Monday, May 31, 2010

Disney actually got the Prince thing right once.


All the fantasy Disney sells aside, being one of their main female characters seems like something of a pain. If you don't start out trapped in a hellish nightmare at the hands of some person who hates you for no good reason, you will soon find yourself trapped in a hellish nightmare at the hands of some person who hates you for no good reason. While this traumatic and life-altering encounter with dark occult forces is happening, you have to be nice to everyone. If you succeed in being caring and noble, you get to marry a hot guy who has a lot of money and power. Any fame or fortune you accrue on your own is written off as due to your beauty and passivity, and referenced in a lifetime of feminist essays condemning you and conservative essays praising you. Any cool stuff you do is drowned in an ocean of pink marketing. After all is said and done you don't have any real fans beyond the little girls who like your pretty dress and hair, because most of fandom better remembers the villains because you need to be a cipher that little girl viewers can project themselves onto. And your name will be inextricably linked with whatever elements in your story give the worst message about life and romance. Given a choice, I suppose I'd really rather be a fairy godmother (which has the advantage of great power without any real responsibility) or a wicked villainess (where I know I'll be going down at the end but at least it will be spectacular.) But if I absolutely have to be the Princess and go through this shit, that prince had better be fucking worth it. Sadly, a prince worth all this trouble is fairly rare even in female fantasies.

You know how stupid it is when they stick a cipher love interest, the girl with no personality beyond attractiveness that is offered up as a prize for the hero at the end of the movie into the story? Well, it sucks when they do it to male love interests too. Out of the Disney/Heroes line we don't ahve much. We have very few quality men, a couple who manage to be okay, and a few who are downright horrible. Aladdin and Hercules get top billing, so they have actual character. The Captain in Mulan struck me as a hell of a guy (he's mean at the beginning because he's a freaking Basic Training instructor), but he's a bit humorless if I recall correctly and isn't actually a prince by marriage or birth. The Disney Scale of Princes seems to range from uninteresting (You're an okay guy, Prince Charming, if only because they didn't develop you enough to give you character flaws) to douchebag (I'm looking at you, Lesser Beast--I sincerely hope Hank McCoy is coming to kick your ass in the first crossover). There's really only one guy who seems to be worth going through a fairy tale for and surprisingly enough, he gets paired off with the princess who suffers the least amount of trauma (Maleficent's scary as hell, but a little finger cut, ten minutes of mind control and a nice nap really don't compare to that stepmother who's been the only mother you've ever known trying to kill you because you're growing up prettier.)

I suppose when they decided the princess was going to spend most of the movie asleep they realized the prince was going to need to be someone worth watching. They managed it for me at least, every time I see this guy onscreen I am grinning. And even though he's like Aurora and needs to be very dignified and attractive so he's not allowed to be anywhere near as emotional and funny as the fairies or the kinds, there is just something incredibly likable about Prince Phillip. Maybe it was just relief that after the completely uninteresting princes in Snow White and Cinderella, Disney finally up and delivered a decent man. The Prince gets a personality in this film.



He gets an awful lot of personality, actually. He's super-adorable, full of life and enthusiasm for everything. He's excitable and impulsive, and 100% Angst-Free even when brooding in Maleficent's dungeon. He's had his entire life planned out since birth, but it doesn't seem outwardly to weigh on him. When he decides against following the Plan to marry that princess he's never met in favor of trying for the cute peasant girl with the really nice singing voice, and tells his father he doesn't come off as rebellious or confrontational. On the contrary, he's very cheerful and affectionate, and doesn't even bother to argue with the old man. He's also allowed to be frightened, discouraged, and humiliated. When he first shows up, he's a little boy making a face at a baby and he seems to retain some of that boyish quality over the next sixteen years. He approaches life with an upbeat sense of humor. When you meet him as an adult, he gets thrown from his horse into a puddle (he was trying to follow that wonderful singing he heard in the forest) and takes it in stride. And when he's drying off and a bunch of Aurora's animal minions steal his coat, hat and boots he takes that rather well too.

The first meeting scene is fascinating to me, and it was never because I liked the song. It's the interaction here. Aurora's caught with stolen goods. Phillip does the creepiest thing possible, and then actually manages to recover and befriend her. And I don't mean the writers just have her be charmed by him being a jerk, I mean he manages to pull out some serious diplomatic skills and switch to the right foot after starting off on the wrong one.

I'll give you that here it helps that the audience knows his story. Initially when he heard the singing, he set out to try and find it but was thrown into a stream. While drying off he sees some of his clothing literally walk away from it, and follows it to find the singer he'd been curious about before. So we know from the start he's not just a pervert who wanders the woods looking for strange girls, but Aurora doesn't.



I love how he does that thing where he sneaks up on her in the forest and starts to dance and sing along with her, and then immediately apologizes when he realizes she's scared. The way I read the buildup and approach is that he mistook it for her specifically playing a prank on him (what would you think if your clothes walked off while you were bathing and you found someone dancing with them?) and tried to prank her back a little. But Aurora hasn't actually thought about where the men's clothing came from, and is so wrapped up in her fantasy that she doesn't even notice when she's caught by an actual human dance partner instead of clothing animated by a couple birds. She is just stupified when she hears "Mr. Owl" singing in a human voice. When she pulls away Phillip realizes he's completely uninvited here, has inadvertently done some incredibly creepy and intrusive, and has to perform some damage control while angling for an invitation. He apologizes, goes out of his way to appear nonthreatening, and serenades her with her own song. He never once asks her why she took his clothing, or mentions it. He doesn't make excuses beyond "I didn't mean to frighten you." (He still smiles a bit too much when telling her that. He was anticipating startling her a little bit, just not so much he'd ruin her day.) He's got every right, mind you, to just stop and hold out his hand and demand she give the items back but if he does so he destroys her game and takes over her territory. So rather than be overbearing and change the rules to suit him, he presents himself as a part of her fantasy, willing to go along with her rulebook. Notice that he doesn't add his own lyrics to the song, or change the tune. He just sings what she's been singing, in a male vocal key. He's signalling her that yes, he's bigger and a stranger and armed but he just wants to join her, he doesn't want to spoil her fun.



The whole scene is a dance (I wouldn't be surprised if it were adapted directly from the ballet, which I've sadly never seen) where he tries to retain her attention without frightening her again. Phillip's a prankster sort of character, overly eager and thoughtless at times (later in the movie he picks his father, a very short King, off of his feet and dances him around until the old man yells at him), but he seems to understand that it's his fault when he crosses a boundary and that it's up to him to change his approach and defuse any potential harm. And while this should be the bare minimum standard of behavior for men of all walks of life, we're looking at a person of royal birth interacting with a peasant (as far as he knows) in the 14th Century. Watching Phillip empathize with and charm Briar Rose the peasant maid he found with his missing boots by playing her game tells us a lot more about Phillip than watching him empathize with and charm Aurora the princess by playing her game.

Of course, my impression here may be affected by the other example of an early Disney Prince following that beautiful song to meet the singer. Phillip is considerably less threatening than the Prince in Snow White, who climbs over the wall to her house, doesn't apologize, and then proceeds to sing his own song about how much he loves her at her window.



I saw that for the first time as an adult, overlooked the few seconds with the white horse, and didn't recognize the prince as the guy climbing over the wall. I thought for a second the Prince was going to meet her by saving her from the creepy robber guy who climbed over the wall into her private garden. But no, that's the Prince, armed, vaulting over the wall and sneaking up on a pre-teen girl with a really eager smile, then chasing her into her house. I can only conclude that he's kind of a dick. He seemed almost gleeful when he asked if he frightened her, and he moves forward when he asks. He doesn't seem to take into account that he is older, much taller, armed, and looks to be of a different class.

But he has the Magic Singing Power that charms birds and potential spouses so this doesn't hurt his chances with her.

Snow White seems a lot more frightened than Aurora does, probably not just Snow White's Prince comes on extra-strong but he's a nobleman in full finery chasing some poor servant girl in rags. Aurora's prince is at least humbly clothed enough that the girl he's approaching isn't struck by a terrifying feudal class gap (mistaking royalty for peasantry is probably easy when everyone is clad in the course kind of clothing you get when your asshole of a king bans the latest in fiber-making technology). Snow White's prince doesn't adjust his posture or draw back to signal he's not a threat, or continue to play according to her rules. He calls for her to come back and then changes the song. He tries to take command of the situation rather than let her set the rules and boundaries.

Prince Phillip, having the benefit of a couple decades thought on what sort of hero little girls might like, approaches Aurora on her terms even when he missteps. Both heroes intrude on the dreaming heroine, but Phillip adjusts to Aurora's dream. And while Phillip's quick apology keeps it so the girl is just startled and doesn't run away immediately, eventually she does run off when she realizes how much time she's spent out in the forest and that her "Aunts" are waiting at home. Phillip handles this better than the other prince, too. He runs after her to keep within earshot, but stops at each barrier (a tree branch, a stream) and calls after her rather than trying to overtake her. And since he didn't just scare her off earlier, she changes her mind when he asks for clarification. ("When will I see you again?" "Never, never!" "Never?" "Well, maybe someday" "When, tomorrow?" "Oh no, this evening." -- Aurora's a bit spacey. Not stupid, mind you, I think she's smarter than the godstooges. Just spacey. I like her.)



Now, we do have to take into account when analyzing both these meetings the Laws of Disney Love. The First Law of Disney Love states that only True Love can break spells like these. As in any fairy tale, there's a strong implication of the hand of fate in these meetings, that this ignites a spark of True Love. True Love is the necessity of the spell, and while even in fiction I've rolled my eyes at the "one destined mate" interpretation, the "True" part certainly means that there is no greed or jealousy or self-glorifying objective in mind. That either Prince could break the spell tells us his interest in the girl goes beyond a roll in the hay, he's genuinely interested in her as a companion. So dickish as Snow White's Prince is, he's got decent intentions but handles them badly. He's not evil, he's just a jerk. But he has mind control singing powers so he doesn't really need social skills. I wouldn't marry him, though. (And judging by the Wicked Queen's reaction, mean old witches are immune to mind control singing powers, so I'm good there.) Prince Phillip is much, much better with people so he comes off as a better catch, so to speak.

That's not to say Phillip wasn't one of those guys with just one thing in mind. Marriage. He's approaching her on her terms but he fully intends to coax her into his world, and he reveals that when he gets back to the castle. He announces to his father, King Hubert, that he plans to marry a peasant girl he met that afternoon and is meeting again. So, Phillip's ultimate goal is marriage while Aurora is just happy to meet a nice boy at the moment. I will say that I can see where they are both coming from. Aurora is unaware that she's a princess promised to a man already so she sees nothing but an open and optimistic future. Phillip's life has been planned out since birth, and if he wants to take control and direct it he needs to be decisive and present his father with a solid alternative. He can't just say "I met a nice girl I'd like to court" in this case, he has to have the long goal in mind to justify tossing away his father's plans. So he's got a goal he hasn't brought up here, but he's not so much deceiving her as waiting until they know each other a bit better to bring it up. It is not a harmful goal to her, his motive is fairly understandable, and he's being pretty considerate of her situation.

In real life I would call it pretty offputting to decide right away you're going to marry someone, but taking into account Phillip's situation, the time period and that the Second Law of Disney Love states that you get only one song to decide you want to spend the rest of your lives together, I'm willing to accept this here.

Phillip's got a lot going for him but his biggest strength is his people skills, and he's certainly a social person. He's re-introduced to use at the "16 years later" mark bribing and joking with his intelligent (and non-speaking) horse. Most of his humor comes through interacting with the horse and defusing tense situations with Aurora and his father. He knows exactly what he needs to say to them. More impressively, Phillip knows exactly when he needs to keep his mouth shut, as when dealing with Maleficent in a situation that I'm certain launched a thousand bondage fetishes. He doesn't try to trick her or talks his way out of it, or even insult her (though she does make him angry enough to pull against his chains). It's obvious that anything he says can make things worse for him, or even reveal information that she can use against him and his family. When he gets rescued, he keeps quiet rather than look a gift stooge in the mouth and sets to action.



I really like his design. He's more angular and masculine than the previous princes but a bit softer than the modern wave. Otherwise he's got this really earnest, innocent face. He has an earnest smile he reserves for Aurora and the King, a very innocent and sweet look. And then he has this mischievous smile that reminds me of Harrison Ford in Star Wars. He also gets to blush, be annoyed and do all these "oh shit" reaction shots when fighting Maleficent.

We like to make fun of Phillip for getting help against Maleficent from the Fairy Godstooges, and don't get me wrong, they were the driving force for good in the movie and the reason he made it, but he did put in an incredible amount of effort there. They arm him, but he's the guy who's probably never fought in his life but uses the weapons competently. He fought the goblin guards en masse without help (it took a ton of them to catch him unarmed in the first place while Maleficent watched him beat them up, must be a fairy thing) until they started with ranged attacks like boiling oil, tumbling rocks, and loads of arrows. He went through the thorns alone without getting help until his cloak got caught. Then when Maleficent showed up, the godstooges got cold feet and booked it (except Merryweather, who got pulled back from helping him because apparently fairy lives are more important than human ones) and he stands up to her alone for way longer than he should have been able to. She basically pummels him with fire repeatedly, driving him to a sheer wall (which prompts a little advice from Flora, but not any sort of levitation or protection), then to the edge of a cliff. When she takes out the shield and scares off the horse, then they come foward to enchant the sword and give him a bit of help. The character is brave as hell and a pretty badass fighter. I think he edges out all the modern princes except Hercules in this territory too. And he gets points for standing up alone to freaking Maleficent while much more powerful people ran away from her.

Phillip is a pretty straightforward and positive character but he does have one flaw that's not immediately obvious, and is very important in the story. His father Hubert, who in the previous scene had been willing to take out a sword at the thought that Stefan was going to let his daughter back out of the marriage deal (and I bash Stefan a lot, but he is a considerate father who realizes that Aurora's going to need some serious adjustment time), doesn't really do that much to stop Phillip from calling it off. He orders him to marry the girl, gets laughed at, then feebly tries to chase his son's horse down the courtyard to get him to talk it over. Then he sighs and goes to tell Stefan it's over with. Then he's utterly shocked to see Phillip and Aurora at the end. He's dumbfounded that Phillip seemed to have changed his mind. Earlier, Maleficent predicts that after 100 years in the dungeon he'll still go out to free Aurora. And not only that, this guy goes right from escaping the Forbidden Mountain to cutting down the thorns and trying to fight through a fricking Dragon to get at that girl. This is, of course, all evidence that Phillip is very much in love. This is also evidence that Phillip is one stubborn son of a bitch.



I am absolutely certain, from these traits, the lack of a curse placed on Phillip, and Hubert's appearance that Phillip also got gifts from the faeries.

"I give the gift of Beauty."

"I give the gift of Cheer."

"I give the gift of Courage."

"And I give the gift of Obstinance."

"Ah, yes... Thank you, Mistress Maleficent. That is just what I wanted in a son."

"Psst, Leah... leave her off the invite list when we finally have a child."

6 comments:

  1. Nyaahhh...this makes me happy! I'm a fan of Disney and their princes and I do like Prince Phillip; you've described and analysed him really well, in an entertaining way, that's got me thinking about princes and how they can be created and understood.

    Not a prince and not Disney, but Dimitri from Anastasia was always one of my favourites. Personally I'd like to do my own analysis of him, if I find the time. I'll recall some of what you've said here if I ever get around to it.

    Thanks. This has been a real good read.

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  2. It's a delight and pretty interesting to read your take on Sleeping Beauty. Truthfully, I don't remember much of anything about this particular Disney film because I don't think I watched it when I was younger. It's fascinating to see a Prince who's so classy and heroic from way back when precisely because it's so unexpected. I just assumed he'd be kind of a dick like creepy Prince "I like kissing dead chicks" Charming (you ever read Neil Gaiman's 'Snow, Glass, Apples'?) - it's a pleasure to be told I'm very, very wrong. Thanks for these posts! They've been really interesting and educational.

    My favorite Disney Movie Hero was always Aladdin because he was clever and the poor guy's only major flaw was low self-esteem, which I could totally relate to growing up. Megara from Hercules was probably my favorite female love interest because she was realistically gun-shy and world-weary, unlike the other Disney Princesses who never seemed to have had a single relationship prior to meeting their intended.

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  3. Oh, Philip. You were my first crush. Granted, I was only five, but still...! It's been some forty years, and this is STILL my favorite Disney movie. Well, favorite cartoon. The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh is my OTHER favorite.

    Philip is definitely cool. He had a neat outfit, his kind, considerate, and loves his horse. He's also brave, stubborn, and quite the hand at fighting dragons. What's not to love?

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  4. Great essay, but all I can think is, "How could Stefan's genes have created such a stallion?" Especially in that last photo.

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  5. KD -- Megara gets the best female song. But yeah, she's fun. She, Jasmine and Mulan are the best of the 90s wave, strange that 2 out of 3 are love interests.

    Dan -- Easy. Flora gives beauty, and the other two give some gifts to even out the silliness.

    Or his Mom is freaking Wonder Woman.

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  6. pretty interesting to read your take on Sleeping Beauty. Truthfully, I don't remember much of anything about this particular Disney film because I don't think I watched it when I was younger

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