Welcome to Girls on Film -- a Monday-night Cinematical column full of female-centric musing, rants, love, and aggravation.
Are the Disney Princesses a thing of the past?
Though the dress-swathed ladies of royalty are sure to still sweep in and charm the hearts of young fans at Disney World and Disneyland, and live on in merchandise, reports descended last week that Disney was ready to move beyond the fairy tale world of romance and princesses on the screen. Pixar chief Ed Catmull had said: "Films and genres do run a course. ... They may come back later because someone has a fresh take on it ... but we don't have any other musicals or fairy tales lined up." As such, 'Tangled' would be the last princess-based fairytale world to come out of Disney for the foreseeable future.
As legions rued or cheered this development, Catmull headed to Disney's Facebook page to offer up the following "correction" -- "A headline in today's LA Times erroneously reported that the Disney fairy tale is a thing of the past, but I feel it is important to set the record straight that they are alive and well at Disney and continue this week with 'Tangled,' a contemporary retelling of a much loved story. We have a number of projects in development with new twists that audiences will be able to enjoy for many years to come."
Hands up: Who thinks Catmull would make a great politician? Though he says he wants to clear up the Times' so-called "erroneous" reports, he actually doesn't say anything that contradicts the original report and, in fact, vaguely reasserts the Times piece. We know that 'Tangled' is coming out. The Times discusses it in-depth, explaining how it was given -- in Catmull's words -- a "total restart" to make it more modern. Everything from the original fairy tale was scrapped, save for "the hair, the tower and Rapunzel." Though he asserts that the Disney fairy tale is "alive and well," it seems to be nothing more than an assurance that the Mouse House won't forget their past, since Catmull says in the next sentence: "we have a number of projects in development with new twists." At no point does he suggest that they're still working on fairy tales. (Save, of course, Pixar's ironic addition to the argument, 'Brave,' which sees the modern and forward-thinking animation house picking up the theme Disney is backing away from.)
For many, the princesses and fairy tale worlds evoke a sense of forgiving nostalgia. They're loved in spite of their troublesome messages, from ethnocentric and stereotypical characterizations to romances predicated on any number of questionable premises, like Belle falling for the man/beast who imprisons her, the Little Mermaid finding love when she's a naked and cannot speak and the over-arching theme that beauty brings love, after considerable derision and hardship by jealous, evil people.
For years now, there has been quite a large faction hoping for the death of the Disney Princesses, or for them to retire for more uplifting and inspiring role models for little girls. Hearing that Disney and Pixar want to move away from the decades-long trend seems like a dream come true -- but is it? Besides the fact that the Mouse House took a break before -- some thirty years rolling by between the release of 'Sleeping Beauty' and 'The Little Mermaid' ...
What will replace the classic fairy tale scheme? As we learned with 'Tangled,' the Disney powers that be didn't want to simply modernize the story, they were eager to make it more appealing to young boys. There was a fear that 'The Princess and the Frog' didn't become an iconic success because it alienated boys, and thus, films couldn't be marketed solely to girls and be successful. The 'Rapunzel' title was scrapped, and the focus was changed. As William Goss notes in his review, Rapunzel is "a decidedly more proactive protagonist than, say, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, but the focus of the story is ostensibly the mucho macho Flynn."
Though Disney has a long history of female fare and Pixar has a long history of great storytelling, like it or not, they're merging together and upholding the notion that the stories for the girls are only for the girls, while boy fare is accessible by anyone and everyone. Focus on Flynn rather than Rapunzel, and the story is now considered universal. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the animation houses have an evil anti-female agenda, but it is curious that it doesn't occur to Pixar, most especially, to add female leads and focuses, especially when it would only serve to strengthen the story. (In 'Up,' imagine if Russell was a girl scout. Carl might have bonded with the young girl as an appreciation of her similarities to his departed Ellie. Likewise, many wished for a film that detailed the youthful adventures of Ellie and Carl.)
One can't help but fear that removing the fairy tale stories will not only remove the antiquated notions present in princess romances, but also any sort of female focus at all. If 'Tangled' cannot still focus on Rapunzel and be considered interesting to all ages and genders, then we cannot expect Disney and Pixar to foster any sort of female focus or leading heroines in their films.
Likewise, in the original Times piece, Dafna Lemish, an expert on media's impact on children, noted: "By the time they're 5 or 6, they're not interested in being princesses. They're interested in being hot, in being cool. Clearly, they see this is what society values." If there's a distinct lack of new female role models coming out of Disney, will those young girls just migrate towards Bratz and their short shorts, boas and fishnet stockings?
What Disney and Pixar need to do now is not only focus on modernizing animated film, but modernizing their approach to it. While flicks like 'Salt' rewrite the male lead for a female one, these companies -- which specialize in stories for young people -- must uphold the same mentality, rather than rewriting their female leads to make male co-stars the focus. It would be nice to now get animated figures young girls can look up to and anticipate -- new project announcements that have non-princess female leads coming from a company that strives to appeal and reflect all children rather than a select few.
As Cassandra Gatto wrote over at TCW, "There's a perfect model staring Disney in the face." That model -- Hermione Granger.
But whether the company notices all of the great female characterizations that always get supporting roles, and give them the spotlight, remains to be seen.