Friday, November 25, 2011

IS HOLLYWOOD ANIMATION A BOY’S CLUB?

Directors get fired from animated features all the time for various reasons: they go over budget, they take too long or they have “creative differences” with studios.  Glen Keane got replaced after working for seven years on Disney’s RAPUNZEL, renamed TANGLED,  Jan Pinkava  was replaced on Pixar’s RATATOUILLE after five years of work and last year Brenda Chapman was replaced by Pixar after six years as sole director on THE BEAR AND THE BOW, renamed BRAVE.
    What made Brenda’s replacement particularly disappointing was the fact that, while most major studios have at least two directors on every feature film, prestigious Pixar often has only one and Brenda would have joined such illustrious solo directors as John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Lee Unkrich and would have been only the second woman solo director of a big-budget animated feature for a major studio in the seventy-four year history of Hollywood feature animation. On the other hand, she does join
other illustrious replaced animation directors like Glen Keane, Jan Pinkava, Roger Allers.   
    Nobody is saying that Brenda was hired or fired for being a girl,
but the animation industry has been watching her with great interest because she was expected to join the one solo female director of a big-budget animated feature film for a major Hollywood studio in seventy-four years: Jennifer Yuh, who directed KUNGFU PANDA 2 for DreamWorks.
    Brenda Chapman appears to be the first woman to to get a co-director’s credit, on DreamWorks’ PRINCE OF EGYPT (with Simon Wells and Steve Hickner) in 1998.  In 2000 Jun Falkenstein solo-directed Disney's modestly budgeted feature THE TIGGER MOVIE, in 2002 Lorna Cook co-directed, with Kelly Asbury, SPIRIT: STALLIN OF THE CIMARRON, in 2006 Jill Culton co-directed (with Roger Allers and Antony Stacchi) OPEN SEASON for Sony and, in 2012 Brenda will get another co-director’s credit (with Mark Andrews) for BRAVE.
    Five woman directors in seventy-four years.  Is this pathetic or what?
    Even though there are many female producers in the Hollywood animation industry, on the creative side breasts and ovaries seem to be impediments to heading departments and directing.  Well, most studio heads seem to think so anyway, with the exception of Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks, who hired Lorna Cook, Brenda Chapman and Jennifer Yuh.
    Another possible factor in Brenda Chapman’s replacement could be parent-company Disney’s change of animated feature template. A fairly sexist template too, when you think that their target demographic is twelve-year-old boys. As we know, Disney’s RAPUNZEL was reworked to fit this template and renamed TANGLED. Why reworked?  Because Disney allegedly blamed the lack of profits generated by THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG on the fact that it was too girly and isn’t that a bit sexist too? After all, the only thing wrong with girls in film is the way they’re portrayed. Ellen Ripley in ALIEN is the way to do it. Where is it written that a female animated lead must be a princess? And surely tougher princesses can't be the key to making more money? Anyway, Disney decided that adding a hero, a sidekick horse and a new Rapunzel, all behaving boyishly, would appeal to the target demographic. So Glen Keane was replaced as director, the beautiful but now “too girly” software Glen helped invent for the film was quickly sold off and hey presto––the profits of TANGLED did not exceed those of The PRINCESS AND THE FROG by much.
    Could it be that the same type of thinking is being applied to Pixar, forcing them into franchises and template film-making
(CARS2, PLANES,   MONSTERS UNIVERSITY)? Are we going to see a tougher, more boyish princess injected into BRAVE? And, if so, is it possible that Brenda wouldn’t have been fired if Disney hadn’t bought Pixar?
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PS - How sophisticated is the software used to create the BRAVE character above? Parts of the face are soft, like the mouth and nose and parts are very sharp, like the eyes.  The hair is both sharp and soft.  Lovely.

5 comments:

John L said...

Very interesting post. It's probably true that more boys didn't go see The Princess and the Frog because it had the word "princess" in the title. But other animated films with female protagonists have been very successful (Beauty and the Beast), so I think that argument doesn't hold water.

Personally, I don't have a problem with calling a film Tangled instead of Rapunzel, that's a common technique in novels when you re-imagine a classic tale. And if it encourages more boys to see a movie about a strong girl protagonist, isn't that a good thing? (Assuming that the film is well-written and refrains from stereotypes.) Of course, adding monsters or violence to a story just to appeal to boys, that's another matter.

Regarding the lack of female directors in animation, I think that has more to do with internal politics than an attempt for movie producers to make boy-oriented films. I think the live-action film industry isn't much different, and maybe that's where the attitude comes from.

Nora Lumiere said...

"The Little Mermaid" also did well.
It's not the renaming of films that's a problem, rather its the targeting of a stereotyped gender instead of an age group.
The lack of female directors has to do with internal politics in as much as sexism is part of animation studio politics.
You're right about live-action Hollywood features targeting boys and they don't have many female directors there either.
Thanks for your insightful comment.

Kevin Koch said...

I completely agree with your observations about sexism in creative positions in the animation industry. But I'm curious what you mean by "So Glen Keane was replaced as director, the beautiful but now “too girly” software Glen helped invent for the film was quickly sold off and hey presto––the profits of TANGLED did not exceed those of The PRINCESS AND THE FROG by much."

Glen isn't a software developer, he's an animator, and software is neither 'girly' or 'boyish.' Glen remained the animation supervisor as well as the directing animator on Rapunzel herself, and the tools that were developed for the film to get the look that Glen wanted were indeed used in the final film. This included tools that allowed Glen to literally draw over the poses of the CG-animated scenes done by Glen's animators, and software to make her hair long and luxurious and a virtual character itself. If you compare the animation in Tangled to that in Aladdin and Little Mermaid, you will see that it's very much Glen's signature appealing animation style. Rapunzel might be more spunky and tomboyish than feminine at times, but that's Glen's style.

As for the profitability of the films, we'll never know what Disney actually spent on either Princess and the Frog or Tangled, but we do know that the worldwide gross for the former was $267 million, and for the latter was $590.7 million (by far the most successful Disney animated film in many years). The DVD sales and the merchandise sales were likewise dramatically higher for the CG film.

The good thing about the success of Tangled is that it gave Disney execs the courage to go ahead and develop fairy tale stories and female lead films again. Only time will tell what comes of that.

Nora Lumiere said...

First, thank you for acknowledging that sexism exists in animation. Too many people deny it.
Yes, Glen is the animator who, with Kyle Strawitz, helped develop the painterly software based on the work of French artist Fragonard for RAPUNZEL. This software was considered quite a big deal of softness at the time and was, as you say, used in the film but no mention of it was made in the publicity and I think it was this software that was sold off after the film's release. Given that it imitated a soft painter style, I think it's not wrong to call this software "girly" in this context. I've mentioned this elsewhere on this blog, so I didn't want to repeat all the details on this post.

Glen was also the director of RAPUNZEL for the first seven years of its development, until Disney made radical changes to the script designed to appeal to boys. Glen was then replaced as director by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard.

As for the profits, the TANGLED box-office take was far greater than THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG's, but the actual profits were not that much bigger because of TANGLED's greater production costs.

Even though Disney has renounced fairy tales in the past, the success of the boyish TANGLED will no doubt encourage them in their pursuit of the 12-year-old boy demographic.

N. L. Lumiere said...

BTW: Kevin Koch is a Hollywood animator