The head of animation for Disney's upcoming film "Frozen" has leaked the secret of the studio's princess success, and it is shocking.
"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-model very quickly," Lino Disalvo told Fanvoice.
I'll pause for a moment to allow you to take in the momentous revelation that Disney has historically liked its princesses to be pretty.
Actually, it's fair to say that the word "pretty" is probably the most modest thing one could say about the appearance of Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Cinderella, or the lot. "Ideal" might be a more accurate term – or, perhaps, "impossibly perfect." Even Merida, the supposedly liberated and down-to-earth princess of Pixar's "Brave" was probably still shopping in the petites section (even before her wasp-waisted marketing transformation).
Still, that hasn't stopped an internet-fueled backlash against Mr. Disalvo's words. One commenter asked: "Why can't women and girls just look human? Why is beauty their most important feature?"
The question, of course, is central to the Disney Princess Dilemma: Is this really the message we want to be sending to our daughters (and ourselves) about beauty and feminine body image?
Disney has made some progress over the years on the matter of making women actual characters instead of merely human topiary (see, "Sleeping Beauty"). But the idea of a plus-size princess – or at least one without a button nose who looks like she has adequate space for all her organs – has so far seemed a bridge too far.
There are reasons for that, of course. Disney's animated films are not indie flicks filmed for a few hundred thousand dollars and then edited on some 20-something's sofa between episodes of "Breaking Bad." Animation of the highest order (which Disney aspires to) takes years of painstaking work and budgets can run into the hundreds of millions. To cast an "untraditional" princess would seem to be an enormous financial risk.
Would people go to see a princess who wasn't "pretty"? "Shrek" made a joke of this and succeeded. But what if there was no joke? What if the princess simply was ordinary? It would be a risk, if only because it has never been done. Just look at society – our local TV news anchors and gossip-page celebrities. Where are the un-"pretty" examples there? Disney is just reflecting society back at itself.
Which brings us to the Internet's tiny "Frozen" rebellion. Is the world ready for an un-"pretty" Disney princess?
Pixar, in many ways, has already led the way, showing that the untraditional – done honestly – can appeal to mass audiences. A rat that can cook? A robot in love? A grumpy widower who sells balloons? All became blockbusters.
Of course, Disney does not yet have that risk-taking so deeply in its DNA. It is still attempting to throttle the world with Marvel and Star Wars retreads. Yet there are hints. At the time, "Tangled" was an enormous risk. "Shrek" had supposedly killed the fairy tale genre, yet "Tangled" made $600 million worldwide. And "Wreck-It Ralph" – as well as "Paperman," the groundbreaking short film before it – showed that some of Pixar's innovation has rubbed off on Disney.
Moreover, Disalvo's comments suggest that Disney's default feminine ideal is already beginning to get in the way of its storytelling in "Frozen," which has two female leads, Anna and Elsa. "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 being angry.”
In other words, when every feminine lead has to mirror that Disney feminine ideal (in other words, look the same), then it gets harder and harder to differentiate them for the purposes of conveying distinct emotions and inner voices.
Behind the scenes, Disney has taken some small steps in its animation of women. Glen Keane, the director of animation for "Tangled," said of his team's attempts to animate the main character, Rapunzel, during the film's climactic scene:
It was the most difficult and the most rewarding [scene] because the acting was so extremely subtle. The expressions of someone crying are inherently ugly. All the muscles in the face fight each other. No one wants a camera in their face at that moment. But we challenged the animators to go for the ugly face, and as Rapunzel fights and holds back tears, the emotions are so real and so true. And it’s so effective because when that tear comes from Rapunzel’s eye ... you believe there is enormous pain in Rapunzel’s heart. If you don’t believe that tear comes from a heart of love the movie doesn’t work. It was successful and emotionally gripping. I was never more proud of our animators then at that moment.
For all its sarcastic quips and action scenes, "Tangled" eventually got to a place of intense emotional honesty – and it got there by being "ugly." The real question raised by Disalvo's comments is whether "Frozen" has the courage to get to that place, and whether Disney as a whole is willing to follow Pixar's daring and explore that place more deeply.
Even if it means an un-"pretty" princess.