by Doctor Science
Part of the fannish web blew up this week because of an interview with Lino Disalvo about Disney's upcoming animated movie, Frozen. One thing that's different about Frozen is that there are two female leads in the "Princess" position (critical for Disney marketing purposes), Elsa and Anne. Disalvo said:
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."Many people have taken serious umbrage at the implication that animating girls is *hard* because they all look alike, or something -- especially given that the two female leads in Frozen look a *lot* like Rapunzel from Tangled:
I had the feeling that Disalvo was trying to say something specific that he couldn't articulate, so I asked for help. A reader who's a professional animator explained:
What he's trying to say is, in every Disney movie I can think of, all of the women are very contained and "pretty." It's more how seriously you want the audience to read the character.
Think about Aladdin. Genie goes off model almost constantly, he's the comic relief. Aladdin is a bit of a silly character, so he goes off model sometimes. Sultan is also a bit silly, so he also goes off model. Jasmine almost never goes off model. She's a more serious character. You're not supposed to think she's goofy, she's a calm collected woman."On model" and "off model" refers to how closely the animation sticks to the original character design. "Off model" animation can be bad, when it means "this doesn't look like the character any more", but it's also one of the great strengths of animation, because you can give characters more flexible and expressive faces and gestures than are possible in real life. But those exaggerations are almost always going to come across as funny.
The more serious the character, the less crazy they can let the animation get. Disney movies like to portray their women very seriously, they're almost never off model and they're more realistic. Pocahontas, Mulan, most of the male characters were a little goofier and had sillier proportions, but the women were always on model. It's just how Disney has always done things.
There are exceptions. Villains, like Yzma, in The Emperor's New Groove! She goes off model all the time! She's supposed to be comic relief though, you're not supposed to take her seriously. Pacha's wife was almost always on model, because she's a more serious character.
It's just the aesthetic of Disney movies, it's always been this way. The two main women in Frozen are the typical "pretty" women, like Jasmine, Pocahontas, Cinderella, etc. etc. that cannot go off model or they risk being too silly looking.
Bottom line, animating stiff, contained subtle characters is difficult because they're more realistic. Realistic animation is always harder than goofy bouncy animation.
These days, Disney's female lead-character designs can hardly be called "more realistic" than their male lead characters:
The girls' faces are all very similar, with the same enormous eyes, wide smiles, wide cheeks, and very small chins. It's so very doll-like that I wonder if the similarities come from designing the characters for merchandise, to easily be turned into dolls. The male designs, though heavily stylized (and similar), look much more like real human faces.
Now, it's quite possible to make a female character with the lead role without making her stay "on model" so much. For instance, in Legend of Korra, the eponymous heroine has a wide variety of facial expressions:
many of which go off-model in the style of Japanese anime. But even in Korra the character who's supposed to be "the beautiful one", Asami, stays on-model a lot more than the heroine does:
It seems to me that Disney, by having a "house style" where heroines are "on-model" and "serious", creates characters for girls to identify with who aren't as *interesting*. Girls identify with the Princess Brand™ characters because they're always, infallibly pretty, something the culture constantly tells us to aspire to. But to always be pretty is to lack a full range of emotions: Korra is a much more *interesting* character than any of the Disney Princess Brand™ girls.
Even with the doll-like restrictions on female face shapes, Disney is capable of creating girls with more characterization, as in the two female leads from Wreck-It Ralph:
So the idea that Disney finds it intrinsically difficult to make interesting and different female characters is clearly bollocks. What we do see, though is that neither Calhoun nor Vanellope is "serious" in the way the Princess Brand™ heroines are: they have character and emotions, but they aren't part of the Princess Brand™ marketing juggernaut. They aren't consistently *pretty*. It's not female characters that are hard, it's Princess Brand™ characters.
Sprog the Younger pointed out to me that part of the appeal of the Princess Brand™ for girls is that they *are* so "serious*. In particular, you don't laugh at the Princesses™ the way you laugh at the wackier leading man, which is actually reassuring for girls of all ages -- we all have to face, at some point, being laughed at for *being a girl*. The Princess Brand™ heroine is the *perfect* girl, who may be mildly wacky but is never embarrassingly wrong -- her mistakes, if any, are in good faith. In contrast, The Younger says she HATED Lilo and Stitch "because when you are the same age as Lilo, her mistakes are less cute and more embarrassment-squick."
Fans were already dubious about Frozen because, though supposedly based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, almost nothing from the story is in it. Most importantly, Andersen's story is about a girl who makes a heroic journey to rescue a boy from an enchanted castle, helped mostly by girls along the way; Frozen appears to be about a girl who makes a journey to rescue her sister, helped by a boy and some wacky animals (and ... things).
Before looking at this topic, I'd never really appreciated how restrictive the concept of "pretty" is, how much it limits you from expressing interesting feelings. It's one of the several points Adele Waldman overlooked in her recent New Yorker piece on The Problem of Female Beauty, which is really about the problem of female beauty for *men*, especially in literature. I realized some years ago that the adjective "beautiful" (or, for that matter, "pretty") in a description does not describe: it tells us how the viewer reacts, but it doesn't give any information about how the person actually *looks*. Specifically, it's a way for a man to describe a woman without being interested enough in her to actually *describe* her.
I'll close with a selection from perhaps my favorite Disney animated movie, and one that proves that they can make a movie about poor, non-white people in a non-standard family. And can talk about different ideals of beauty without having to actually *say* anything.
Direct YouTube link.