Ariel, Aurora, Beauty and the Beast, Belle, Calhoun, Disney, Esmeralda, Hercules, Jane, Megara, Mulan, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, Tarzan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Little Mermaid, Tinker Bell, Vanellope von Schweets, Walt Dinsey Animation Studios, Wreck-it Ralph
I’ve done the heroes and the villains, now it’s time for Disney’s leading ladies to have their chance to shine. The following are, in my opinion, the ten best female Disney characters in terms of personality, spirit, heroism and entertainment value with bonus points if they’re cute. To qualify they must appear in any of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 52 feature films; no Pixar, Disney Toon Studios or other outsourced animation bodies will be considered. Without further ado, these are the ten women who most typify what great Disney heroines are all about.
10. Aurora – Sleeping Beauty
The girl known as Briar Rose, the Sleeping Beauty is the best of the classic era Disney Princesses. With an independent confidence and a more intelligent demeanour than Snow White or Cinderella ever managed, she stands out for her magnificent operatic voice and for being hands-down the prettiest Disney Princess ever. This is one lady worth slaying dragons for.
9. Calhoun – Wreck-It Ralph
Wreck-It Ralph’s scene stealing space marine is not your typical Disney heroine. A brash, gravelly-voiced no-nonsense ass-kicker, Calhoun is probably the toughest woman in the Disney canon despite having been programmed with ‘the most tragic backstory ever’. But she’s got heart too as her determination to save Sugar Rush from the space bugs shows. Memorably voiced by Jane Lynch, Calhoun confounds expectations of Disney women as damsels in distress and then some.
8. Jane – Tarzan
A young British woman on a jungle expedition with her scientist father, Jane might not be a creation of WDAS but their representation of her is right on the money. Presented as an appealingly bumbling fish-out-of-water with a pleasing enthusiasm for the natural world, she provides Tarzan with most of its best comic moments whilst filling out the role of the romantic heroine very well indeed. She’s a charming character who manages to mix brains with beauty.
7. Ariel – The Little Mermaid
Okay, so Ariel’s motivations are mainly selfish and it’s not like her situation at the beginning of The Little Mermaid is as pitiable as, say, Cinderella’s, but there’s no denying her mass appeal. Combining being a princess with being a mermaid she automatically became every little girl’s perfect heroine and the fact that she’s a headstrong flame-haired cutie with personality to spare doesn’t hold her back. Most importantly her appeal is one of the main reasons The Little Mermaid was such a hit, kick-starting the animation renaissance. The American feature animation business owes a hell of a lot to Ariel.
6. Tinker Bell – Peter Pan
One of the things Disney got absolutely right about their adaptation of J M Barrie’s Peter Pan was Peter’s fairy companion, Tinker Bell. She’s a sexy, rude and spiteful sprite whose jealousy goes so far as to nearly get Wendy killed but she’s driven by mischief and for that we love her. If she needed redemption look no further than the moving scene in which she selflessly saves Peter from Captain Hook’s bomb, one of the most heroic moments in the Disney canon. It takes a special character to star in their own series of spin-off films several decades after her first big screen appearance. Not bad for a character who, in the original movie at least, never speaks.
5. Vanellope von Schweets – Wreck-It Ralph
The youngest entry on this list gets points for being simply adorable but it’s the combination of her constantly entertaining character and somewhat sad situation that really won our hearts. Vanellope is a glitch in the arcade game Sugar Rush and is banned from racing in case her glitching gets the cabinet shut down but this doesn’t dampen her energetic and jokey personality. Her unwavering optimism is stirring throughout the film and if there’s anyone not completely moved by the ‘it’s for your own good’ scene you can bet they checked their hearts at the door. This little speed demon is hugely amusing and layered.
4. Megara – Hercules
The girl commonly known as Meg turns out to be a bit of a surprise in Hercules. Appearing at first to be ‘your typical DID – Damsel in Distress’ she turns out to be anything but. Completely unimpressed by the burly Herc (at first anyway) and resistant to having her independence muscled in on by some dorky hero, she seems like the anti-Disney heroine. When you learn that she’s actually in the employ of Hades as payment for saving the life of a boyfriend who swiftly dumped her things start to get much deeper. Meg’s is a very emotionally satisfying arc and her presence in the story of Hercules is hugely important to why the film works so well.
3. Mulan – Mulan
There aren’t a whole lot of title-hogging Disney ladies that aren’t royal but Mulan is by far the best of them, and way better than Pocahontas. An ordinary Chinese girl, Mulan laments the way her society tries to dress her up as something she’s not but doing this becomes a choice when her injured father is conscripted into the army. Dressing as a man and heading out to war in his place, Mulan’s is one of the bravest acts of any Disney character and paves the road for one of the most entertaining animated features of the 1990s. Her character handles action and comedy with equal grace and by the end you totally believe that she is a woman the whole of China would bow to.
2. Belle – Beauty and the Beast
Ariel might have got the ball rolling on the animation renaissance but Belle provided its brightest highlight. As the most beautiful girl in her provincial French town, Belle turns a lot of heads and has no shortage of admirers, including the strutting Gaston, but she’s much more interested in reading and adventure. As heroines go she’s a bit of a geek and makes a convincingly rounded character with sympathetic hopes and provides one half of probably the best romance in the history of animation. Paige O’Hara’s wonderful voice-work makes her appealing and relatable and the story, which sees her offer herself to the Beast as a prisoner in place of her father lacks nothing in the courage stakes. As a heroine, a romantic lead and a character in whom to invest one’s sympathies there’s none better. Almost.
1. Esmeralda – The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Judge Claude Frollo placed first in my list of Disney villains, both Quasimodo and Captain Phoebus featured for the heroes, now Esmeralda confirms that The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney’s most underrated film, boasts the studio’s best cast of characters. Esmeralda is a stunning, raven-haired gypsy dancer struggling to earn a living on the streets of Paris. With her people persecuted by the self-righteous Frollo, her desires are not remotely selfish as evidenced in her song, ‘God Help the Outcasts’, in which she asks for nothing but aid for her fellow gypsies. She immediately accepts Quasimodo for himself and displays tremendous kindness when the baying crowd torment him at the Festival of Fools. Demi Moore gives her just the right balance of spirit and sympathy and of all the many, many Disney heroines she is without a doubt the most beautiful. Captain Phoebus summed it up best; ‘What a Woman!’