Kids’ movies are a formative influence. Anyone can tell you that. Everyone has that one movie they watched to death when they were young, practically memorising the entire script and score, absorbing the main characters into their personality and wearing down the video tapes until they caught fire. Among other things, this is why it’s so important to create good role models (for girls and boys alike) and powerful stories within these movies, especially if you’re a big influential studio like Disney, who lately has a weird habit of simultaneously capitalising on and denying the existence of their star female characters.
Mulan was my movie and Disney heroine of choice. Conventional princesses were all very well, but I never really connected with them, or superficially admired their tales that much. I looked up to Mulan, not only for being clever and strong and being able to handle a cool sword but because I watched it with my dad a lot, and I think on some level I sort of saw us in the story. Given his Chinese linguistics and history background and involvement in martial arts, I think he enjoyed it too, more than other Disney movies he was, as a gracious parent, inevitably forced to watch ad nauseum. And Mulan deeply admires and loves her father, then goes and protects him like a total boss, and young me really dug that. But, on a less personal level, I think I just enjoyed Mulan because dad-plot or not it was a gosh-darn girl power story, about her and how much ass she kicked.
I could go on forever about the infinite kickassery of this movie and Mulan herself and in doing so revert to my eight-year-old self, but I want to come back to the business of titles: immediately it’s evident, from looking at it, that this story is about Mulan. As well as driving it, it belongs to her, with her name emblazoned on everything and brought up in glowing full-screen glory in the opening credits. There was no question anywhere, this was a film about a kickass lady and Disney was not afraid to tell anyone that.
Looking at their more recent projects though, they seemed to have changed tact, which is a little annoying and on some levels problematic. I mean why would you call a movie all about Rapunzel Rapunzel when you could make a fun allusion to her long hair? Really though, looking at Tangled by title alone, would you be able to tell what the heck it was about? Granted, with no knowledge of fairy tales or legends seeing just a name wouldn’t tip you off either, but “Rapunzel” would at least clue you in that it was a story about a girl with that name. And if the whole movie’s named after her, she must be pretty awesome.
The trend continues into Pixar with Brave, which was originally titled The Bear and the Bow, and Disney’s latest offering Frozen which is apparently based on ‘The Snow Queen’ and thus was probably called that at some point in its development. Yet in some crucial meeting I have to imagine someone in a suit marched in and said “You know what’s great? Adjectives!”
Well, this is all very well, but it’s really quite annoying on multiple counts. For one thing, it kind of reeks of trying to be hip, modern and minimalist, though that could just be me. For another, it makes the movies irritatingly ambiguous. Okay, it’s named Tangled—what are we to assume it’s about? Frozen is if possible even worse, especially given how far it’s strayed from its source fairy tale. How were people even meant to guess it was an incarnation of The Snow Queen? To their credit, Rapunzel’s involvement was fairly obvious given she’s famous for having a helluva lot of hair, but ‘tangled’ is still a stretch and an odd choice. At least Brave is a compliment to its heroine. The other movies just sound like they’re about cold people with messy hair.
But most grating of all is that this trend seems like a movement to cover up the fact that these are, at their hearts, princess movies. The Princess and the Frog didn’t do too well in the box office, comparatively, and some speculate that it’s all in the title: Disney sliced their audience in half by blaring princess, because little boys supposedly don’t want to see princess movies. Movies about girls, maybe, but only if you trick them with ambiguous neutral titles and marketing them as slapstick adventures, which is exactly what they did with Tangled.
What’s even weirder is that this is specifically an English language thing—Frozen is released in France as La Reine des Neiges (The Snow Queen, like the original) and Tangled appears as Rapunzel or the equivalent in most of its worldwide releases, tweaked to Rapunzel: A Tangled Tale in some. Even Wreck-It Ralph was called Sugar Rush in its Japanese release and all the advertising material focussed equally if not moreso on the character of Vanellope. What gives? Why are American companies so afraid of admitting that they’re making girl power stories, or at least stories starring powerful girls?
It’s not like the male population is going to suffer a reaction to these movies like vampires in the sun. I mean, my dad who is a grown man with several black belts and equivalents was able to enjoy Mulan with his daughter. It’s about content and character rather than gender. If people shy away from feminine main characters and plots more about magic spells and true love than action adventures with tiny dragons, so be it; that is merely a matter of personal preference. And it should not sway an entire frightened marketing team away from advertising the involvement of actual girls in their movies.
Especially with Disney, for crying out loud, who is so famous and renowned by this point in history that people are going to go see their movies anyway because there’s an understanding that they’re going to be treated to quality children’s entertainment. It’s telling the girls watching and looking for fictional heroines that it’s not their story, not really, and people don’t really want to watch movies about and named after girls (especially not princesses), and it’s telling boys the same thing and perpetuating a cycle.
It strikes this weird balance between creating these awesome, influential characters like Rapunzel and Merida and then denying outright that the story’s about them, essentially shoving the heroines of their own movies to a metaphorical backdrop and going “No, no, we didn’t make any strong, story-driving female characters! Certainly not princesses! Those are silly! Please come in and watch this movie which is really about something else much more fun!”
Like, come on Disney people, are you clinging so hard to your money and some vague and misplaced concept of masculinity that you revolve entire marketing campaigns and naming conventions around hiding the fact you’re writing stories about the very theme that makes up near to half of your animated canon? I hate to say it, but man up.
[No post next week I’m afraid! Stay tuned for my adventures from then on, though]