Over the past week, Disney Animation has had a rough go of it. To explain: Jenna Busch, reporting for Fan Voice, picked up on a distressing comment made by Lino DiSalvo, a veteran Disney animator at a long lead press day for “Frozen,” the studio’s forthcoming animated feature. These comments were somewhat unsettling, especially considering they were delivered completely free of context, but the comments were, of course, quickly picked up around the web, most notably by bastion of journalistic integrity Buzzfeed, who complemented their Tumblr-like piece with funny gifs and images taken from other websites. Now Time has actually gotten someone of note to weigh in on the controversy: Brenda Chapman, the former Pixar director who won an Oscar for “Brave,” who claims that animation as a whole is “run by a boys club.”
First off, let’s review the controversial comment that DiSalvo made, “Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, ’cause they have to go through these range of emotions, but they’re very, very — you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”
Like we said: this is a distressing comment, for sure, but it’s something of a leap to think that he was making some misogynistic comment; Disalvo was talking about the technical problems associated with animated female characters. It’s true that female characters often do go through a wide, complex range of emotions (think about the journey of, say, “The Little Mermaid“), so we can’t fault him for that. And yes, the characters should be pretty, because princesses often are, and people go to the movies to see pretty people, animated or otherwise.
Before we get to Chapman’s comments, we’d just like to say that is incredibly annoying that all this “Frozen” finger-wagging before anybody has seen the movie. This writer is one of a handful of folks who have seen the finished version of “Frozen,” and as both an animation fan and a women’s studies minor (yes, seriously), I was blown away by the feminist message of the movie and how prominent that message is. (It should be noted that Jennifer Lee co-directed the movie.) I’ll tread lightly because I don’t want to spoil anything (or break embargo), but this is a movie that has very little to do with the typical notion of marriage and falling in love (although those aspects are there), and has much more to do with sisterly love and affection, both of which are deeply drawn and highly emotional. There’s a musical number that the ice queen Elsa does that is really breathtaking; she’s never portrayed as the bad guy even though she’s something of a witch. In her ice palace, she’s positively empowered.
But back to the controversy: When Chapman, who originally developed “Brave” at Pixar as a “feminist fairy tale” before being taken off the project and replaced by a male filmmaker (the two had to awkwardly share the movie’s Oscar win), saw the comments, she told Time, “My immediate reaction was that I was absolutely appalled that anyone would say that.” Animators are often goofy, slightly aloof men and taking to press months before their new movie comes out probably isn’t the most natural environment for discussion.
”I think that would be a good thing,” Chapman told Time. “You’re acting them — of course they go through a range of emotions. And so should the guys!” Again: he wasn’t whining about them having to go through emotions, he said that it was a challenge to get those emotions right, on a technical level. Chapman, both at DreamWorks Animation and Pixar, had to oversee a legion of similar personalities.
Chapman then talked about her experience on “Brave.” “For Merida, when we were designing her, I wanted her to have the mouth that gets really wide, and the grimace,” she told Time. “I wanted to let her have an ugly expression or real expression … even beautiful women will have a sour look on their face when they’re upset.” There was controversy, too, about the physical dimensions of her characters. “At one point they thought I was making the mom too big, her bum too big,” Chapman explained. “And that was frustrating for me because I wanted her to feel like a real middle aged woman.”
Yes, it’s true that there should be more diversity amongst the Disney princesses, although we did just get an African American princess a few years ago in the wonderful “The Princess & the Frog” and the first Pacific Island princess is coming to the mostly top-secret “Moana” in 2018. That gift that everyone has been circulating suggests that there is a decided lack of creativity in the design department of these movies, but that’s not exactly fair, either. Disney is trying to create an identifiable “look,” just as powerful and memorable as the look that existed amongst the features during the Disney Renaissance phase in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The similarities to the characters have less to do with sexism and more to do with consumerist needs.
The point is that this discussion is an important one, for sure, and needs to happen. The way that the depiction of women in these movies affects young viewers (in particularly disastrous ways) is something that is hugely serious. In particular, Chapman thoughts are insightful, but they would have been more insightful if she had offered them after seeing the movie. What couldn’t be more clear is that “Frozen” is kind of the wrong target. The movie, which opens at the end of November, doesn’t deserve this kind of ire, especially since it’s all been spawned by comments made by goofy animator more interested in manipulating pixels than chatting with people.