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Maybe you’re out of the cartoon loop. Maybe you don’t have cable TV. Maybe you’re a former fan who got super distracted by Breaking Bad. Well, there’s been no better time to reconnect. We live in a golden age of television, and animation is no exception–plus shows are passing the Mako Mori Test left and right (in most episodes, at least one female character has her own narrative arc distinct from any male characters’ arcs.)
If you have the time, these shows are ready to tickle your nucleus accumbens.
It’s a pleasure to join Luna Station Quarterly’s new content lineup. I’ll be your friendly neighborhood animation commentator and theorist. Why? I’m so glad you asked. Of all popular media, animation is the truest mirror of our culture. Hold on to your caboose, because I brought the proof.
1. Cartoons gain amplification through simplification
As described by cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud, this principle applies to every element of moving art, from character design to backgrounds to lighting to animation to the beats of the story being told. There is room for Miyazaki’s lack of baddies and Richard Williams’s compulsive detail, but generally speaking, the broader the strokes, the broader the appeal. Speaking of…
Let’s be clear. The original How to Train Your Dragon (2010) is excellent, structurally and emotionally. Both it and its sequel are gorgeous, imaginative, and animated by some of the greatest hands in the business. Each individual frame of How to Train Your Dragon 2 deserves nothing but high-fives down every cubicle row in Glendale.
But the story is a head-scratching mess.
Since 2010, the franchise has kept in fighting form with holiday specials and Riders of Berk on Cartoon Network. Though I’m not familiar with this series, I wonder if some of the best sequel ideas got spent there (a local studies dragon-training for his own nefarious purposes!), or whether an episodic story approach infected this script, because this story doesn’t have just a woman problem. This story has all kinds of problems.
I dug Frozen. I laughed. I cried. I gasped at the third act reveal. In the wake of Dani Colman’s essay for Medium asserting the film has a problem with false feminism, I feel the need to tell you why. I hope you can stand another defense of Frozen.
Disney’s animated feature Frozen, which opens Thanksgiving, has received some attention for 1) its nearly indistinguishable female leads and 2) the interview in which its head of animation, Lino DiSalvo, dared to mention the difficulties of animating two characters who look so much alike:
“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 (Idina Menzel) looking angry looks different from Anna (Kristen Bell) being angry.”
Let’s remind ourselves that Lino DiSalvo is not credited with the designs of these characters.
Let’s set aside that a studio’s characters have a certain overall look to help brand the studio’s films–for example, the longer middle-third of DreamWorks faces:
Let’s set aside that the difficulty Lino DiSalvo describes–keeping a human hero character appealing, on-model and expressive–has applied since Milt Kahl sketched his first Prince (and got stuck with princes the rest of his life.)
Let’s save for another day how hero characters remain the same color and physical type. These choices are driven by studio biases with such deep roots that they heave up the sidewalk of good sense.
I expect the animators are as stumped by the parade of light-eyed, fair-skinned characters as anyone, which is sort of exactly the point DiSalvo is making.
The question that remains is, why do human female leads in American big studio computer-animated features look so dang much alike?
Yes, Thor 2 subscribes to the same messy, silly, Drew-Struzan-starved poster approach as Iron Man 3. But it wins points for most improved anatomy.
Sure, it’s the same poster as Iron Man 3, just blue-ier, but they fixed the Pepper decapitation situation:
Take a good look at this poster. Don’t even worry about Pepper’s wonky hand. Note hair is silly and clearly there to cover up the complete inability to make a plausible neck. But the head… oh the head… TRY to get your nose to point over your shoulder. I can’t even get them parallel. Then again, I am old.
Still think this is an OK ‘Shop? Check it out in the thumbnail:
Does this movie break the record for TTAL (Time to Audible Laughter)? The theater I saw it in was laughing pretty steady in the very second scene. The comedy sciences were in full effect: many jokes on many levels, dumb and smart and self-deprecating, derived from the characters, delivered at top speed.
How are the VFX and practical FX (so much fire!) so Grade A and plentiful on a $32 million budget? Did the cast all work for sandwiches? Is Montreal’s Modus FX bruised from all the back-slaps, or do they need twenty naps?
Why haven’t you seen “Your Highness”? Because it is pretty worthy.
Why do I feel hometown affinity for Danny McBride? He graduated from [U]NCSA long before I did, and if I tried to holler “Fighting Pickles” at him across a bar, I would surely be indulging in the flimsiest granfalloon. Yet I persist in mentioning the association despite the fact I know nobody cares. Case in point.
Can we have more movies like this? Please go see it so we can.