutesy Garry Marshall comedies, but the damage she did to the curly-haired and thick-browed communities cannot be overestimated.
19. Dejah Thoris (John Carter)
Fun fact: Disney’s legendarily massive financial bomb John Carter was based on a book called A Princess of Mars, a vastly cooler title that was dropped out of the company’s fear that it would alienate male moviegoers. (A year and change later, Frozen alienated male moviegoers to the tune of $400 million domestic.) Lynn Collins doesn’t exactly give a galvanizing performance as Dejah; she wears some cool outfits, resists betrothal, and gets into it with the strapping designated hero. But it’s novel to see an accidental version of a Disney Princess given the high-fantasy treatment.
18. Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
There’s a clear subservience streak to Snow White that rankles, even when re-re-evaluating the Disney Princess canon; she’s kind and gracious to be sure, but the degree to which she commits herself to upholding the domesticity of seven messy bachelors feels a tad regressive. She feels like the type of princess it would be hard to converse with—that she would keep distracting herself with busying little chores, hums and animal-tending. Style-wise, though, she is on point, less for the much-vaunted whiteness of her skin than the ebony-black tone of her hair and the rose-red tone of her lips.
17. Cinderella (Cinderella)
Pretty much all of the humans in Cinderella are handily upstaged by the mice, and while that’s true of the heroine too, you have to give Cinderella some credit: The reason her home is overrun with adorable vermin to begin with is her gentle, possibly slightly touched way with animals. This is a lady who keeps small mouse-sized clothing on hand in her drawer, in order to civilize the tiny rodents constantly scampering, naked and fearful, underneath her feet. Come to think of it, if anything, Cinderella is kind of a Not-So-Manic Pixie Dream Girl, or, as they used to be known, a local eccentric. Which is actually pretty cool as far as royalty goes. We can only imagine what kind of bonkers royal decrees she made once she got inside the palace—expensive initiatives to cloth all the mice and drown all the fattest cats, that sort of thing.
16. Kida (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
The female lead of Disney’s adventure story Atlantis: The Lost Empire is probably the most-forgotten princess this side of The Black Cauldron, though that’s not for lack of a memorable design, influenced by comic book artist Mike Mignola, who worked on the film. Kida is undoubtedly the only Disney Princess with long white hair and dangling bangs; she’s also got a certain amount of seniority, being nearly 9,000 years old. It feels a little condescending, though, that the movie’s adventurer-nerd hero has to explain so many of the lost city’s secrets to a millennials-old member of its royal family—and then save her from her own chosen-one status, albeit one that brings in some more distinctive design work.
15. Ariel (The Little Mermaid)
You gotta hand it to her: Girl goes after what she wants. She also gives voice to the frustrations of millions of young people the world over by asking, in song: “When’s it my turn?” Obviously Princess Ariel didn’t actually write the greatest-ever “I want” song, but it’s such a major part of Disney Princess lore that you kind of have to credit Ariel (and her voice, memorably provided by Jodi Benson) for the “Part of Your World” effect.
14. Giselle (Enchanted; Disenchanted)
Amy Adams has brought an inherent sunniness to a number of her roles, including the Junebug breakout that likely got her the necessary attention to win the part of Giselle, but you wouldn’t necessarily look at her filmography and think “Disney Princess incarnate.” Her characters in The Master, Her, Arrival, American Hustle and Big Eyes (or, for that matter, to pick one of her worst movies, Hillbilly Elegy) are imbued with different forms of subtle, aching sadness, and it’s a tribute to her skill as an actor that she can somehow seem like a natural fit to play a cartoon princess in Enchanted, and then bring such depth of feeling to the role—twice, no less! If these movies were better-written, Giselle would likely rank even higher; Adams beautifully navigates the perilous optimism of importing fairy-tale values into the harsh light of day. But the movies’ sense of that reality, and even of the fairy-tale rules Giselle is supposed to be operating on, often feels a bit water-y and underdeveloped. It’s a great princess performance in search of better material.
13. Pocahontas (Pocahontas)
Disney’s first post-Lion King feature was a bid for respectability that wasn’t especially well-received then, and has plenty that makes it seem worse now, including a both-sides-ing of the conflict between Native tribes and English colonizers. Accordingly, both the movie and its heroine have receded a bit from the Disney Princess line-up over the years, and it makes sense. But in retrospect, Pocahontas also blazed a trail for more modern Disney Princess figures—call it the “daughter-of-the-chief model” that informs the likes of Moana and Raya—and the character herself doesn’t need to be discounted just because she’s in a clumsy (if beautifully animated!) movie co-starring Mel Gibson. Also, on the music front, she sings “Colors of the Wind,” which remains a banger.
12. Merida (Brave)
The only Pixar movie to boast a proper princess, who was confusingly inducted into the official Disney Princess line even as plenty of in-house characters were denied the honor, Brave has become something of an underrated feature in recent years, a mother-daughter story about generations attempting to better understand each other. This being a Pixar movie, there’s perhaps a parent’s-side bias in the end, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of listening to Kelly Macdonald’s Scottish brogue power Merida’s myriad disagreements with her family—nor of watching the finest nest of curly hair ever seen in a Disney movie to this point, a crimson-hued make-good for the crimes of Mia Thermopolis.
11. Leia (Obi-Wan Kenobi)
Calling Princess Leia a “Disney Princess” is, admittedly, the stuff that custom-made, corporate-celebrating, nausea-inducing t-shirts worn at Disney World are made of. But it feels appropriate to single out the version of Leia who appears on the Disney+ show Obi-Wan Kenobi as part of the Disney lineup, for better and for worse. As charmingly played by Vivien Lyra Blair, this Leia is the very model of a modern Disney Princess: Brave, clever, mouthy, conflicted about her royal duties and ultimately someone you want on your side in a battle. She even has her own Disney-style diminutive chirpy sidekick in the form of her droid Lola, which beats the hell out of Mulan’s cricket!
10. Raya (Raya and the Last Dragon)
It kinda feels like 2021 was the first time a more overt Disney Princess figure was outshined by a non-princess human female lead in another Disney cartoon (that’s a lot of caveats, but hear me out). Raya (engagingly voiced by Kelly Marie Tran) isn’t directly described as a princess, but she’s got the whole daughter-of-the-chief/warrior princess/Strong Female Character deal; though I thought about how I might include her here, Mirabel from the same year’s Encanto is really just part of a big family (albeit a popular one). Yet, I’ve definitely seen more Mirabel costumes on Halloween than little Rayas—and while Encanto is indeed a much better movie, Raya herself is a terrific princess: A likable problem-solving action heroine with real feelings (and a bit of an impulse-control problem), she feels like a honing of a particular vision for a 21st-century Disney Princess. This may also be why the world seems ready to embrace the next iteration.
9. Jasmine (Aladdin)
She’s a little too traditionally damsel-in-distressed (and, uh, voiced well outside of her race) to rate much higher on the list, but after a marriage-minded Ariel changed her whole physicality for a man and bookish Belle try her best to learn to love a beast—and these were the new empowered Disney Princesses of the ’90s!—it was refreshing to see Princess Jasmine reject suitor after suitor and steal out of the castle entirely, in search for the kind of authenticity that can only be found in a young thief who looks (as Roger Ebert memorably pointed out) suspiciously like a white American teenager. Jasmine probably deserved better both behind the scenes and in this movie—and this is one area where the live-action remake does its best to deepen a classic Disney character, as the Guy Ritchie movie gives Live-Action Jasmine her own set of ambitions beyond really, really not wanting to get married.
8. Elsa (Frozen; Frozen II)
In retrospect, it seems crazy that it took this long. Of course, after years of spells cast upon them: A princess with actual superpowers! If other Disney Princess characters from this era ensured that Disney would probably never again take a decade-long break from that character type, Elsa of Arendelle probably ensured that kids will be absolutely hypnotized by some manner of Disney Princess continually for the next 200 years or so. If “Part of Your World” turned the “I want” song into a mission statement, “Let It Go” turned its “I don’t want” counterpart into a turbocharged manifesto. However: A few points off for Elsa straight up just not attending her little sister’s inauguration as queen at the end of Frozen II.
7. Vanellope von Schweetz (Wreck-It Ralph; Ralph Breaks the Internet)
Vanellope, the diminutive and foulmouthed (well, for a PG movie) videogame racer, is clear proof that Wreck-It Ralph was developed at the height of Disney’s princess-avoidance years, even though it was actually released between Tangled and Frozen helping to revive the brand on the big screen. She’s a secret princess with little interest in royalty and who prefers her comfy clothes to the frilliness of her “original” programming. (Maybe there’s even a bit of a message in there about accepting the person you know you are on the inside, rather than what you’re assigned at birth?) She’s also, as voiced by Sarah Silverman, one of the silliest and funniest of the princesses, a little beacon of irreverence. By the time the 2018 sequel rolled around, Vanellope was holding comfy-clothes seminars for virtual representations of the entire Disney Princess squad—a shameless bit of cross-promotional synergy, yes, but also a delightful one showing the company at peace with the variety of characters who can fall under the Disney Princess umbrella.
6. Belle (Beauty and the Beast)
This one’s for the bookworms. Sure, Belle values kindness and exhibits bravery and an open mind and all that, especially when it comes to developing romantic feelings for her beastly captor. But the real reason her heart melts for the Beast? He has a really, really big library. Belle is all about that reading life, and would gladly marry who-or-what-ever for the privilege of access to that giant library where she can sit, read, and not talk to anyone. Relatable!
5. Anna (Frozen; Frozen II)
Once, my best friend tried to explain to my then-four-year-old daughter that Anna is the true protagonist of Frozen; she chanted “Elsa! Elsa! Elsa!” at him until he stopped. But Rob is right, everyone! Elsa is great, of course, and the movie’s ability to inhabit both women’s points of view without making either a villain is part of what made it such a great and unconventional success…but purely in terms of hero’s-journey stuff, it’s Anna who really drives the story of Frozen, and without the benefit of mutant-like superpowers. After watching Kristen Bell try her hand at a couple of ill-fated live-action Disney vehicles, it was so satisfying to see the once-and-future Veronica Mars lend her distinctive comic delivery (and decent pipes) to an actual Disney princess (who, like her sister, later ascends to the throne).
4. Mulan (Mulan)
Branding technicality used to dilute a blinding Disney Princess Whiteness, or vital component of that modernized and more inclusive brand? Probably both. Mulan is not literally a princess; even the shoddy direct-to-video sequel Mulan II, which involves her getting married, doesn’t hitch her wagon to an actual prince. But her loyalty to her family, and the way she fights (and cross-dresses!) her way through national conflict in order to protect that family, even as she has conflicted feelings over the expectations placed on her as a young woman, make 1998’s Mulan classic Disney Princess material. It’s also just a damn good girl-powered action-adventure cartoon, and served as a welcome respite for a time when Disney seemed ready to bet most of their money on mythical male heroes to avoid the princess conversation.
3. Tiana (The Princess and the Frog)
The last 2D-animated princess in the Disney catalog so far, Princess Tiana also had the pressure of righting years of wrongs in becoming the company’s long-awaited first Black princess. As voiced and sung by Anika Noni Rose, the character became a plucky insta-icon, the center of a charmer of a throwback that is guaranteed, in this day and age, to give animation fans hunger pangs over both delicious-looking animated beignets, and the kind of hand-drawn artistry that produces delicious-looking animated beignets (and, you know, Tiana herself). Some viewers don’t like how much of the movie Tiana spends outside of her own skin, confined to the body of a frog (as is her eventual intended, Prince Naveen). It’s suboptimal, but this is also a fairy tale, and a pretty clever riff on The Frog Prince at that. Moreover, it’s not Frog Tiana whose face is now seen on dolls, on t-shirts and in the Disney parks, delighting little girls everywhere. It’s not just as a walk-around character, either: Tiana’s Bayou Adventure will refurbish and replace Splash Mountain in both Florida and California in a couple of years.
2. Rapunzel (Tangled)
For all of the good-to-great Disney cartoons to feature princesses, surprisingly few of them actually work as romantic comedies. Tangled seemed to come in just under the wire before that approach came to be seen as retrograde; first and foremost, this is a zippy romance between Rapunzel (Mandy Moore—like Kristen Bell, an immensely likable star who finally got her due as a cartoon character) and the so-called Flynn Rider (Zachary Levi). Rapunzel’s shut-in qualities should make her a naïf, and they sort of do, but she’s afforded a lot more depth than the more traditional blondies she’s riffing on, especially in her terrifying relationship with her captor, Mother Gothel. The psychological acuity matches surprisingly well with the bits where she runs around barefoot and clocks people with a frying pan.
1. Moana (Moana)
“If you wear a dress, and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.” So speaketh Maui, the cocksure trickster demigod, dismissing Moana’s assertion that just being the daughter of the chief doesn’t make her a princess. There are a lot of contemporary Disney lines like this, many of them smug in their clever self-reflexivity. But while this line does get a laugh in Moana, it works because it also gets at something truthful about how Disney Princess characters are litigated, mitigated and redefined, as befits a concept that’s supposed to be an artistic tradition, a toy line, a vehicle for empowerment and an old cliché that needs transcending, all at once. Frozen was a bigger princess-centric smash, and actively messes with the princess formula more directly. But there’s something elementally satisfying about Moana’s perfection of the modern Disney Princess formula, and much of that comes down to the character herself, delightfully voiced by Auli’i Cravalho. A capable and adventure-seeking young woman who nonetheless isn’t an unstoppably powerful superhero, Moana’s familiar concerns about balancing her independence with her familial obligations feel especially convincing because the movie makes her a natural leader, paying attention to at least a little of the actual administrative responsibilities of princessing (venturing beyond the reef is just a good policy decision!) rather than abstracting them. She makes wearing a dress and having an animal sidekick look like a genuine calling.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.