That Thing with Disney and the Faces

Rapunzel/Honey Lemon comparison

Remember when Frozen first came out and the portion of the Intertubes passionate about such things got into a long and detailed fight over whether or not the two new princesses had exactly the same facial design, and as well as that, the exact same facial design as Tangled’s Rapunzel? Well, the argument is back with the newly released posters for Disney’s upcoming CGI movie Big Hero 6, which features all sorts of characters (many of whom have been race-bent away from their original ethnicity, but that’s another kettle of fish), including a white blob in a suit, some superhero kids, and a girl who looks almost exactly like Rapunzel.

Well. This is no longer something that even needs to be argued about, it’s just kind of awkward at this point.

There are some interesting things at play here. “Same Face Syndrome” is a well-known and somewhat damning phrase in the art and animation world, meaning, naturally enough, that all of your character designs have the same face. It’s something, as far as I understand, that’s either associated with beginning artists still getting comfortable with their style and reusing the strokes they know best (fair enough), or, at this point, big industry movies trying to make their princesses look pretty (less fair enough). As this artist points out, it’s much more associated with female characters—Elsa and Anna may look very similar, but the argument that the Frozen character designers were simply conforming to a certain aesthetic falls through a bit when you look at the two male leads of that movie, who are both meant to be handsome but ended up looking very different. So, what, princes and bad guys can be designed differently but pretty, likeable heroines can’t?

Elsa and Anna

Sure you’re not twins?

I’m going to precursor this by saying I know bugger-all about animation and very little about character design (don’t even try to get into the ‘2D vs 3D animation’ thing with me, because I am in constant awe of both methods and the beauty they can create in different ways). I have been told and taught a little about the different processes, such as how CGI uses pre-created rig models (re-use of which is probably why the new girls look so similar) and early animation was all hand-drawn and often based on live action (which is why Snow White, Cinderella and the ladies of that beginning era look more realistic), but mostly I’m just going to give my two cents as an observer: this trend is annoying.

I’ve never tried to animate, like I said, but I’ve seen enough of it to side-eye anyone (cough-Ubisoft-cough) who complains that animating women is hard. I think, if the Disney crew is pulling that excuse at this point, their argument is less that animating women is hard and more that animating women and keeping them looking conventionally pretty is hard. Which is a dumb thing to be pulling at this point since they’ve been animating women for decades, and most of them have had perfectly distinguishable designs. They have run into Same Face before—Alice of Alice in Wonderland and Wendy of Peter Pan have basically the exact same face shape, for example, and the early era princesses like Snow White, Aurora and Cinderella all have a very similar structure. You have to consider the technology block, since they were basing their art off live-action play-outs of scenes, and quite frankly I’d like to see you put excessive detail into a design when you have to redraw it a thousand times to get half a minute of footage. But you also have to consider aesthetics.

It’s pretty easy to see that the heroines are all conforming to a certain look, both the young women and the children, and that look has evolved over time. Later era heroines like Ariel and Jasmine retain the same kind of aesthetic to their faces and body shapes, but as animation methods evolved their artists could also distinguish them more freely from each other (it helps that Disney started making movies about heroines of other races and could bring that element into their designs, too). So on one level it’s stylistic, as the Disney ‘look’ is easily recognisable, much in the same way the Ghibli look is—the heroines all look kind of similar, but are distinguishable enough that you can simultaneously tell that they’re different characters but they’re all creations of the same artistic group.

Ghibli heroines

And they don’t all look like their mothers, either

They also conform to a certain code of attractiveness (mostly a certain degree of cuteness, in Ghibli’s case, given that most of their heroines are young girls) though. Which is fair enough, because a) that’s different to them all looking exactly the same, and b) as humans we’re a superficial lot and like to watch pretty people do pretty things, and animation is the best possible medium for that because it can be designed perfectly and heightened to an ideal. Or go the other way, as you can also do with drawing, and make characters as exaggerated and ridiculous-looking as you like. This tends not to happen with characters we’re meant to like or empathise with, though. Out of heroes and villains, the baddies (or ones meant to be laughed at) are the ones with the more outlandish designs, and the goodies are the ones who look more ‘normal’, and are more likely to stick like glue to a certain standard of attractiveness.

The three witches from The Black Cauldron, for example, have a hilarious and hugely varied array of styles in their designs and the way they were animated, making them all look enormously different and fun to watch. The princess of the movie, however, has the traditional petite, pretty Disney heroine style of face, and is overall much less expressive. Which is part of a whole unfortunate stigma where we associate conventional beauty with goodness, and ugliness and exaggerated features with evil, but hoo-boy, that’s a whole different issue again. What it does point out is that if we want a character to be taken seriously, we seem afraid to draw them beyond a certain frame of long-established cultural values of beauty.

Okay, then. You can make your characters pretty and not-weird-looking while giving them different shapes, though. Dreamworks’ movies have a variety of facial shapes in their meant-to-be-liked main heroines, which not only help you to distinguish them but make them feel more real, in a way, despite the irony of them looking more cartoonish because of the exaggerated variety. Shapes tell you stuff about characters. Sharp angles can mean a sharp personality, round features can make them feel friendly, squares and trapezoids are associated with strength and machoism and Chris Evans. By staying cowering in the corner of a single certain model of conventional prettiness, you’re not only making all your designs less visually interesting but you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to make them more of a character.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 - Valka and Astrid

And also, do you know how awkward it would have been if the mother and love interest were identical??

Rapunzel’s design told us a lot about her, as well as having her conform to the Disney ideals—we could see she was soft and feminine, (literally) wide-eyed and naïve, but also happy-go-lucky and expressive, and creative and a little badass if all that promo material of her hefting her hair around as a weapon demonstrated anything. Elsa, Anna and Honey Lemon have immediately less individuality, even if their personalities are different, because we recognise them right away as recolours of Rapunzel. And that’s awkward.

Sure, there are minute differences, but otherwise all their distinguishing traits are surface-level ones like colouring, freckles and makeup, and slight differences in height are the only things that set their bodies apart. Representing the CGI era’s version of Disney ‘pretty heroine’ model is one thing, but looking like palette-swapped clones is another. Which is just kind of baffling in terms of laziness at this point. Three looking so similar could maybe be excused with a bit of grumbling, but a fourth, who also isn’t that different from Rapunzel in terms of colour scheme, is just kind of silly. I know animation should not necesscarily be used as a guide for appearance goals, and we realise this even as kids, but we still subconciously absorb trends we see in pop culture. If enough media tells us ‘this is what we define beauty as’, we as a society are going to believe that.

So, if you as a viewer taking this in want to be considered pretty, and dive off into your princess fantasies, you have to not only conform to a certain aesthetic but literally only have one type of face and body? So much for representation and making kids watching feel involved. And even without all the social implications, it’s just… kind of boring to look at. Surely, as a company so ingrained in our culture and with such support and love behind it, Disney can do better.

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12 Comments

Filed under Things We Need to Stop Doing

12 responses to “That Thing with Disney and the Faces

  1. I’m really starting to wonder when Disney will fix this problem, although I honestly don’t think they will for at least another 5 years or so. The formula’s too good to change. It’s gotten to a point where it’s become a game to “spot the Rapunzel” in their movies (I think Sergent Calhoun from Wreck-It-Ralph has the same problem, even though she’s not at all a traditional Disney princess. For comparison: http://images6.fanpop.com/image/photos/34600000/Sergeant-Calhoun-wreck-it-ralph-34653357-578-796.jpg), and I think that’s just the way it’s going to be from now on.

    Because as much as I agree with the idea of Ghibli having a trademark “art style” vs Disney being just plain lazy, I think that from a marketing standpoint, the character design makes complete sense. It’s clear to me that Disney genuinely want to adopt that character design as a kind of brand, like seeing a McDonalds in a foreign country, and so far I really can’t blame them. If parents see their kids enjoying Rapunzel, looking at the poster of Frozen instantly informs them they’re getting more of the same. It’s comforting, safe and familiar.

    And to be honest, my main gripe with Dreamworks is that their movies tend to have a hit-and-miss aesthetic. The Croods, RotG and HTTYD go for a more realistic look than Disney, but movies like Megamind or Peabody & Sherman go completely the other way – extremely cartoony with gaudy colour schemes. Yes, Dreamworks’ character designs are more varied, but the result is they end up having to sell their movies to a brand new audience over and over, because nobody outside of adult animation fandom knows or cares about the differences between studios. Hence Dreamworks fails whilst Disney soars. Disney (and Laika as well) manage to retain fans across their myriad franchises. You see a Disney poster, and you know it’s Disney. Body-shape representation be damned.

    • Character-design-as-logo isn’t something I’d thought of, so that’s a really good point–DreamWorks is less recognisable since they are so varied with their styles and shapes, despite how it’s visually more interesting. Maybe it’s also less appealing on that front because Disney remains within the aesthetic of what’s conventional and pretty, thus, yeah, making it more immediately pleasing to the eye than the out-there shapes of DreamWorks characters.

      It still bugs me (and plenty of other people, evidently) that it basically comes down to simply reusing the same animation rig, but I agree as a base marketing strategy it’s working. After all, these are aimed at kids, and little kids aren’t the ones nitpicking it.

      • Yeah exactly. Nobody whose job it is to design characters is going to shrug their shoulders and say “eh just use Rapunzel”. It’s clearly been thought about, and somewhere along the line they thought this was a good idea.

        That said, I do still think it’s baffling and there are clear signs of laziness, especially in Frozen, that can’t be hand waved away quite so easily. It’s amazing to see just how little variation there is in the female character designs full stop. Not only does the main heroine of each movie have the same face as Rapunzel, it’s that very nearly EVERY female character over the age of 16 has the same face. Mothers, sisters, friends, badass military commanders… They all suffer from it. And IDK, maybe that’s part of the marketing plan too, but surely there’s a limit to how many women you can make look the same. (Also I lol’d at your caption for the Valka & Astrid pics because that is probably what’s going to happen in Big Hero 6, if the trailer is anything to go by oh god @_@).

      • Nordlys

        Dreamworks created pretty-looking characters too.
        The only thing that disturbs me is the lack of forehead (in cartoons like ‘El Dorado’

  2. Nordlys

    Even Kristoff and Hans looks very similar. Same face Syndrome runs even among males.

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  4. Lisa Becktold

    WHO is creating these female characters? Can anyone tell me how many female artists and animators Disney and Dreamworks employ? I have a talented daughter who just played “Big Hero 6” for her dad and me, but we watched the animator bonus and all of the animators are men. Does my daughter -or any young woman – have a hope in hell in working for one of these companies? I watched the credits and it looks like the crew was mostly men. Sure, I saw that Dreamworks hired a lot of women producers – but what about artists and animators?

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