This research studied Walt Disney’s female representation within the Disney Princess franchise. With the princess movies’ target audience being very young and impressionable, it’s important to understand how female characters are being presented. With that, it is important to see how it has changed over the years. The study was done by performing a content analysis of the Disney Princess films, through the application of the Bechdel test. Then through an extension of the test, the types of relationships found in the films were analyzed. Along with the content analysis, a critical analysis was applied to the films in order to better examine some of the female relationships. The critical analysis was supplemented by the use of secondary sources from the literature review. The findings of the research demonstrated that the majority of Disney’s Princess movies passed the Bechdel test, but did not consistently have good female relationships or representation.
Over the years, the Walt Disney Company has been known for its Disney princess franchise. From Snow White to Rapunzel, Disney has managed to cover almost every fairy tale. While the stories are beloved by children around the world, Disney has often received criticism for its handling of female characters.
At a grand total of eleven princesses (with soon to be two more added), the Disney Princess franchise is one of Disney’s most popular sources of entertainment. However since Disney’s Mulan in 1998, we’ve seen a decline in not only the Disney princess franchise, but also in female-lead films from the Disney Company. The next did not appear until eleven years later, with Disney’s film The Princess and the Frog. However during this gap, it was not just an absence of princesses that was happening. Pixar Animation had its strongest run during 1998-2009, producing major blockbuster animations such as Finding Nemo (2003) and Up (2009). It was 2013’s Frozen that catapulted Disney back into the spotlight, featuring not just one princess, but two, in an action-packed musical. The story features two sisters who have to embark on a journey to find themselves and each other in order to save their city. Frozen dominated the theaters, bringing in a total of $1.072 billion worldwide (McClintock, 2013).
This study focuses on Disney’s handling of its female characters over the years and the changes to its with more modern characters. In relation to that, it applies popular feminist media critique, the Bechdel test, to see how Disney has represented female characters in its forever-popular Disney Princess movies. The study will examine all twelve of the Disney Princess films of the franchise and attempt to discover how good of an example Disney is setting for young audiences that watch these films.
Disney The Company
Walt Disney began his career in the late 1920s, and ended up creating a “multifaceted entertainment enterprise—short cartoons, feature-length animations, live-action films, comic books and records, nature documentaries, television shows, colossal theme parks” (Walt Disney, 1995). Often Disney was called an “artistic genius and a modernist pioneer” (Walt Disney, 1995). As Disney continued to grow in popularity, it became “a symbol for the security and romance of the small-town America of yesteryear—a pristine never-never land in which children’s fantasies come true, happiness reigns, and innocence is kept safe through the magic of pixie dust” (Giroux & Pollock, 2010, p. 17).
In 2006, Disney “announced that it [was] buying Pixar, the animated studio led by Apple head Steve Jobs, in a deal worth $7.4 billion” (Monica, 2006). This was a strategic move on the part of Disney, based on how Pixar had “ yet to have a flop with its six animated movies … gross[ing] more than $3.2 billion worldwide, according to movie tracking research firm Box Office Mojo” (Monica, 2006). Pixar would later go on to make the movie Brave in 2012, featuring one of Disney’s newer official Disney princesses.
Disney’s Handling of Female Characters
Just as feminism has changed and developed over the years, so has Disney’s portrayal of female characters. Categorically, Disney films can be separated into different eras based on when they were made, making it easier to see the progress that has been made. The belief is that Disney shows that women can be successful if “they firmly believe in themselves—as individuals and as women” (Brode, 2005, p. 171). According to Disney’s website for the official princesses, there are currently eleven princesses. The classic heroines from Disney’s princess lineup are typically considered to be Snow White from Snow White (1937), Cinderella from Cinderella (1950), Aurora from Sleeping Beauty (1959), Ariel in The Little Mermaid (1989), Bell in Beauty and the Beast (1991), Pocahontas (1995), and Mulan in Mulan (1998); followed up by their later counterparts Tiana from Princess and the Frog (2009), Rapunzel in Tangled (2010), and Merida in Brave (2012). They will later be joined by Elsa and Anna from Frozen (2013), though they have not yet been initiated into the official line up. There is current speculation that by the end of 2014, the two princesses will be officially added to the line up, creating princesses number twelve and thirteen (Mauney, 2013).
There is an importance to the Walt Disney Company and how they present their media, as well as the ability to critique it, due to its “expanding role [it] plays in shaping popular culture and broader public discourse” (Giroux, 2010, p. xiii). Disney has created a persona that has become synonymous with “childhood innocence and wholesome entertainment” (Giroux, 2010, p. xiii). Disney as a whole made over $37.8 billion in revenue in 2008 making it an extremely powerful business (Giroux & Pollock, 2010, p. 93). Henry Giroux and Grace Pollock stress in their book, The Mouse That Roared, that “it is imperative that parents, teachers, and other adults understand how [Disney’s] animated films influence the values of the children who view them” (2010, p. 97). Haseenah Ebrahim agrees in his article, “Are the ‘Boys’ at Pixar Afraid of Little Girls?,” commenting on the fact that critique is good and necessary, and it is “the Disney princesses who continue to garner the most attention, both scholarly and popular” (2014, p. 45).
The difficulty in analyzing Disney’s female characters is choosing which interpretation to take when studying them. For instance, Disney’s Mulan is often considered one of its most successful Disney princess movies, featuring a strong, independent young woman who defies the boundaries placed on her gender and helps save her country. The argument against Mulan as a strong female character comes in that her transformation to a man actually “supports patriarchal power structures rather than disputes established gender roles” (Cheu, 2013, p. 115) and that it “contains the disruption that arises when a woman becomes a man to reinforce the gender binary and deny any agency” (Cheu, 2013, p. 116). Much like Lady Macbeth’s symbolic transformation in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Mulan must shed her own femininity and appear as a man in order to be successful. Mulan does successfully show the dangers of societal pressures on women, such as the scene with the song “Honor to Us All,” where Mulan is led to the matchmaker and it is defined that in her culture, “a daughter can only bring honor to herself and her family by becoming a bride. Without fulfilling her assigned gender role … her family [will] merit no honor” (Cheu, 2013, p. 117). As Sam Abel says in his article cited in Cheu’s book, Disney “cannot critique traditional gender roles because [it] buy[s] into them” (1995). So while Mulan remains a progressive film and represents a more positive female character, there is still hesitancy behind Disney’s plot, having a give-and-take situation in which there is an improved female character but a lack in challenging the status quo.
The different interpretations of Disney princesses extend to the very first one as well, Snow White. While her character is often seen as soft and domestic, Douglas Brode describes her as “formidable” (2005, p. 180). According to him, the power in Snow White is that she “makes her own decisions, redeeming housework from mere drudgery,” making a point that “housework is equal in value to any labor performed ‘in the world’—that, in fact, the home is a part of that world, and the work done there equal in validity to anything achieved in an office” (Brode, 2005, p.178-179). These interpretations however are some of the few more positive ones seen speaking in favor of Snow White’s character. Jacqueline Layng criticized Disney for its portrayal of Snow White. While Brode argues in favor of the soft-spoken character, Layng calls out how “Snow White never acts to help herself” (2001) and gives examples such as covering her face and screaming when threatened by the huntsman and that “when in a sleeping death, she can only be saved by the prince” (2001). This idea that the prince must kiss her to awaken her plays with the theme of what is seen as a popular theme in Disney romance—the no-means-yes scenario. In the case of Snow White, this theory applies to the idea that “the object of the prince’s desire is unavailable yet tantalizingly visible: a beautiful woman encased in a glass coffin” (Bean, 2003, p. 60). This contrast in character interpretation is extended to more modern princesses as well, such as Disney’s Aladdin, Princess Jasmine. While Disney portrays Jasmine in a strong light as independent and a freethinker with a thirst for freedom, her character battles “between what she says and what she does” (Layng, 2001). While she does run away from the male figures in her life, her freedom is cut short and she returns to her home, only to be saved in the end by Aladdin. Layng compares these two seemingly very different princesses, Snow White and Jasmine, and concludes that in regards to both character arcs, “Disney’s answer for women today is same as it was in 1937—marry the right man and live happily ever after” (2001). Along with that, she determined that “dependency is a consistent theme, as both ‘heroines’ are required to rely on heroes to save them” (Layng, 2001).
In regards to the interpretation of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, there are similarly different ways to look at her character. Unlike the majority of the princess characters at the time, Belle retains no interest in marriage and instead is fixated on knowledge. She is a “smart, independent young woman” (Manley, 2003, p. 79) and a “better role model than the marriage-minded Disney heroines of the past” (Manley, 2003, p. 79). There is however one negative female character stereotype that she falls dangerously near—woman as a civilizing force. This is the idea that a woman must take care of male characters or that it is her role to tame the wilder, immature man (Manley, 2003, p. 83-84). The danger of this type of role is that:
women may believe their role in a relationship with a man is to mother him, or be a model of civilized behavior, or both. It may also cause women have an unrealistic belief in their ability to reform a man who treats them badly … though the woman might feel like a powerful agent … she is constrained by a role which requires certain behaviors from her (Manley, 2003, p. 88).
In his research article, “Are the ‘Boys’ at Pixar Afraid of Little Girls?,” Haseenah Ebrahim addresses Pixar’s handling of female characters. While Disney currently owns Pixar, the two have worked as separate companies and handle their female characters differently. Brave was Pixar’s “first film with a female protagonist,” (2014) sending “Internet bloggers, animation and film Web sites, feminists, Pixar fans, newspapers, magazine columnists, and entertainment T V channels” (Ebrahim, p. 44) into huge discussions about what “this departure from the animation studio’s well-established record of highly successful male-centric fare would mean” (Ebrahim, p. 44). Brave director, Brenda Chapman, is also the first woman to direct any of Pixar’s films (Ebrahim, 2014, p. 46). Besides having very few female characters, Pixar also chooses to focus its plots on male bonding as a “conspicuous theme of Pixar films,” (Ebrahim, 2014, p. 44) and that “after twelve noteworthy animated features that Pixar had avoided making a female a protagonist in any of its films” (Ebrahim, 2014, p. 44). When referring to Rapunzel and Tiana (princesses of Tangled and The Princess and the Frog respectively), Ebrahim acknowledged their strength as modern princesses as being “independent, intelligent young women actively pursuing their goals,” but that this was then sacrificed as they were “forced to share most of their screen time with their respective love interests” (2014, p. 46). Brave is now the only Princess film to have been made without a love interest.
The consistent theme of a love interest runs through almost all of the Disney Princess films, even in Brave where there isn’t a direct romantic partner but the story’s plot line is initiated from the need to find one for the princess. Between Princess and non-Princess Disney movies, there’s not necessarily a lack of female characters. However their story arcs are often tied to a romance-based plot line and “little attention is paid to female characters that are not the protagonists or the main love interest of the protagonist, even though the Disney animation universe is populated with a considerable number of human female characters” (Ebrahim, 2014, p. 44). With the focus primarily on romance in the different plots, Disney sends the message that “marriage represents the inevitable reward of the righteous and properly catechized woman” (Bean, 2003, p. 53).
The Background and Success of Disney’s Frozen
In 2013 Disney released one of the most successful movies, animated or live action. Frozen is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, and features young princess Anna on a mission to save her older sister from herself and to save their city. Elsa’s ice powers appear to both be a blessing and a curse as she struggles to learn control and what it means to let go (a perfect theme utilized in her breakthrough solo, “Let It Go”). As of March 30, 2014, Frozen had “earned $398.4 million domestically and $674 million internationally for a total $1.072 billion” (McClintock, 2014). At the time that Pamela McClintock wrote her article for The Hollywood Reporter, Frozen had “become the top-grossing animated film of all time” and “internationally, … the biggest Disney or Pixar animated film of all time in 27 territories, including Russia, China and Brazil” (2014). Amongst the high box office ratings, Frozen “directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, claimed the best animated film Oscar at [the 2014] Academy Awards” (McClintock, 2014).
Movie critics gave Frozen high praise, also drawing high claim from a feminist perspective. In her movie review for Frozen, Durga M. Sengupta (2013) cited writer Linda Barnard’s positive critique:
(Frozen) makes it clear that girls … may want to rethink the fairy tale and opt for self-reliance … Welcome to Disney 2.0, which has learned from the box office success of Tangled and last year’s Brave, that kids are demanding a lot more from their cartoon princesses these days … these two even pass the Bechdel test for feminism on film, where two women talk to each other about something other than a man. Make way for a new kind of fairy tale (Barnard 2013).
Frozen seemed to be a great step in the right direction for Disney in regards to female characters, building off of the strength of the recent, but less popular, princess movies. There was a double dose of female power with the sisters and give strong images of independence as well as being very much their own person, including personal growth as the movie goes on. Besides quips such as “You can’t marry a man you just met,” from the character Elsa (Frozen, 2013), a stark contrast and slight nod to early Disney films, there are a lot of good moments between the female characters. The emphasis is on the sister relationship stems from the basis of the plot. The younger of the princesses, Anna, spends the movie looking for her sister and to not only to help save the kingdom, but to also save their relationship. Their story arc primarily focuses on them versus a romantic storyline, and they grow as independent characters rather than based on interactions with their male counterparts.
The Bechdel Test and Feminist Film Analysis
A common tool in feminist critique is the use of the Bechdel Test. The test is most commonly “used to gauge gender bias in fiction, including comics and graphic novels” (Møllegaard, 2014). The test’s origins come from a comic created by cartoonist, Alison Bechdel in a 1985 comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For. In the comic strip, a female character is describing to another what she looks for in a movie and what her rules are in order for her to watch it. These rules then evolved into what is now known as the “Bechdel Test.”
Figure 1: First reference to Bechdel Test in Dykes to Watch Out For (1985)
According to Bechdel’s comic as seen in Figure 1, in order for a movie to have adequate female representation and pass the test, it must meet these three requirements:
- It includes at least two women,
- Who have at least one conversation,
- About something other than a man or men.
While a seemingly simple test, even modern films are rarely successful in checking off each of the three requirements. And while films can pass the Bechdel test in regards to female character interaction, the test does not have a way to measure or demonstrate that the female characters are good representation. Though missing this element, the test is still seen as an important step in improving equality in media.
The Bechdel Test has been critiqued, and Møllegaard points this out in her article, answering her own question with, “Is the Bechdel Test applicable to anthologies of academic writing? Probably not without some serious caveats” (2014). Due to the test not being an end-all for feminist critique, various versions and expansions have been created to help supply further critique. A recent one that came out was inspired by female sci-fi fans, called the Mako Mori Test, “named after the sole female lead in … blockbuster Pacific Rim — which, not incidentally, failed the Bechdel Test itself” (John, 2013). This test has its own set of three rules:
- Has at least one female character,
- Who gets her own narrative arc,
- That is not about supporting a man’s story.
In Arit John’s article for The Wire on the Bechdel test and the Mako Mori test, he included a quote from one of the original women who helped give input on the popular blogging platform Tumblr, about the importance of a test that reaches farther than the Bechdel test:
It’s really easy to throw away a film because of that test (which is flawed and used incorrectly in a lot of ways) if you’re a white woman and can easily find other films with white women who look like you and represent you… But as an East Asian woman, someone like Mako — a well-written Japanese woman who is informed by her culture without being solely defined by it, without being a racial stereotype, and gets to carry the film and have character development — almost NEVER comes along in mainstream Western media (John, 2014).
This research seeks to answer the question, how has Disney’s female representation changed in the Disney Princess franchise over the years? Through a feminist analysis and critique, has Disney presented an overall negative or positive image of female characters?
This study will use two different methods of analysis, a critical analysis of secondary sources and a content analysis of Disney’s official princess films. The method of a quantitative analysis was chosen to help see if there has been a progression of positive female representation in Disney’s princess films over the years. This content analysis, applying the Bechdel test to each film, will help give an idea of how the representation of women has changed over the years, or possibly has not changed. The critical analysis will take different sources that have studied different aspects of the questions presented by the study in an attempt to come to a conclusion of how Disney and its female characters have been changed by the influence of the comic book industry and whether it is a positive or negative outcome.
The first part of the study analyzes Disney’s female representation, specifically the movies that are considered to be Disney’s official princesses. The movies selected were taken from Disney’s official Princess website (www.princess.disney.com).
Though at the time of the study Frozen’s two princesses Elsa and Anna have not been officially included in the official Disney Princess line up, reports are that they “are expected to be inaugurated as official Disney princesses in 2014. Anna, … as the 12th princess, Elsa … the 13th princess” (Mauney 2013). So for the purpose of analyzing the films that concentrate on princesses, they have been included in the study.
Because this study focuses on the idea of the Disney princesses versus the superhero movement, these were the more critical films to analyze instead of simply all of Disney’s films. The princess films are also typically seen as the most popular and influential Disney films when it comes to younger girls. The importance of progress in female representation is more crucial in the franchise that draws the most attention. The amount of exposure that the princess films receive outweighs other Disney films that could have an influence on a younger audience.
Taking the Disney films that were designated as official Disney films, they were then analyzed in an extended version of the Bechdel test. The basis of the test was the original version of the Bechdel Test, and included the requirement that the characters must be named to count for the test. After first noting the year the film was made, each film was put through a pass/fail analysis of the test:
- It includes at least two named women,
- Who have at least one conversation,
- About something other than a man or men.
If the movie passes at least the first test, it then is analyzed based on the general type of relationship of the women in the film. Like the pass/fail analysis of the first portion of the test, it will be marked as a positive, neutral, or a negative relationship. Because there can be room for interpretation of what is positive, neutral, or negative, these terms will be used as a basic guide for if the relationship shows a general representation of the terms’ connotations. The type of relationship classification was designed to cover that while two female characters might speak in a movie, it might be for a limited amount of time or only happen once. These conclusions were reached based on the different interactions with the female characters and the strength of their type of involvement. If the interaction was limited and/or one-sided (brief or only pertained to a villain and the main character), then it was classified as negative. The flaw of the original test is that it does not cover this possibility, so the researcher added these sections to analyze the type of relationship. There will also be a count of the female characters in each movie, a number that will be generated by focusing on the female characters that have speaking roles and/or are main characters in the movie. This will then be compared to the total number of speaking/main characters to see how the ratio balances out. This will help show if there is a true balance of characters due to that while in some stories there might only be three speaking female characters, there might only be a total of seven main characters. By finding the ratio it will help give a better idea of the strength of the female representation.
While the content analysis will help give a rough idea if there has been a positive or negative trend in female representation in the Disney Princess movies, it is not a perfect system to use for feminist analysis. The Bechdel Test focuses on statistical data, but the addition to it supplied in the study still does not adequately measure the success of female representation. This will instead give a general idea of how each film does, and a deeper study would be required to truly see the improvements and failings of the movies. Stronger feminist analysis breaks down individual movies and analyzes the characters and their portrayals and interactions to better learn how the movie does involving its female characters.
The critical analysis of the secondary sources will require reaching a conclusion based on various, separate sources. Due to not every source being connected, this section of the findings will be based on the conclusions that are independently reached by the researcher. The conclusion will be based on different readings covering the topics listed in the literature review.
In order to see the success of the relationships of female characters in the Disney Princess movies, a content analysis was performed each movie. The first test focused on the Bechdel Test.
Table 1: Bechdel Test Analysis of Disney Princess Movies
|Movie||Year||Test 1||Test 2||Test 3|
|The Little Mermaid||1989||Y||Y||Y|
|Beauty and the Beast||1991||Y||Y||Y|
|Princess and the Frog||2009||Y||Y||Y|
As a whole, the results of the research shown in Table 1 demonstrate that the Disney Princess movies overwhelmingly passed the Bechdel Test. Out of the twelve movies, only one (Aladdin) failed. On the surface, these results are positive. These numbers show that 11 out of 12 Disney Princess movie features have at least two named female characters who at some point, talk about something other than a man/men. This test, however, is relatively simplistic when it comes to analyzing female representation and relationships, so the author then applied an extended content analysis, as described in the previous Methods section.
Table 2: Continued Content Analysis of Disney Princess Movies
|Movie||Relationship Type||# of Female Characters||Total # of Characters||Ratio of Female Characters|
|The Little Mermaid||negative||3||12||25%|
|Beauty and the Beast||neutral||3||16||19%|
|Princess and the Frog||positive||4||21||19%|
Table 2 shows a breakdown of the different types of relationships in the Disney movies. The first analysis was based on the views of the relationship demonstrated as positive, negative, or neutral. Most of the movies were found to be positive or neutral, with only Aladdin, Snow White, and The Little Mermaid being classified as portraying negative types of relationships. In the case of Aladdin, it is automatically considered negative based on that was unable to pass the original Bechdel Test. The ratio of the female characters to the total number of characters helped give an idea of the statistical representation of female characters. Movies like Snow White and Aladdin have the lowest percentage of female characters, whereas films like Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty have the highest.
Graph 1: Ratio of Female Characters to Total Number of Characters
Graph 1 represents the changes in percentage of female representation over the years. It chronologically orders the movies with the year they were released while comparing the percentage amount for each one over the years. While Disney’s best female represented film is actually Sleeping Beauty from 1959, there has been an overall increase in the ratio of female characters in the past two decades—specifically after 1992 when Disney had its lowest female representation in the movie Aladdin. This steady increase comes after a dramatic decline in the movies between Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin. Because the movies are organized sequentially in order of when they were made, this shows a positive trend going into the future for Disney.
While this data does show different trends and other quantitative data for the movies, it is not a complete way to analyze the strength of female representation in Disney’s Princess films. The Bechdel Test is a good starting point to ensure that there is a balanced amount of female characters in movies and to guarantee that they do have some type of relationship, even if it is positive or negative. However, by doing a purely numbers-based content analysis, it removes aspects of some of the characters and stories that otherwise might be good representation. As an example, Sleeping Beauty passes the Bechdel Test with flying colors and has the highest percentage of female characters, but is not considered a strong example of a good feminist film in regard to how the female characters are portrayed. While not necessarily a bad character, Aurora is an extremely flat character. When she is not singing or dancing, she is sleeping. Her importance lies in her beauty and does not inspire as a good representation of a woman. However, her counterpart, Maleficent, is one of the stronger Disney villains regardless of gender. Her cunningness and strategy makes her a force to be reckoned with and stands as a strong female character. The importance of good female characters does not necessarily mean that they all represent good people, but that they are complex and more than just a caricature of female stereotypes.
A similar critique can be applied to Cinderella. Cinderella falls just behind Sleeping Beauty with 42% of the characters being female, and it passes the Bechdel test. However the type relationship that it was classified with as “neutral.” This pertains to the only female characters that Cinderella interacts with are her fairy godmother and her stepmother and stepsisters. While the fairy godmother is a positive character, her only role is to save Cinderella. Cinderella’s only other interactions are then with the antagonists of the story. This creates a neutral relationship because Cinderella’s character is either tormented by the female characters or strictly saved by one.
The danger of tests like the Bechdel Test is that it ignores the detail needed to do a proper feminist analysis of the films. Numbers can only show so much and fails to acknowledge the strength of female characters and their story arcs.
As discussed in the literature review, Frozen is considered one of best feminist Disney animated films to have been created. Looking at the data from the charts however, Frozen falls in the middle of the pack in the female representation. Compared to a movie like Sleeping Beauty, Frozen excels in the different type of female characters but falls short statistically. In order to get the most out of a feminist analysis, in-depth discussion and review of the characters is a necessity. Many of the criticism that was cited in the literature review are examples of different types of deeper analysis. By combining both types of analysis, this provides the best contextual way of finding solutions and ways for Disney to look ahead in making more positive female represented films.
Limitations and Future Research
For any future studies of this topic, there are different limitations in this study that could be addressed. In the case of the content analysis, this study purely focuses on the Disney Princess movies. It could be useful to compare the data from these movies to other Disney movies; both regular animated films as well as different animated films from different companies (Pixar, DreamWorks, etc.). Initially this would help compare the Disney Princess franchise against other Disney movies, and see if the Princesses potentially have better representation. It would then also help expand the data and help be able to see how it compares against its own work as well as other different competitors. Further investigation into the history of what society was like during the years of certain movies could also help provide insight and contextualization into the treatment and handling of female characters. This can provide supplementary context to analyze why characters might have been portrayed in certain ways.
As well as applying the Bechdel Test to the movies, it might also be useful to apply a similar test to the Mako Mori test that was described in the literature review. This type of examination would help strengthen the feminist critiques of the different films, further than just the statistical numbers of the female characters represented. By applying this test as well, it would be possible to then evaluate the strength of the female characters that are actually in the story and give a better idea to the representation that can be found in it.
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Snow White (1937)
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
The Little Mermaid (1989)
Beauty and the Beast (1991)
Princess and the Frog (2009)