In Defense of Frozen


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:

DreamWorks face middle third

DreamWorks middle third face

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.)

Madam Mim

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.

Turbo DreamWorks diverse cast

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?

1. What characters?


animated Disney female lookalikes

Animated female lookalikes

  • Rapunzel (Tangled, Disney)
  • Anna (Frozen, Disney)
  • Elsa (Frozen, Disney)
  • Ginormica (Monsters Vs. Aliens, DreamWorks)
  • Jesse (Toy Story franchise, Pixar)
  • Penny (Bolt, Disney)

To a lesser extent:

Animated Female Lookalikes

  • Mary (Epic, Blue Sky)
  • Sgt. Calhoun (Wreck-It Ralph, Disney)
  • Roxanne Ritchie (Megamind, DreamWorks)

The rules:

Disney face proportions

  • Eyes: Light-colored, angled slightly upward, set slightly less than one eye-width apart
  • Face: 4 eyes wide, 5 eyes tall
  • Nose: Projection contained in middle third of between axis of eyes and bottom of mouth
  • Mouth: When relaxed, contained between inner edges of pupils

2. Are they really more homogenous than the male heroes?


Animated male heroes

Note the strategies Frozen used to distinguish its two male heroes, Kristoff and Hans.

Animated male heroes Frozen Kristoff Hans

Unconvinced? Put your eyes on these gorgeous expression maquettes for Mr. Incredible and imagine Mrs. Incredible being put through these paces.

3. Haven’t animated heroines always looked alike?

Yes and no. It’s true computer-animation didn’t invent this look.

But traditional animation enjoys what cartoonist/author/comics theorist Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics as amplification through simplification:

Scott McCloud amplification through simplification

If you haven’t read this book you should read this book it is a fascinating book [source: Experimental Game Design]

Scott McCloud universality

This idea places photo-realistic art approaches at odds with iconic character design.

Compare your ability to distinguish between these 2D BESM-compliant faces:

American BESM 2D Disney princesses

Supervising animators:
Ariel – Glen Keane
Belle – James Baxter
Jasmine, Tiana and Mulan – Mark Henn
Esmeralda – Tony Fucile, also character artist for many films including Brave
Jane – Ken Duncan, also supervising animator of Meg from Hercules

And between Rapunzel, Anna and Ilsa:

American BESM rapunzel anna ilsa

Less amplified. Directing animator of Rapunzel – Glen Keane

In 2D, artists can distinguish characters with palette, line quality, cheats and smears. In 3D, artists don’t have those luxuries.

Even a character as edgy as Atlantis‘s Kida loses a great deal in 3D translation.

4. Why is this a problem?

In story, sameness is death.

As DiSalvo observed, it’s hard to animate distinctly two characters that look exactly alike. And it’s hard for an audience to invest in characters that are allowed only a narrow range of expression.

Furthermore, how can a studio embrace meaningful diversity when it won’t even touch surface diversity?

Yet the homogenizing phenomenon is spreading even to secondary female characters.

Animated female lookalikes moms

Mrs. Incredible (The Incredibles; Queen Elinor (Brave; Rapunzel’s mother (Tangled)

5. Do dynamic female characters even exist in big studio features?

Hell, yes.

Dynamic Animated Females

Maudie (Brave; Charlotte La Bouff (The Princess and the Frog; Nani (Lilo and Stitch)

Dynamic Animated females

Yzma (Emperor’s New Groove; Lucy and Miss Hattie (Despicable Me franchise)

Dynamic Animated Females 03

Eep (The Croods; Ruffnut and Astrid (How to Train Your Dragon)

Road to El Dorado Chel

Road to El Dorado’s Chel

…and many, many others.

6. What will it take to change things?

I’m not sure.

Photorealistic cartoons are still pretty new. The next decade of art remains undiscovered country.

Extremely exciting things are happening where computer-animation and stop-motion collide.

Sam Sparks Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

You got your stop-motion timing in my computer!

Aardman Pirates Band of Misfits

You got your digital correction in my stop-motion!

In the meantime, a familiar face helps sell tickets. It reminds prospective ticket-buyers of other movies they saw and liked. Breaking from the predetermined style would make people look at the one-sheet and say, “Uh, is this European? Will it have surprise nudity?”

BoxTrolls Laika studio

No. And probably not.

Pixar may have turned storytelling to a sweet science, but the movie business is still about math.

Studios have to walk a line.

But every line can curve.

7. You’re just dying to draw something, aren’t you?


Female Character Expression Concepts

If you want to see me put my work where my mouth is, here’s Motte and Bailey: Crow Stew.

8. In closing?

Kristen Wiig does more voiceover than you’d guess.

There are a lot of movies I need to watch.

Tony Fucile is a beast.

That is all.

If you like thoughtful heckling, you might also enjoy:


Draws. Sweats. Eats too much sugar-free candy.

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9 Responses

  1. Dinosaurs says:

    You guys all have terrible grammar. I’m going to have to call the Grammar Avengers! (Google it)

  2. amystika18n says:

    Just a few points of divergence here:
    1. Anna, Elsa, and Rapunzel are supposed to look alike, although maybe not to the extent that they do-Anna and Elsa are sisters and Rapunzel is widely thought to be their cousin (but Disney’s never confirmed or denied this).
    2. Jessie, being a doll, has a rounder face that distinguishes her from the humans.
    3. I think the DreamWorks heroines are modeled after their voice actresses, Reese Witherspoon (Ginormica-she has Reese’s heart-shaped face) and Tina Fey (Roxanne).

  3. Haakon says:

    So this movie, which you criticise for being too undiverse, features Finns, Sami, Norwegians, Danes and Swedes. That’s five different ethnicities.
    They could easily have gotten away with making them all Danes, so they sort of went above and beyond here.

    What is the measure of diversity then? Is it just skincolours? If that’s the case, then is not the diversity you seek also just skin-deep?
    Do we have to have 14 different cultures just to make a decent story?

    I’m not saying this to be difficult, I just find it strange that you pontificate about a lack of diversity in a movie that featured five distinct ethnicities.

  4. Richard says:

    Just want to get it in here, Rapunzel, Elsa and Anna: related. The mothers are sisters or something like that (do a google search for it, you’ll find the fan theories)
    But yes homogeneous female characters is a bad thing (I’m not sure I used that word correctly…) but as long as we keep criticizing the movie creators for it it will ultimate get better. Just don’t think less of the message of the movies just because the characters happens to fall into the category of looking to much like each other.
    However I would like to argue that it’s not as big of an issue as some people makes it out to be but it’s still an important issue and people that makes movies should be aware of it. The industry around computer animated movies is still kinda new while the hand drawn part has had a couple of decades more to work out the kinks, I say give it a couple of years while we keep reminding them of the issues and they will figure it out eventually (stuff takes time deal with it!)

  5. Mary says:

    I don’t see why it’s so terrible for Elsa and Anna to have the same design with only superficial differences. They’re sisters, with the same mother and same father – siblings often look alike.
    The others, yes, should be more distinct.

    • Jenny says:

      Do mothers and daughters look exactly the same with little difference between them?Sisters don’t look extremely alike unless they’re twins.

  6. Jean says:

    Thanks so much for breaking down what goes into these depictions! I watched Frozen recently and had trouble connecting with the characters and felt the characterization was underdeveloped. In retrospect, I’ve had the same feeling about many of the characters you describe here. They seemed so… formless, uniform, stereotypical, in a way that made it hard to care about their stories or remember who they are later. I loved “How to Train Your Dragon”, “Despicable Me”, and loads of 2D animated films, so it’s not that I’m a curmudgeon. The studios seriously need to figure out how to illustrate women as individuals.

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