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Immersed in Movies: Pretty Females vs. the Bold Feminism of 'Frozen'

by Bill Desowitz
November 1, 2013 2:12 PM
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At its first presentation at Siggraph,  Disney's "Frozen" started to gain some positive buzz as the animation Oscar frontrunner. But then came a viral media storm last month about gender portrayals in animation that yielded some provocative debate in the community about the Disney/Pixar animation boys club's predisposition toward pretty females.  

However, now we can focus on what really matters: "Frozen" offers Disney's most progressive feminist approach to the princess fairy tale to date. How else would you characterize the post-modern refashioning of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen" as a conflict between two sisters based on love vs. fear? The result is a lot bolder than perpetuating traditional romantic love, bolstered by the presence of Disney Animation's first female director -- Jennifer Lee (the co-screenwriter of "Wreck-It Ralph") -- who helmed with animation vet Chris Buck ("Surf's Up," "Tarzan"). But then it was Buck's idea to end with a radical departure that they worked very hard to earn.

So naturally if you have two princesses that closely resemble each other -- the free-spirited Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) and the repressed Elsa (voiced by Idini Menzel) -- you're going to have a few animation challenges in distinguishing their individual expressions.

That's what Disney animation head Lino DiSalvo was trying to point out in the roundtable that started the firestorm. Yes, in retrospect, he shouldn't have said that animating female characters is historically difficult because of their range of emotions. His big mistake, pointed out by Brenda Chapman (Pixar's first woman director, who won the Oscar with her replacement on "Brave," Mark Andrews), was saying "pretty" instead of "appealing" in describing the siblings.

Overall, though, the performances of Anna and Elsa are more nuanced and emotionally complex than ever before in the Disney canon, leveraging what Glen Keane and the animators accomplished on "Tangled" by adding more hand-drawn warmth and expressiveness to CG. But the rigs are superior on "Frozen" along with better skin, eyes, and lighting. The girls look more authentic yet still caricatured in the big-eyed Keane mold that dates back to Ariel from "The Little Mermaid."

However, according to DiSalvo, there's a "cohesiveness and continuity," thanks to a new "truth in acting" approach that he's instituted. He brought in acting coach Warner Loughlin very early on to help them discover emotional details of every character, conducting exercises in technique, singing, and especially breathing, given the importance of the frozen environment.

DiSalvo says they accentuated acting more than on previous films, and dailies were strictly about evaluating performance. "Do you buy what the characters are thinking? How does it look in continuity? Let's go back -- it looks too big and too broad. Keep pulling it back."

Also, because we briefly glimpse Anna and Elsa as kids, we know the source of their conflict and why they're at cross-purposes.


  • Taylor | November 1, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    I definitely think there was an overreaction. That being said, it's very true in the history of Disney films that there's been a lot of sexism and racism. To hear an animator in 2013 describe how "hard" it is to make the female characters look "interesting" is kind of sad. I've noticed a lot of his more overtly sexist comments were taken out of this article in an attempt to dilute what he meant, but the truth is he was basically saying "If we want to make the girls pretty, they're not going to be unique." They were so worried about making the females attractive in a way that they weren't about the males. That's the problem. Apparently only attractive female characters are interesting.

  • Angela | November 3, 2013 11:24 PM

    I don't think any of the defenses of his comments I've heard make what he said sound any less sexist. The problem isn't just that they feel the need to make all their heroines pretty/appealing/attractive/whatever word you want to use; it's that they only think women can be attractive if they look one specific way (thin waist, big eyes, small nose, slender limbs, etc.) The quality of the movie itself, which obviously I haven't seen yet since it hasn't come out, is completely beside the point. It could be the best movie Disney's ever made, but that doesn't change the fact that their view of women is extremely problematic.

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