Disney, Frozen and the (un)Importance of Prettiness

disney-frozen1 Disney's Frozen is turning into a bit of a mess, and it isn't even released for another month.

First, the movie has been criticized for taking a female-character-dominated fairy tale and removing almost all of those female characters, leaving a female heroine and a villain surrounded by male love interests, helpers and talking snowmen. The one male character who has been removed from the story is the friend that the heroine is supposed to rescue from the Snow Queen, the one that drives the whole plot -- an interesting subversion of the "damsel in distress" trope and an opportunity for a Disney love interest wrapped into one, but one that Disney chose not to include.

Then the movie has been criticized for white-washing, partly because it doesn't include any Inuit or otherwise non-white Scandanavian characters, partly because why should fantasy need everyone to be white anyway, and partly because it sparked a debate about why Disney almost always chooses white-people-centered fairytales and why a "one of each" approach to princess racial diversity is pretty problematic.

And in less serious but still annoying criticism, the film has been accused of looking too similar to Tangled, especially the face of its heroine.

Unfortunately, these threads of criticism exploded in a big way last week, when the head of animation on the movie weighed in on the animation of female characters:

“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but 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 looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.”

Historically speaking, this is nonsense. Disney themselves have proved that, by creating movie after movie of distinct female faces.

Let's look at some angry Disney princesses, shall we?

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They look fairly distinct to me. Why should female characters' emotions be more difficult to animate than male ones, if you make the effort to make them distinct? If it's because there's only a narrow range of what can be considered "pretty," then make non-pretty female characters. It's not a prerequisite. In Tangled, the previous Disney effort, all of the lead characters are attractive... but the male secondary characters are a weird and wonderful bunch, as this one video shows:

Even if you want your leads to be attractive, and even if "attractive" for female characters falls into a very narrow spectrum, this shouldn't stop female secondary characters, helpers, advisors and sidekicks from having a very distinctive look, just as male ones almost always do.

And if you're worried about your female characters looking too similar, why not add in some of that dreaded racial diversity? Problem solved.

But the head animator specifically talks about lead characters, and how their expressions can be similar. It's difficult to draw an angry person prettily in multiple ways. Which makes sense, because anger isn't usually pretty. Neither is sadness. Or fear. Even happiness can distort your face. So why not just make your pretty female characters like normal characters, and allow their faces to be distorted occasionally? Again, it's something that Disney has achieved before:

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The interview did help to explain why there are so few female characters in Disney's adaptation of the Snow Queen, and why the ones we've got look so familiar, but not, I think, in the way the animator intended. His words say "technical reasons inherent in animation." Their implication is "because of sexism in the media." Because all female characters must be pretty, and because prettiness always looks the same.

love Disney movies, I want Frozen to succeed, and none of this has any bearing on whether it's going to be a good movie with wonderful female characters when it is finally released. I'll still go and see it, and hopefully I'll love it. But I think this pre-release criticism is incredibly important. In the end, the quality of the final product doesn't really matter in these debates. The quality of the movie itself relies on writing, on animation skill, on the musical score and the ins and outs of the plot and how compelling these characters are. These criticisms address something more fundamental, and far less subjective. The diversity of the cast. The number of female faces that appear on-screen. The animators' attitudes to creating those faces. And in this realm, Frozen has not only been found wanting, but represents a step back from movies created twenty years ago.