Pure (like Snow White in 1937), sheltered (like Sleeping Beauty's Princess Aurora in 1959), self-effacing to a fault (like 1950's Cinderella): For decades, Disney's heroines reflected the feminine ideal of the times in which they were drawn. They were often bland and always sweetly wholesome. Wholesome they remain, but the studio has wrought a babe-ization of its animated leading ladies, an evolution that culminates in Aladdin's serenely sexy Princess Jasmine.
It was The Little Mermaid's Ariel who signaled the sea change in 1989. Showing off her clamshell bra with complete sexual confidence, Ariel was unmistakably a woman. She didn't float idly by waiting for a prince, she sought one out and blithely used her body to land him, having sacrificed her voice to gain legs (a plot point many women who otherwise admired Ariel found objectionable).
The unseen hand stirring the shift was studio boss Jeffrey Katzenberg. ''Everything gets run past him for approvals, and he's a real strong romantic,'' says animator Mark Henn, who handled the main chores on Ariel with Glen Keane. ''Jeffrey likes his leading ladies to be very attractive.''
Of course, this being a family-fare company, there are still limits. For the pioneering Ariel's costume, ''We wanted just the shells,'' Henn recalls. ''But the studio kept saying, 'How are they on there? You've got to give her a seaweed strap to make sure it's logistically clear.''' A naughty drawing on a wall at Disney's Glendale, Calif., animation facility immortalizes that battle, showing a chagrined Ariel popping the halter clear off her chest.
Katzenberg was so pleased with Henn's work on Mermaid that the artist was called on to bring out a sensual side in Belle for some scenes in Beauty and the Beast. Now, as chief designer of Aladdin's Princess has taken 'toon sexuality even further. ''Jasmine turns on this playful, false come-on to Aladdin and to Jafar, something we've never shown,'' he says. His goal was to make the teen royal ''a real babe,'' so Aladdin's infatuation with her would be believable.
Much as Katzenberg had liked his past work, though, Henn was nervous when he first unveiled Jasmine's cinch-waisted design for his boss. He needn't have worried. ''Jeffrey said, 'Home run,''' Henn remembers. ''Then he looked at me and asked, 'What is it with you and these women?'''