“It’s very important to us… to have female and ethnic characters… It’s grown in importance over time. As you’ll see in future films, we’re really paying attention to that…. We have been seeing more and more women, and more and more people from all over the world starting to work with it… That’s exciting. I think it will get reflected in the characters.”
The above quote is from John Lasseter, the Disney Animation Studios/Pixar chief, addressing the press at Cannes today, where the latest Pixar feature film, “Inside Out,” is screening. Lasseter was asked by a member of the attending press to address diversity within Pixar’s ranks and offerings. Specifically, the reporter asked if there will ever be a Pixar film with a black protagonist.
Looking at the studio’s upcoming slate of films, I don’t immediately recognize any of them as meeting the above affirmation. Over the next 4 years, we can expect a 4th “Toy Story” movie, a 2nd “Incredibles,” a 3rd “Cars” and a couple of new titles, only one of which looks like it’ll tell a story rooted in some “ethnic folklore,” featuring characters of color: a feature film based on Dia de los Muertos – the Mexican holiday acknowledged around the world in other cultures, that focuses on prayer for, and remembrance of friends and family members who have died, in support of their spiritual journeys.
Although, with no details on story/plot yet (the film doesn’t have a release date), I’m assuming that it will be culturally relevant, and won’t simply co-opt the holiday for a movie that will still center on white American characters.
Lasseter did tout Disney’s release of “Moana,” which is about a Polynesian princess, as an example of what’s to come for Pixar.
“It’s pretty spectacular… I guess most people think of fairy tales as European fairy tales. We’re trying to reach out and find origins of legends all over the world,” said Lasseter.
Disney Animation Studios (although not Pixar specifically) did release “The Princess and the Frog” in 2009, which featured the studio’s first black princess, given voice to by Anika Noni Rose. Keith David, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, and Terrence Howard, also had roles. Set in 1920s New Orleans, Louisiana, the film tells the story of a hardworking waitress named Tiana who dreams of owning her own restaurant. After kissing a prince who has been turned into a frog by an evil witch doctor, Tiana becomes a frog herself, and must find a way to turn back into a human before it is too late.
The film, which grossed over $267 million worldwide, did face some criticism, mostly of the fact that Tiana spends much of the movie as a frog. Also, some abhorred the non-black prince as the black heroine’s love interest (white Disney princesses certainly didn’t have black princes as their love interests), and the use of a black male “voodoo witch-doctor” (voiced by Keith David) as the film’s villain.
For its part, Pixar’s competition – DreamWorks Animation – released “Home” earlier this year, which featured a lead (non-white) character voiced by Rihanna, with Jennifer Lopez voicing her mother. The story takes place on planet Earth, where an alien race called the Boov invade the planet. However, a teenage girl named Tip (Rihanna) manages to avoid capture and goes on the run.
Released on March 27, “Home” has grossed over $343 million worldwide, to date.
And while it’s not a work of animation, and not a Pixar film, Disney’s recently announced plans to turn “The Princess of North Sudan” – based on the true story of Jeremiah Heaton from Virginia, who traveled to Sudan to put up a flag in a perceived “no man’s land,” and called it his, last year – certainly don’t suggest a film studio that’s sensitive to matters of diversity and to the needs of a significant part of the audience that pays to see the films it produces; more like a studio that may be tone-deaf.