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.
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?