Hey Disney, why were your Female Villains so much more Emotive than your Heroines?

Let me say this right up front: I am not accusing Walt Disney Animation of being sexist in the present day, not with this article at least. Instead, let us look to that happy period of between 1937-1959. Here it was possible to do a story like Cinderella, a tale of a woman being abused and denied any real right to exist until she marries a man, and people’s only reaction was “that’s outrageous! Mice can’t talk!”

Thankfully times have changed.

This article is going to examine an interesting discrepancy I noticed when re-watching these films (namely Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty). All of these films feature female characters in multiple roles. Specifically, in each film there is a positive woman character and a negative one. I’m stretching a bit for Tinkerbell but there you go. Let’s look at the levels of animation involved bringing their expressions to life, shall we?

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves

The first, the very first animated film done by Walt Disney and company: way back in 1937. For this film, there was no precedent, no manner to be like “just animate it like we did the one before.” So, they experimented, using a technique called rotoscoping for some of the animation. For those out there who don’t know, rotoscoping is essentially tracing the animation over preexisting live action footage. Specifically animator Grim Natwick used this technique for certain scenes involving Snow White. That helps explain how images like this exist:

Rotoscoping was called painting on film. It certainly leaves that effect.
Rotoscoping was called painting on film. It certainly leaves that effect.

It is worth noting that Natwick made his claim to fame by animating Betty Boop. So really, anyone who looks back at Snow White being like, “hmmm she seems kinda doe-eyed”

You don't say?
You don’t say?

Anyway, it is worth noting that his style of animation was not used for every character. Art Babbit was the man placed in charge of animating the Evil Queen. (also known as Grimhilde). Let’s see how successful his animation was at bringing a character to life:

A simple animation but it proves a point. Grimhilde (in both her forms) offers much more in the way of emotion than does Snow White. This could be chalked up to the restrictive use of rotoscoping (a process that is only restrictive in price) but… let’s look elsewhere.

Cinderella

Fast-forward to 1950 and times have changed. Walt Disney Animation was no longer a brand new company new to the art of animation. No doubt the characters benefited greatly from this increased knowledge and experience. Let’s look at the titular character:

Okay this must be happy.
Okay this must be happy.

Cool, one emotion down, what else she got?

Good, surpise! What else?
Good, surpise! What else?

Surely there are many other forms of emotion she includes. After all, she is the main character of the movie. Surely those aren’t the two primary… oh they are?

The weird combo of the two.
The weird combo of the two.

Cinderella does not do much besides smile and look pretty in her film. It took two people (Marc Davis and Eric Larson) to animate and… yeah, she smiles or cries – really only crying in one scene. It is worth pointing out that Davis also was involved in animating Snow White, another character who… smiled and cried a lot. Well, okay Frank Thomas had Lady Tremaine (the evil stepmother), let’s see what he did:

Disgust.
Disgust.
Shock.
Shock.
Incredible smugness.
Incredible smugness.

Starting to see what I’m driving at? Disney had their villains showing off a lot wider range of emotions. Cinderella is the good guy, so she never looks mischievous. Why is it that Lady Tremaine gets to showcase more emotion? Let’s look at one more. I know I mentioned five movies in the beginning but the repetitiveness of this is getting to me. Plus it’s my blog so I can do what I want.

Sleeping Beauty

Nine years after Cinderella, and of course I have to mention this one. SPOILERS! Here is the face that Princess Aurora makes throughout most of the movie:

You thought I was going to show her sleeping, didn't you?
You thought I was going to show her sleeping, didn’t you?

Yes, when she isn’t in a magically induced coma, Aurora is wearing a smile across her lips. Literally, it is the first and only emotion she forms after waking up. Someone needed to tell Marc Davis (who else) that “good” women did occasionally make different expressions. They enjoy the same freedom as their “evil” counterparts.

Case in point.

Of course, what I’m ultimately trying to say is nothing new. I don’t think any of the animators I just mentioned were outright openly sexist, but this was the norm of the day. Again, thankfully times have changed. It is very interesting to note that Ariel was the first (grown) female protagonist in a Disney animated film to really break this mold. That is kinda sad for two reasons. One: that film was released in 1989. Two: have you really examined the plot and lessons that movie is teaching? Oh well, at least it was better from an animation standpoint. Since then, Disney hasn’t been doing many films that feature both a female protagonist and villain, so it is tough to say.

The most recent attempt at this was Frozen, and script changes stopped Elsa from being the bad guy. Instead audiences were treated to this.

Yay progress!

Remembering Robin Williams: Lessons Learned from Hook

I really wish I could write better news today. As everyone is, I’m sure, already aware: the world has lost a great man in the passing of actor/comedian Robin Williams. To lose him so suddenly is gut-wrenching, the fact that he likely took his own life is heart-breaking. In moments like these, the importance of one man is paramount. Everywhere I went last night on the internet had tributes, memorials, and people expressing their shared grief. It is true that many die each day, but not many live a life like Robin Williams. He brought joy and laughter to everyone he touched. You didn’t have to know him, you didn’t even have to meet him in person. He possessed a rare gift that many of us yearn to have – the focus of attention – and he used it to bring happiness to the world.

Not everyone changes a culture the way that Robin Williams did.
Not everyone changes a culture the way that Robin Williams did.

In writing a tribute, I have decided to focus on the first Robin Williams movie I can remember seeing. I did not know him as a person, I only knew he liked video games since he named his daughter Zelda. Like so many, I only knew him through his craft. That can be a distorted picture because, as an actor, Williams inhabited many characters he did not create. He did not write them, he did not direct the scenes. Yet the gift of a good actor is the personal touches they bring to each role, and in this Robin Williams transferred a little of himself to each movie he was in. In this way, I believe that this is a very appropriate time to talk about Hook.

For those who do not know, Hook tells the story of an adult Peter Pan (Robin Williams) who has left Neverland to live in the real world. He is a married lawyer with two young children. His life is not perfect as Peter has become consumed in his work. He neglects his children, his family, and himself. If that was not bad enough, everything is hurled into chaos when Hook returns and kidnaps his children. With the help of Tinkerbell and the Lost Boys, Peter must rediscover his true self and defeat Captain Hook to return home. It is not a complicated plot, and is a fair adventure movie in its own right.

What I feel makes this movie so relevant to write about is that it is essentially a film about rediscovering the joys of life. In the beginning of the movie, Williams looks miserable. He is irritable towards everyone and clearly stressed about his life situation. Essentially, he is a man so concerned about doing well at life that he has… well, forgot how to live. To him – money is all that matters. It is likely that Peter initially only wanted to be successful to support his family and provide a good life for them, but he has gone to the extreme of shutting everyone out in order to focus. Through his performance, Robin Williams conveys the appropriate isolation and misery that this lifestyle brings and thus serves as a warning for the audience.

Even on vacation, Peter is never separated from the unsatisfied desire to do more.
Even on vacation, Peter is never separated from the unsatisfied desire to do more.

Where Williams really shines, however, is conveying the beauty of relearning what it means to enjoy life. I can remember watching Hook as a kid and the one scene that perhaps sticks out the clearest is when Peter Pan rediscovers how to fly.

Look at his face throughout the entire sequence. It is joy, the simple joy of being and feeling alive. It is common to yearn to recapture some of that childhood innocence. Robin Williams was one of the few people who seemed able to express it freely. In becoming Peter Pan again, he recaptures the essence of life. He re-learns how to have fun and not take everything so seriously. He becomes a kid again, in the best way possible. While Hook has its problems as a movie, Robin Williams’ performance is so charming that it cannot be anything less than enjoyable.

The movie teaches that finding the smile is finding the true self. Cool lesson.
The movie teaches that finding the smile is finding the true self. Cool lesson.

What makes make Hook perfect is that, while Robin Williams’ Pan embodies the wonder of life, Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook symbolizes the grim reality of death. He is a character obsessed with it throughout the film. Bitter and lonely, Hook embodies everything that Peter was becoming while he was astray. Hook has no friends, no family, no real zest for living. He simply wants to kill and die.

Watching Peter Pan defeat Hook is watching life triumph over death. Of course, the inevitably of dying is addressed, to which Williams responds with the great line: “to die would be a great adventure.” While Hook remains consumed with the destination, Peter remains free to appreciate the journey. The movie ends with a new celebration and appreciation for time spent alive.

"To live... to live will be an awfully big adventure."
“To live… to live will be an awfully big adventure.”

Robin Williams brought this same zest for life to every role he played. I think that is really how he delivered such an impact on so many people. It is easy, in this world, to get bogged down and lose sight of happiness. To have someone who so constantly reminded us of the simple wonder of smiling… he will be missed. There really are too few people who devote their lives to making other people, even complete strangers, happy. He is a role model who will never be forgotten. He lives on in his performances, where that essence of being alive continues to be expressed.