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Disney princesses are a booming business. But it’s an industry fraught with problems. There’s the damsel-in-distress motif that runs through the genre; the idea that true happiness only comes from finding your Prince Charming, whom you can fall in love with and marry in a matter of days a la The Bachelor; and the fact that no princess seems to be able to have two living parents.
Disney has sought to address some of these issues in recent years. Frozen emphasized the love between two sisters. And Sofia the First, which premiered in 2012, introduced a school-age princess. It’s a genius idea that gives its target demographic, little girls who love princesses, one close to their own age. Sofia (voiced by Ariel Winter) doesn’t worry about meeting her prince. She’s more concerned with school trips, playing sports and making sure all her friends get along.
Air date: Jul 22, 2016
Elena of Avalor, which premieres Friday at 7 p.m. PT/ET on the Disney Channel, continues along this same line, introducing a 16-year-old princess. Those who already love Sofia and are growing up now have a slightly older princess to emulate. Through an elaborate preamble that feels like it could be its own movie (and in fact will be with Elena and the Secret of Avalor premiering in the fall), viewers learn that Elena (Aimee Carrero) has been trapped in a magical amulet (is there any other kind?) for 41 years and has returned to Avalor to rule as Crown Princess.
In the grand tradition of princesses not being able to have parents, both Elena’s mother and father are dead. But she has family, including her sister Princess Isabel (Jenna Ortega) and her grandparents Francisco (Emiliano Díez) and Luisa (Julia Vera), all of whom have been trapped in a painting for 41 years. Elena is guided by three half-bird, half-jaguar creatures called jaquins (Chris Parnell, Carlos Alazraqu and Yvette Nicole Brown), has a bumbling assistant Armando (Joe Nunez, sounding a lot like Josh Gad) and a gutsy best friend Naomi (Jillian Rose Reed).
But the big news about Elena is that she is Disney’s first princess inspired by Latin cultures. In the premiere episode, Elena rescues her sister from creatures based on a Chilean myth. There’s also Zuzo (Keith Ferguson), an animal spirit that only Elena can see. According to the press release, Zuzo is based on a Mayan tribal belief that everyone has a spirit double in the animal world. In upcoming episodes, Elena will celebrate Día de los Muertos and Navidad.
The brightly colored world of Avalor is inspired by Latin architecture. The music, including the catchy theme song sung by Latin Grammy Award winner Gaby Moreno, pays homage to several musical styles including mariachi, Latin pop, salsa and Chilean hip hop. Each episode will feature at least one original song.
The all-inclusive nature of the storytelling will certainly expose some young viewers to cultures other than their own. But the mishmash collection of Latin inspiration doesn’t allow for the disparate cultures to be distinctive. Obviously, being from Mexico is different than being from Chile which is different than being from Colombia. You get the idea.
Disney doesn’t have the best track record in its attempts to diversify its princesses. The 2009 movie The Princess and the Frog featured the first African-American princess, Tiana. But the movie had some voodoo themes and Tiana spends a lot of the running time as a frog. 1992’s Aladdin featured Princess Jasmine but also seemed to promote the idea that Arab nations are “barbaric.” 1995’s Pocahontas turned the story of Pocahontas and John Smith into a love story (it wasn’t).
Originally, a producer of Sofia the First declared her to be Latina. The only problem with that proclamation was that Sofia had fair skin and blue eyes. She looked more like Princess Belle’s younger sister. Disney quickly backed off and said Sofia was of “mixed heritage” from a “fairytale word.” Elena seems like a direct response to that kerfuffle.
Disney is clearly trying to make everyone happy with Elena of Avalor – an impossible goal. But parents should be pleased with her. She ditches that helpless-without-a-man mentality so prevalent among princesses of the past. She wields a sword. She solves problems. She saves people. In the second episode available for review, she even forges a trade agreement with a neighboring country. Princess Isabel is a scientist and inventor. Neither sibling appears to be that interested in boys. Sure, Elena still has an impossibly idealized figure, but this is the kind of show that can change the narrative so many little girls grow up believing.
Elena wants to be a good leader but knows she has a lot to learn. The theme of the first episode is being impulsive. “I was so busy trying to prove I could be a great queen, I forgot to act like one,” she says. In the second episode, Elena realizes the importance of putting your family first and keeping your word.
Elena of Avalor might not be perfect, but no princess ever is.
Cast: Aimee Carrero, Jenna Ortega, Chris Parnell, Yvette Nicole Brown, Carlos Alazraqui, Emiliano Díez, Julia Vera, Christian Lanz and Jillian Rose Reed
Creator and Executive Producer: Craig Gerber
Airs: Friday at 7: 30 p.m. PT/ET (Disney Channel), premieres July 22 at 7 p.m. PT/ET (Disney Channel)
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