Saturday, May 14, 2011

Pixar and Women, Part 1 -- Toy Story through Monsters Inc.

For the first time in over a decade, I'm not looking forward to the next Pixar release -- and with me, Pixar has always been the big-screen equivalent of "appointment TV."

Oh, I'll go to see Cars 2, and I don't doubt I'll have a pleasant time. Some Pixar works are better than others, but the studio has yet to release an out-and-out bad film. As the Pixar team's take on espionage pictures, Cars 2 will at the very least be worth seeing. Why, then, am I not crossing off the days till its release?

Because when I check out the movie's homepage on the Internet Movie Database, I find that the top fourteen characters and voice actors listed are male. That's right -- you have to scroll past fourteen male names before you reach your first female. Two voices I normally trust, Ain't It Cool blogger Nordling and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter himself, have said that the new girl car character, Holley Shiftwell (voice of Emily Mortimer) is one worth keeping our eye on. But I find myself doubting them when I see that she is billed seventeenth. She isn't even visible on Cars 2's IMdB homepage; you have to click on the link to "Full Cast and Crew" even to know she's in the film.

That shouldn't surprise me, given the route the creators have gone if the trailers are to be believed. Ever since the first Cars, Pixar has revealed itself as the one studio in Hollywood capable of crafting a moving and convincing love story. For my money, 2008's WALL-E ranks as the most romantic film of its decade. But for Cars 2, romance is being set aside in favor of the "bromance" between cocky Lightning McQueen and his tow-truck pal Mater. Sally Carrera, the smart, charming heroine of the first film, has been reduced to a walk-on. (She's billed fifteenth.) This is in keeping with the "bromance" genre: females are superfluous. If they achieve any prominence at all, it's only to cause trouble. (For a recent example, we have Ron Howard's The Dilemma, called by critics "a date movie, if you want to be sure you'll never see your date again.")

I want to believe that Nordling and Lasseter are right, that the IMdB billing is all out of whatck, and that Holley Shiftwell will prove an important figure, a heroine worth rooting for rather than a bromance-spoiling femme fatale. Pixar has taken a lot of heat lately because its protagonists have always been male (the studio's release for next year is an attempt to remedy this); last year, on this very blog spot, I had to defend Toy Story 3 against charges of sexism. In his interview with Nordling, Lasseter states that the studio has always tried to include "very, very strong female characters" in its films. If we're to have any hope for seventeenth-billed Holley Shiftwell, we need to look at Pixar's track record, to see if Lasseter's statement holds water.

So let's begin at the beginning:
1. Toy Story. Pixar's first feature-film release, and a winner out of the gate in every respect except one: porcelain doll Bo Peep, the blandest of all the characters. Even voice actress Annie Potts can't inject humor and vigor into this passive, lifeless creature. Her lack of vivid personality would not be a problem, except that 1) all the characters around her have personality to burn, and 2) she's the movie's only prominent female, the others being background figures like Andy's mom and Sid's horrible little sister (noteworthy only for being cruel enough to force poor, confused Buzz Lightyear into a frilly apron and call him Mrs. Nesbitt). The lack of a worthwhile heroine does not stop the movie from being top-grade entertainment, but in proclaiming that the studio's films have always had strong heroines, Lasseter must be forgetting this one.

2. A Bug's Life. In the matter of female characters, the studio completely redeems itself here. Most would say it's not as good a movie as Toy Story, but in terms of active, interesting females we have black widow spider Rosie, the dowager Queen Ant, and her two daughters, Dot and Atta. Misfit Flik may be the movie's protagonist, but both Dot and Atta are given a chance to learn and grow in the course of the film, and learning and growth are the stuff of which interesting, strong characters are made. Tomboy Dot learns to use her wings just in time to fly in search of help for her imperiled colony. Early in the film Atta is prissy, narrow-minded and unsympathetic, but by the end she has found her strength, inserting herself between the bruised, fallen Flik and the threatening foot of the villainous Hopper. Far from being background noise, they play crucial roles in saving the day.

3. Toy Story 2. A mixed success where female roles are concerned. Mrs. Potato Head makes me long for temporary deafness, and Bo Peep has even less personality here than she does in the first film, but Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl is an interesting and believably flawed character with room to grow. At first she is Woody's antagonist, but soon enough they are staunch allies. He does have to rescue her at the end, but Joan Cusack's voice work manages to endow the character with toughness and vigor. She's anything but forgettable.

4. Monsters, Inc. As in A Bug's Life, here we have several interesting heroines to choose from. Bonnie Hunt, so appealing in Cars, voices a supporting role here; no matter how small her role, she always sounds smart. Then we have an actress who always sounds dumb, squeaky-voiced Jennifer Tilly, playing ditzy secretary Celia -- a character who then demonstrates an ability to think on her feet and save the heroes from danger. Scratchy-voice bureaucrat Roz is also a lot more than she seems. Then there's the toddling human child Boo, who turns the monsters' world upside down. Though the film's main protagonist, big furry blue monster Sully, tries to protect her, in the end it's Boo herself who fights her demons and emerges triumphant. By this time, Pixar is indeed building up a roster of strong female characters, even though the protagonists are always (so far) male.

Next Blog: Pixar and Women, Part 2 -- Finding Nemo through Toy Story 3.

1 comment:

  1. Only partially agree here. While Bug's Life and Monsters contain female characters essential to the plot, they are portrayed as "problems" for our men who live in a men-controlled city.

    Even Jessie, as suburb a character as she may be, is noticably "weaker" than everyone else. If only men are allowed to cry and pout....