Inclusion in Pixar

As the spotlight intensifies around diversity in Hollywood, how does the critical examination of diversity and inclusivity carry over to animation? Have studios like Pixar evolved to represent inclusivity- both on-screen and off? An examination of Pixar’s journey indicates, despite improvement, Pixar has a long way to go.

Looking at Pixar’s roster of films, Pixar appears to experience a clear wave of progressivism around 2008 with the start of production on Brave. Brave, which premiered in 2012,  was Pixar’s 13th movie and first to feature a female protagonist and female co-director. Since Pixar’s first film in 1995, Toy Story, Pixar featured mostly male protagonists. With the mother-daughter relationship a central theme, Brave demonstrates a considerable movement away from traditional stories of male heroes.

While Brave demonstrated some amount of forward movement, off-screen drama indicated otherwise when Brenda Chapman was removed from the project mid-way through production.  While Chapman, who also wrote and conceived the film signed on to direct in 2010, she was later replaced with white male director, Mark Andrews. Though it is unclear why she was removed from the project, she later released a statement that she was heartbroken to be separated from her story and replaced with a male voice.

This is not the only example of contention between Pixar and its female workforce. Last year, Rashida Jones and her writing partner jumped ship on Toy Story 4, citing Pixar’s inability to provide a workplace “where women and people of color [have an] equal creative voice” as the principal issue. This move seemingly coincided with commotion surrounding the workplace conduct of John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation and Pixar. Lasseter, whose workplace behaviour has come into question after numerous accounts of inappropriate advances, announced a six month sabbatical in response to questions of his character. Pixar has not yet attempted another film with a woman director or a film with a sole protagonist that is female.

In terms of racial and cultural diversity, Pixar has had a slightly less tumultuous journey. Three years after the release of Brave, Pixar released The Good Dinosaur, the first Pixar film directed by a person of color. Their most recent release of Coco represents the first Pixar film with a protagonist of color.

This said, compared to Walt Disney Animation, these numbers are pitiful. Admittedly, in general, comparing the two can be a futile task given that WDA was established long before Pixar, giving it more financial and reputational freedom to explore different perspectives. This said, I feel it’s worth noting, that since 1995 (the release of the first Pixar film), WDA has released 4 movies with protagonists of color and 8 movies with female protagonists. While there are certainly caveats and asterisks to these numbers (while they do depict women and people of color- how they depict them is another story), it seems Walt Disney Animation has had little trouble at least attempting to depict diverse perspectives on screen.

So where does that leave us, has Pixar been making gains in terms of diversity? Kind of? Sort of? While they’ve made some progress, it seems they’ve had little success making Pixar burgeoning space of creativity for POC and women both on and off screen.

Casting Call

A major studio executive goes to the casting director and says, “Give the role to someone who deserves it the most.” Sounds like an utopian world. But let’s deconstruct this. Who is it that actually deserves it? A person who has the look or the talent, perhaps both? Or a person who represents the character in the actual life itself. Let’s think together.

The Stale “APU”

The documentary, “The Problem with Apu” starring Hari Kondabolu strengthened my formulated views on the crisis that is going on in this country. In the show, Apu is an Indian American who is voiced by Hank Azaria. Hank is a caucasian American who voices an Indian. Yes, you heard that right. He voices him in a wrongfully manner. Some people say that he has stereotyped him. But I will tell you the truth what actually is the case. What is the definition of a stereotype – “a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing” Now let’s examine this, a stereotype would be an imaginative perspective. Thus, people make arguments such as it is indeed our right to imagine so we shall go ahead and imagine what we feel like. But will tell you in the Simpsons, Apu is not stereotyped, they view Indians in that position because they always have and they have been given the power to and also because it’s convenient. Not anymore. We shall not take this. Hank copied this accent from the movie The Party made in 1968. It is complete misrepresentation of the Indian accent. No Indian speaks like that. I can’t as well even if I tried. It’s unnatural and eerie so say the very least.

Let’s Talk About Isle of the Dogs

There have been a lot of buzz the past couple of years about how Hollywood likes to westernize many cultures, especially the Asian ones. Ever since Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson, with her playing a character of Japanese descent came out in theatres, many voices spoke out about “white-washing” in Hollywood. For those of you who do not know what white-washing is, in definition, “A term that now has also come to refer to the entertainment industry’s attempt at making ethnic characters more appealing to the white, money-spending masses by making exotic characters less ethnic and more ‘white’”.

Very recently a new movie came out that is set in “Futuristic Japan” that is under threat of dog influenza. This movie, directed by Wes Anderson is called Isle of the Dogs or 犬ヶ島 in Japanese.

Isle of the Dogs

Although I have yet to see the movie, it’s already a given that the movie embodies the magic of Fantastic Mr. Fox with stop-motion animation as the choice of media.

It’s also easy to see that this movie is created from the eyes of a Westerner.

Here is an example of the “Futuristic Japan” that Anderson imagined.

A city in Japan created by Wes Anderson

The mountain to the left is a mountain that most likely a weird version of Mt. Fuji (and I must add, a mountain that I grew up looking at) in the background of a city that most likely resembles Tokyo.

Just by looking at the snippet of this film, we see a film that was created with a sense of awe and wonder that many Westerners have and hold towards Japan. With a temple type architecture in the center, with an iconic mountain in the backdrop. Anderson himself was inspired to create this specific film with the influence of Miyazaki Hayao, Kurosawa Akira and many other great filmmakers who lead the cinematic industry in Japan.

However, looking at this picture with the perspective from a culturally Japanese person, it’s pretty insulting to see the deformed Mt. Fuji in the backdrop with a building that is obviously a type of architecture that does not, by all means, be a building that would be built in future Japan.

For some reason, Anderson thought it was ok to play around with a culture that is other than his, and recreated important symbols and icons (that the nation prides in) to fit into his movie. He’s not the only one who has done something like. On a side note, there are other films that convey inaccuracy considering Japanese cultures, like Kubo and the Two Strings. What is it with people who want to create animated films set in Japan but just doesn’t get the culture? It’s a mystery to me.

I would say to stick with what you know. It’s probably a safe way to go without insulting a culture and, most likely, having a lot more authenticity and heart behind it all. At least Anderson chose the theme of a boy and his dog, which is quite universal and relatable. It just so happens to be set in Japan.

Looking back to other Anderson films, this could have been a creative move for him, but when a white Director decides to make a “creative choice” and includes things that may seem exotic (like Asian cultures) without really understanding and feeling the essence of it, that’s when a culture becomes inferior.

There’s this thing that I’ve noticed about Japanese culture ever since I can remember. They idolize white people and make them extremely superior. They love pleasing them. So, if some Westerner decides to play around with the culture, they will not say anything! In the Japanese trailer for this film, they say “ウェスアンダーソンが日本への愛を込めて贈る…” which translates to “Wes Anderson sending his love for Japan” with the film. Yes, this is most likely true, but it’s also most likely that Japan will not admit to the inaccuracy of this film. It’s hard to really say the truth in this context, right?

Anderson made one good move with bringing in an actual Japanese person, Kunichi Nomura, to keep some sense of authenticity in the film. Unfortunately, even with that move, the film seems far from the Japan I grew up in.

It’s tough to say what’s right and what’s wrong in art. People should have the freedom to create. It’s just infuriating to see the same thing happen over and over again with cultures being high jacked by white directors for the sake of entertainment.

So, what is the solution? Well, there are many, but maybe sensitivity is a start. Maybe bringing in more Japanese cast to voice primary characters. Maybe it’ll be good to put subtitles when a character speaks Japanese instead of letting the audience guess what’s being said. Bring in someone who is from a specific culture into directing. Hell, bring in someone who will fight to make things correct.