Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Pixar and Women, Part 2 -- Finding Nemo through Toy Story 3

5. Finding Nemo. Opinion is divided on the success of Dory, the blue tang with short-term memory loss who accompanies sad-sack hero Marlin on his quest to save his captured son Nemo. Some viewers find her an impossible ditz; this is understandable, since every time she manages to do something awesome, she forgets it immediately. But as I see it, the movie makes it clear that short-term memory loss is not stupidity, as Dory proves helpful at several crucial points. She even gets to utter the film's message, as Marlin laments his inability to protect his son: "If you never let anything happen to him, nothing would ever happen to him."

6. The Incredibles. My favorite Pixar film, and an unqualified success on every level, including gender roles. Middle-aged, unwillingly retired superhero Bob Parr might be the film's chief protagonist, but even more than Dot and Atta before them, his wife Helen and daughter Violet, both "super," have growth arcs of their own. Helen, a.k.a Elastigirl, tries to be the ordinary suburban housewife, but finds in time that the role doesn't suit her; to save her family and reconnect with her husband, she must tap into her extraordinary abilities and become Elastigirl again. Violet, a painfully shy and awkward teen, learns even more dramatically to embrace her powers, and in the end generates the force field that saves the entire family. If neither of those characters are one's idea of a heroine, there's always that divine fashion designer for superheroes, Edna Mode, indisuptably the film's funniest character.

7. Cars. On paper, Sally Carrera may not look like much: she's the film's conscience, the agent of flawed hero Lightning McQueen's redemption. We've seen this type of heroine so often that it's become rather a thankless role. But thanks to some deft screenwriting and the charisma of Bonnie Hunt, the character becomes smart, classy and funny. The movie's a bit disappointing coming after The Incredibles, in that Sally is its only significant female, the other female roles being miniscule. All the same, while they might have been background noise, at least they were there, which is more than can be said for--

8. Ratatouille. Fiery French cook Colette is a wonderful character, funny and temperamental and proud of her work, and kind-hearted enough to see the potential hero in shy loser Linguini. But she is the film's only female character. Where are the female rats? The rodent world of protagonist Remy seems so exclusively male (at least, only the males get to speak) that we can be forgiven for wondering just how the little boogers manage to reproduce. I understand why Remy must be a male -- so that we can enjoy Oswald Patton's fine vocal performance. But does the plot demand that Remy's parent be a father, not a mother? (A mother would have been a refreshing change.) Does it demand that his sibling be a brother, not a sister? Despite its other excellences, the movie provides a distressing example of "Male as Default Gender" where animal characters are concerned.

9. WALL-E. 2008's most romantic film, largely because it boasts two well-developed protagonists. I would argue that those who claim Pixar has never given us a female protagonist have not looked closely enough at this film, for EVE is just as much a protagonist as WALL-E. WALL-E, bless his little robotic heart, does not really change much in the course of the film; he doesn't need to, since he's all but perfect to begin with. Rather, those who come into contact with him grow and evolve; foremost among them is EVE. She's the one with the growth arc, the originally all-business 'bot who learns not only how to love but how to take joy in life. She and WALL-E save the day together, and in the end, she must save his life. A true heroine. Also, unlike in Ratatouille, we do get an interesting female supporting character here: Mary the human, who finds true love at first touch.

10. Up. Such a lovely film in so many ways, but in terms of gender roles, almost as much of a failure as the first Toy Story. The movie introduces us to what could have been a strong female character -- tomboyish Ellie, who yearns for adventure and whose vivid imagination comes through in her artwork. Fifteen minutes into the film, however, she is dead, and afterwards, the only voices we hear are male. Kevin the bird, a silent character, turns out to be female, but alas, she's nothing more than a feathered damsel in distress. This one must also be slipping John Lasseter's mind when he claims that the studio has always tried to include very strong female characters in its films. If it isn't, I really do have grounds for worry about Holley Shiftwell's screen time.

11. Toy Story 3. For this one, I can only point you to my previous blog, from June 2010. A rousing success.

So this is Pixar's track record with regard to women -- some hits, some near misses, very few out-and-out fails. What does it say for the hope that a worthwhile heroine might emerge from a "bromance" like Cars 2?

It says I'd better go see the darned thing, and find out for myself. I may not be crossing off the days, but I'm keeping an open mind.

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