Monday, March 28, 2011

Exhibit A: Pixar and Studio Ghibli

As someone who enjoys a good heartwarming fantasy adventure story, I've got a special place in my heart for two of the most innovative and artful film studios currently working: Pixar and Studio Ghibli. Both studios have produced some of the most beautiful, challenging, and emotionally relevant films of the past two (and a bit) decades, and both are in part defined by their mission to take family-oriented fare more seriously than the majority of production companies seem to. But, after a month of watching Ghibli films every Thursday night, I noticed something interesting about the main characters in their films.

Pixar films from the top left: Toy Story, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Up
Ghibli films: Spirited Away, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind,
Princess Mononoke, and Howl's Moving Castle
Spot the difference yet? If you said "the gender of the main characters", give yourself a pat on the back.

Pixar has been criticized a number of times for not featuring female main characters in their films (The Incredibles and Toy Story 2 come the closest, but even in these films the women & girls play backup to the male characters). Ghibli productions, on the other hand, place girls front and centre -- even Princess Monoke and Howl's Moving Castle, which have male co-leads, feature strong, capable women. Moreover, the girls in Studio Ghibli films break out of the traditional Disney princess model for female characters. Miyazaki populates his films with tomboy-ish young girls, feisty old women, feral warriors, and yes, even a fully-realized princess who saves her people from certain destruction.

Both Pixar and Studio Ghibli have taken the animated family film to new artistic heights; neither studio tells stories that are primarily romances, and both combine terrific adventure and gentle good humor with masterful art design and an emotional maturity often lacking from movies aimed at children (or adults for that matter). But as much as I love Pixar and the films they produce, it would be nice to see them take a page out of Studio Ghibli's book and put a female character front and center. The success of Miyazaki's films in both Japan and North America show that there's a market for these stories. The addition of a heroine to the Pixar roster would be a mark that the studio can be innovative both artistically and socially, inside and outside the studio.

Edit: Not ten hours ago, The Mary Sue posted concept art from Pixar's upcoming original production, Brave. The best part? It's the first of Pixar's films to star a female protagonist. Here's to Pixar entering their third decade by turning over a new leaf on gender.

I would also be remiss if I left out a recommendation for the indie animated flick The Secret of Kells. Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon's beautiful film was nominated for Best Animated Picture at the 2010 Academy awards, and featured two equally well drawn leads -- monk-in-training Brendan and the enchanting wolf-girl, Aisling. Their upcoming Song of the Sea promises to be an equally lovely addition to the animated family film wall of fame:

Song Of The Sea - Conceptual Trailer from Cartoon Saloon on Vimeo.

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Unknown said...

I tend to identify asexually, if you will, with characters in most all forms of media. Whether they be male or female--a well crafted story leads me to pine for their triumph or relate to their tribulations.

The substance and nature of the character, rather than gender, is my primary connection to a protagonist.

And so it seems somewhat sophomoric, in my mind, to chide Pixar for their purportedly unvarying choice of protagonists: toys, an old person, a fish, a rat, a robot, monsters, cars, bugs, and super heroes; when Studio Ghibli presents us with a parade of relatively indistinguishable, prepubescent youths.

Sarah Gram said...

That you tend to identify in a cross-gender way with most characters in films/media doesn't mean that that's the way studios think when it comes to choosing the stories they produce. The assumption that boys will only identify with boys, but girls will identify with either gender is a motivating factor in the production of children's films (and with more adult fare, for that matter).

And the point is not that they have unvarying protagonist in species, etc -- Pixar is extraordinarily imaginative in their story lines and character development. The point is that their movies star male toys, male seniors, male rats and chefs, male robots (why does a robot without a voice have to be gendered at all?), male monsters, male cars, male bugs, and male superheros. That Studio Ghibli's women all look the same is a different sort of problem. The consistent lack of female main characters in some of the most lauded films to come out in any year requires that girls develop that ability for cross-gender identification that you describe yourself as having. It doesn't require boys to do the same.

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