Hero character design, homogeneity, and the BESM-ing of American big-studio computer animation.
(You may also enjoy Another Defense of Frozen: The Subversive Appeal of Disney’s New Breed of Fairy Tale.)
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:
Behold the DreamWorks middle third
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.)
Among other gigs, of course
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.
It will be 2030 before a cast this diverse plays cartoon humans. Then that movie will be studio-meddled into a mud pie, under-marketed, overlooked in theaters and used as reason not to feature such diversity again until 2055.
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?