Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Disney's "Boy Problem"?

Conventional wisdom holds that while young girls will gladly see films and read stories about boy protagonists, cheerfully imagining themselves in the shoes of those youthful heroes, young boys will avoid "girl-centric" movies as if they were typhoid and will identify with female protagonists only at gunpoint. With this wisdom as a guide, many studios regard family films with female protagonists as risky ventures, not worth taking. Sadly, box office returns tend to prove them right: witness, for example, the otherwise inexplicable tanking of 1994's superb "A Little Princess." Critics loved it; the studio heads were so anxious for its success that they released it twice; yet what boy over the age of three is going to push his parents to take him to a movie with that title?

Accordingly, Disney has decided it's unwise to release its upcoming 2-D animated film with the title Rapunzel. A much more boy-friendly title, they've decided, is Tangled; in marketing the film, they've chosen to emphasize its swashbuckling hero rather than its heroine with the long mane. In an article my husband e-mailed me, "Does Disney really know what boys like?" various critics and sociologists are questioning whether the Disney studio has a problem reaching boys, and what that problem might be. NPR's Linda Holmes suggests it's not the female protagonists that alienate boys; it's the kind of female protagonists the company is known for. It's princesses that boys disdain, while they'll gladly watch live action Disney TV shows like "iCarly," which feature tough, "today" female protagonists rather than fluttery, insipid fashionistas. If Holmes is right, Disney can attract boys by rejecting the princess model. In this case, I'm right with the boys; I'd be the first one to rejoice if fluttery, insipid fashionistas disappeared altogether from the Disney landscape -- make that the pop culture landscape.

Disney, however, hasn't given us that kind of heroine in several decades, save in the form of parody (e.g. Enchanted, which performed quite decently at the box office). Boys' disdain for helpless airheads can't explain the disappointing box-office performance of The Princess and the Frog, in which the titular "princess," Tiana, departs drastically from the damsel-in-distress model. Far more likely: with all the marketing surrounding Tiana, and very little push to sell the hero, Naveen, boys decided the movie had nothing to offer them.

Is boys' rejection of movies with female protagonists inevitable? If so, why do a handful manage to succeed, while the vast majority tank? Coraline offers an interesting case: it did respectable, though not blockbuster, business, but many regarded this dark-hued fairy tale as more appropriate for older than for younger audiences. More on-point is the success of 2000's Chicken Run, which featured a courageous and resourceful female protagonist. Ginger, the heroine, saves the day for herself and her fellow fowls. But boys and girls alike embraced this movie, because it boasted a funny and interesting male secondary lead, Yankee chicken Rocky, voiced by Mel Gibson.

Chicken Run offers a valuable clue to how to give a family film cross-gender appeal. Even if a movie features a female protagonist, boys will go if they know a male character plays a significant role. It helps if said male character is funny and tough and voiced by a star they're familiar with.

As an animation fan, I pay attention to the releases in the genre, finding out as much about them as I can, to decide whether or not I will see them. I've noticed the tendency to avoid female protagonists, even when the featured characters should logically be female (the abysmal Barnyard, for instance, features udder-bearing cows speaking in male voices!). In recent years, Disney has tried to solve their "boy problem" by releasing films with no significant female characters at all (Brother Bear) or with only one important female character, and that one evil (The Emperor's New Groove). The latter manages to be enjoyable anyway; Home on the Range far less so -- not because of its female-heavy cast, but because of its weak storyline.

I don't want to see films in which female characters are marginalized; but I don't want to see uninvolving plots and half-baked characters, either.

My sole frustration with the otherwise wonderful Pixar Studios is that, heretofore, they have refused to give us a movie in which the central character is female. If any studio is likely to "get it right," it's Pixar, with their strong team of writers and directors and their knack for weaving involving storylines. (Word is that they'll soon be amending the problem, with The Bear and the Bow. I can't wait!) Yet despite their insistence, up to now, on male protagonists, Pixar knows how to create cross-gender appeal. Every single Pixar release, with the exception of the first Toy Story film, features interesting, funny, and/or helpful female characters. A Bug's Life features several, from impatient-to-grow-up young queen ant Dot, who flies to the hero to summon him to action, to the soft-voiced Black Widow, Rosie. The Incredibles may center on middle-aged superhero Bob Parr, but his wife and daughter, Helen and Violet, play crucial roles; both grow and change and save the day along with Bob. (Bob's son, Dash, is just the kind of boy the young male audience will want to identify with.) Hilarious supporting character Edna Mode is a nice bonus. And in WALL-E, it's possible to view female robot EVE as a co-protagonist, since she learns, grows, and changes as much as WALL-E does, and performs crucial action at the end.

All of these films succeed with both boys and girls, not only because both male and female characters "do cool stuff," but because the characters are painted along individual, rather than stereotypical, lines. They're not interesting as boys or as girls; they're interesting in and of themselves.

Can Disney 2-D solve the "boy problem" without pushing girls aside? It's been done in the past. Among their post-Lion King films, my favorite, in terms of cross-gender appeal, is Tarzan. Yes, the protagonist is male, and he acts it: tough and strong, yet capable of great tenderness in his scenes with Jane. However, the writers take the time and trouble to make Jane interesting, too -- smart, quirky, and funny as few Disney heroines are. The animal supporting characters also included females, a wise move even if one of them speaks with that annoying Rosie O'Donnell voice. That's what persuades me into the theatre: a strong hero, a funny heroine, and interesting supporting characters of both genders.

I wouldn't be surprised if many boys felt the same.

(NOTE: the next-to-last paragraph is drawn from an e-mail to my husband on this same subject. Even when I was writing it, I felt it belonged in a blog.)

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps the interactive game market has swallowed up young males to the point where they don't need movies to entertain them--they can involve themselves in all sorts of heroic and/or dangerous excitement vicariously. With all this action in their sedantary lives, why bother going to girly movies?