There’s the glitz and the glam of the fairytale royalty world. There’s the breathtaking ball gowns and unforgettable transformations. There’s the songs we find ourselves humming, whether we are surveying our collection of thingamabobs or seeing a whole new world.
And then, there’s also the moments of realization where our heroines discover that whatever they were looking for was inside of them the whole time. That they are capable of kicking butt and chasing their dreams. That the definition of fearlessness isn’t a lack of fear, but an ability to push past fear and do what needs to be done, whether it means escaping a tower or saving China.
Disney Princesses have taught me what it means to be a woman. It means I can be all these things at once: headstrong, independent, loving, accepting, humbled, relentless, unique, graceful, hardworking, courageous, curious, hopeful, kind, faithful, adventurous, smart, sassy, and more. These films challenged societal norms and double standards simply by letting a complex female character take the lead. These princesses have inspired countless across the world.
So when I had the chance to attend the Power of the Princess panel at D23 Expo 2017, I was thrilled. The applause was thunderous as Auli’i Cravalho (Moana), Anika Noni Rose (Tiana), Paige O’Hara (Belle) and Jodi Benson (Ariel) walked onto the stage and took their seats.
We kicked off by watching Cravalho’s audition tape for “Moana.” The now 16-year-old actress curled up in her chair, embarrassed, as the audience laughed at the video of her joyous reaction to the casting news. Cravalho said she had always imagined her first job would be at a Starbucks or Jamba Juice, not as the voice of a Disney Princess.
“There are so many important elements in the film. Although Moana’s discovery only lasted two hours, mine is certainly lasting a lot longer than that,” said Cravalho. “I think it’s also really important that you don’t need a love interest to figure out who you are. This film is really close to my heart.”
Rose thought Disney was considering her for a much smaller part than the voice of Tiana, the lead princess.
“I was not at all thinking of a princess,” Rose said, describing the meeting that took place between her and Disney. “I was like, listen, I’ve been working on some things, if by chance you need a flea or a tick I know what that might sounds like.”
As for O’Hara, it was indeed a joyful week when she received her casting news as Belle– the week of her birthday and her engagement.
And for Benson? She was cast as Ariel shortly after her time on Broadway’s “Smile,” in which her character actually sang a song called “Disneyland.” She recalled Mickey Mouse handing her the keys to the kingdom and becoming an “everlasting honorary citizen of Disneyland.” Being cast as a Disney Princess brought things full circle.
“The fact that I get to be part of the Disney family is totally a God thing and I’m very blessed,” said Benson.
Throughout the making of these iconic films, there would come to be a plethora of unforgettable, tear-inducing moments for these Disney legends.
For Rose, she was in Paris when the directors of “The Princess and The Frog” John Musker and Ron Clements showed her a clip without a preface.
“They showed me myself for the first time in color,” said Rose. “I had never seen her fully animated and I had no idea she was going to look so much like me. I was weeping in Paris backstage.”
Rose explained that Tiana as the first African-American princess not only showed brown children that they are regal but also show their friends that they too are regal. The movie also encompassed ideas of perseverance and tenaciousness– something that struck very close to Rose’s heart.
“I felt like when I read the script, I knew this girl. I grew up in a small town without anybody doing the thing I wanted to do. I grew up in a small town where a guidance counselor told me maybe I should learn a trade. So I understood being somewhere where nobody else understood what I wanted to do,” said Rose.
“So I felt like the journey I was going on as Tiana, though I was not a young girl in the South in the Jazz Age, was my journey. I knew her voice. I knew her path. I constantly felt and still feel that I am ‘almost there…’ There is a joy in the journey of your dream. And sometimes you’re not quite touching it there. But the fact that you’ve gotten to the point where you’re almost there means you only have a couple more steps to go.”
Benson could also connect to Ariel’s curiosity and drive to see the world.
“Ariel’s character– she’s tenacious. I love that about her,” said Benson. “I could connect with her coming from a small town in Illinois and wanting to be on Broadway and not even knowing what Broadway was. God had given me gifts that I wanted to share and I wanted to use them to the full capacity. Ariel has a dream to go outside the box. To explore something that’s beyond.”
Benson spoke about the impact Ariel has made, and the incredible stories she’s heard from fans around the world for 32 years.
“It’s fans whose lives have been changed by the film. It’s fans who never could speak until they started singing ‘Part of Your World’ or saying the words of a film, learning the language from the film. It’s children in burn centers who get through the pain management by listening to ‘Part of Your World,’” said Benson.
“We just think it’s an animated feature film, but after 32 years, you really realize that these characters make an impact to people’s hearts and in their lives. And it makes a connection with them that we can’t even begin to fathom. So it’s like a healing balm. It touches their hearts and changes their lives. It goes into a spiritual level, it’s hard to describe. But I have seen that through the decades that it’s not just a cartoon. I take it seriously and it’s a huge responsibility.”
In fact, a certain fan Benson mentioned was there at the convention, sitting up front. Jamie is who O’Hara calls her “Disney Daughter.”
“She’s like my surrogate child. Jamie is a huge fan of Ariel, I’m her second favorite princess,” said O’Hara. “But she was hit by a car a couple years ago and dragged from her wheelchair over 60 feet. Everyone thought she was dying as she was put into the ambulance.
“People kept saying, ‘Sing. Sing. Don’t go. You’re not going anywhere.’ She sang ‘Part of Your World’ over and over and over again. The doctors told me and Jamie that she’s truly a miracle from God, that she should not have survived. But she’s here today and having a great time.”
The audience cheered.
“That’s the power of the princess,” said Benson. “It does go beyond what you see on the screen. It’s not just a movie. These characters make an indelible mark in children’s hearts. It’s a huge blessing.”
And of course, the four Disney Princesses closed the panel by reciting their favorite lines and portions from their favorite songs, a moment that brought the audience to tears. It is a memory I will never forget: tears streaming down my cheeks as Benson sang “Part of Your World (Reprise),” O’Hara sang “Belle,” Rose sang “Down in New Orleans,” and Cravalho finishing with “How Far I’ll Go.”
Thank you Ariel, Belle, Tiana, Moana and every Disney Princess– you’ve shaped me into who I am today.