The “Meh-ing” of American Animation

The 1966 television special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is a masterpiece, and one of the elements that makes it work so beautifully is the narration by silken-voiced baritone horror icon Boris Karloff (who also voices the Grinch). This voice work is as strong a testimony to Karloff’s legendary talent as his star-making turn in 1931’s Frankenstein. Cast your mind back to the special’s beginning, after the charming Whos have sung their opening carol and the narration kicks in:

“Every Who down in Who-ville liked Christmas a lot,” says Boris in his softest, most genial voice. “But the Grinch…” Here his voice drops an octave and his tone grows rich with menace. “…Who lived just north of Who-ville…” The menace grows as we understand this close proximity to the cheerful creatures who were singing a minute ago. “did NOT!” The stamp is sealed. From this moment we know, if we didn’t know already, we’re about to experience something awesome.

Some years later Hollywood made a live-action version for public consumption, a remake whose existence I steadfastly deny. Yet at least (from what I’ve heard) Jim Carrey made some attempts, albeit unsuccessful, to match Karloff’s deep, dark tones. The new animated remake from Illumination Studios makes very different choices. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the Grinch. Okay. He’s British and baritone, like Karloff. Yet someone at the studio advised him to flatten and Americanize his voice, apparently to erase any aural resemblance to the horror icon. As for the narration, that’s supplied by Pharrell Williams, the pop star best known for the peppy anthem (and theme from Despicable Me 2) “Happy,” about as far a cry from my beloved Boris as one can get. These changes were made, perhaps, to render the remake more distinctive from the original, more its own creature. That I can understand, sort of. Yet these particular changes still strike me as an attempt to substitute nonthreatening blandness for true excitement, to create a movie that will please children but offer little to parents or to adult animation fans.

I cannot see why a studio would remake a property for which they apparently have little affection. But then, the sad truth is that Illumination Studios has never made what I would call a good movie. The first Despicable Me is pleasant and amusing, but offers little to thrill or stir the heart; there are no “wow!” moments. The sequels, I’m told (I never bothered to watch), are even less inspiring. Nothing in Sing! or The Secret Life of Pets excited my interest enough to lure me into the theater, and the very trailer for Minions made me want to destroy something. Yet all these movies made the studio a tidy sum. The people there may not be geniuses at storytelling, but they know what sells. Why take the time and trouble to make good films when well-marketed mediocrity will make the green?

Illumination is only one part of a disheartening trend I’ve come to call the “meh-ing” of mainstream American animation, a genre I’ve loved a long time. I can remember when Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Moana thrilled me one at a time back in 2016. Sadly, I haven’t felt quite that level of excitement since, and the lack, for me, has two main sources.

The first will surprise no one who knows me: the disheartening lack of female protagonists since Moana. Last year, among American animation’s mainstream releases, only Coco generated an unquestioned positive response, and to no one’s astonishment, it took the Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Yet I could never muster much interest in seeing it, as it struck me as very much one for the boys, with its misunderstood boy hero going on an afterlife adventure with the only ones who really get him, his male dog and his male guide through the land of the dead. The other nominees, with the exception of the non-mainstream The Breadwinner, were likewise male-centered. Things have gotten no better since then. This year’s front-runner is Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, with a boy protagonist surrounded by a squad of seven canines, all male. Why do writers insist on making all their important animal characters male when they could just as easily have been female without any change to plot or theme??

Next year we have The LEGO Movie 2 (Emmett Must Save Wyldstyle from Straw Feminists), Laika’s Missing Link (Bromance With Female Third Wheel), Spies in Disguise, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (which, okay, I do want to see), The Secret Life of Pets 2, Toy Story 4, Playmobil: The Movie, The Angry Birds Movie 2, Abominable, Sonic the Hedgehog — a whole lot of guy-driven movies. (I do have my eye on a couple of potential bright spots: Wonder Park and Ugly Dolls. If only they turn out to be good.)

Some of you may be thinking: there’s always Frozen 2, right? And aren’t I forgetting this year’s The Incredibles 2, which shows Elastigirl finally getting her share of the heroics? I won’t lie: I liked The Incredibles 2 quite a bit, and I delighted in seeing Elastigirl in action, just as I’m keen to see tough smart-aleck racer Vanellope thrown back into adventure in Ralph Breaks the Internet (Matt wants to see this one opening night, actually). But my joy in them is tempered, in that they can’t offer me what Zootopia, Kubo, and Moana gave me in spades: the thrill of discovery of a completely new world and the chance to fall in love with a new set of characters.

This brings me to my second point of dissatisfaction: everything — or at least 80% of what we’re seeing — is a sequel to something else or an adaptation of some already established character/world. This isn’t to say that sequels can’t be good; I actually liked the second and third of the Kung Fu Panda films much better than the original. But after we’ve traveled to the same destination three or even four times, no matter how much we may love the place, don’t we start to hanker for something we haven’t seen before? If an animation studio were to present us with something fresh and different, wouldn’t we embrace it? Coco may not have been my tipple, but in it Pixar at least gave us something original, which they haven’t done this year and don’t plan to do next.

I’ve painted Illumination as the chief bad guy in this situation, yet it may not be the greatest offender. Those we love have the greatest power to hurt us, and I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a studio whose work I generally admire than I was when I learned Disney had decided to shelve their project Gigantic — a potentially delightful take on “Jack and the Beanstalk” — and then read their lineup of forthcoming releases, a long string of live-action remakes of their old classics with only a couple of animated features, Ralph Breaks the Internet and Frozen 2, thrown in. How depressingly, cynically safe.

There’s the heart of both my problems. Mainstream American animation’s big-screen output reveals a staunch dedication to playing it safe, banking on our collective desire to seek comfort in the familiar (and not hurt their bottom line). How long will it be before fans start to become bored, and the studios realize they might need to start taking a few risks in order to reinvigorate the genre and reignite audience interest?

May that day come soon.


The Ongoing Trouble With “Powered” Women

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I never hit it off, since I bounced hard off world-building that included the ethos “Weak is women’s magic/ Wicked is women’s magic.” While the former precept bothered me, the latter angered me, because it matched so well with the way magical women had been portrayed in the stories I’d read and seen up to that point (that is, the late ’80s). L. Frank Baum’s Glinda the Good notwithstanding, the magical women I was familiar with always seemed to be manipulative, untrustworthy, and/or downright evil.

I grew up with the stories of King Arthur. I saw Excalibur multiple times. I read The Once and Future King and Mary Stewart’s Merlin series. I learned pretty quickly, though it only came to bother me as I grew older, that while magical men could serve as mentors for heroes, magical women invariably used their powers to deceive and ensnare men, even to the point of threatening their very lives. Only men could wield magic safely and wisely. While a few revisionist retellings such as Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon have popped up, plenty of recent retellings, including the BBC’s Merlin, adhere to the old prescription of “sorcerer good, sorceress bad” — which would explain why I bailed on Merlin around five episodes in.

Then we have the persistently popular The Chronicles of Narnia. I admit I enjoyed the most recent film adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (a pity the sequels weren’t better) largely because I find “Queen Lucy the Valiant” an endearing heroine. Yet I’ve never been altogether happy with C.S. Lewis’s depiction of the Ultimate Evil as feminine. In Narnia, as in Arthur’s Camelot, what good magic there is comes from men, or at least male characters; female magic is entirely malevolent. This is why I’m not excited that Netflix is planning a fresh television adaptation of the series. I’ve seen it. I’m not sure I need to see it again.

These are old stories, true, but many storytellers can’t seem to get past the tendency to link female power with evil. I’d been planning to watch Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, having heard the show praised for its feminism, but after reading the following piece by Sonia Saraiya in Vanity Fair, I’m not sure I’ll bother. It may be as brilliant as a lot of people claim, but it’s not the kind of thing I need just now. I’ve read and seen my share of “power makes girls/women evil” stories already, stories that tell us that if you’re female you can be either good or powerful — but not both.

How many times must we see this false choice played out?

It’s true that Sabrina inhabits the same television space as Jessica Jones and Supergirl, both shows that depict powerful women using their gifts in heroic ways. This is a sign of progress, to be sure. Yet along with these shows, we also have The Gifted, set in the X-Men Universe. The heroes are the Mutant Underground, who hope to achieve some sort of peaceful coexistence with their human neighbors; while this group includes men and women, the men get the proverbial lion’s share of the attention and always seem to be out in front in leadership roles. However, the villainous gang of mutant separatists (villains by virtue of their comfort with the concept of collateral damage) is overwhelmingly female. It doesn’t help at all when we hear the telepathic Triplets of Evil say, “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” a disquieting hint of straw feminism. Next year on the big screen, this same universe is serving up Dark Phoenix, the best-known girl-can’t-handle-her-powers story in recent memory. The trailer gives an idea of how this is likely to go. One woman is corrupted by her power. Another woman leads her down the dark path. Who will save the day (as always, in the X-Men franchise)? Men.

And so the ambivalent attitudes toward female power have continued into the present and will most likely persist into the future. Yet whenever I’m made aware of stories that present women’s power, particularly women’s magic, as inherently bad, I turn to antidotes to this attitude. By and large the most effective of these antidotes come not from Hollywood but from the world of print fiction, which has given us a delightful share of badass good witches. Here’s a Goodreads list devoted to such.

To prepare for this post, I asked my followers on Twitter to cite some of their favorite examples of heroic female magic in the fantasy genre. Some mentioned characters: Morwen from The Enchanted Forest Chronicles; Maskelle from Wheel of the Infinite; Sirronde from Diane Duane’s “Parting Gifts”; Jill Kismet, Dante Valentine, and Steelflower, all created by Lilith Saintcrow; the heroes of The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword; Raederle from the Riddle-Master trilogy; Katsa from Graceling. Others mentioned book/series titles: Winter Tide, In the Vanisher’s Palace, Daughter of Mystery, The Queen of Blood, Iron Cast, Of Sorrow and Such. All these are excellent examples.

Yet I have my own personal favorites among fantasy’s magical women:

Agnieszka, from Novik’s Uprooted; Samarkar, from Bear’s Eternal Sky Trilogy; Senneth, from Shinn’s Twelve Houses (Mystic and Rider et. seq.); Sybel, from McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; Ista, from Bujold’s Paladin of Souls; Eleanor, from Lackey’s Phoenix and Ashes, and Elena, from her Fairy Godmother, both Cinderella stories with a twist; Sunny, from Okorafor’s Akata Witch; Anyanwu, from Butler’s Wild Seed; Prunella, from Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown.

If you, like me, find yourself frustrated on occasion with stories that cling to outdated distrustful tropes regarding women’s power, check out some of the books cited here. They’re well worth it.


A Brief Word Before Election Day

I have tried, for the most part, to keep politics out of my blog. But today I want to offer a well-wish to all those going out to vote tomorrow. As you cast your ballots and consider what you want the character of our country to be, keep in mind what makes us, as human beings, special.

It isn’t the color of our skin.

It isn’t the faith in which we were raised.

It isn’t the language we speak, or the place where we had the luck (good or bad) to be born.

It isn’t our gender.

It isn’t whom we’re attracted to, or whether we’re attracted to anyone at all.

It isn’t any part of the hand we’re dealt at birth.

It’s our capacity to think, dream, create, and love.

This is what makes a person great, and each of us can aspire to and cultivate this greatness. It isn’t limited to those who look, talk, and act like us.

Let’s show we believe that.