Female directors are not uncommon only in the world of animation. There’s a reason it was a big deal when Kathryn Bigelow won her Oscar last year. I’m not a “meet a quota” kind of guy, but I do believe that a variety of voices is what we need in film if the art form is going to remain vital and interesting. The more types of voices we have making films, the more perspective we gain on ourselves, and that’s one of the primary reasons we make art in the first place.
Of course, when you’re talking about giant budget franchise pictures, the word “art” is a little precious. And as much as I enjoy the work of Pixar, they are absolutely one of the most important financial brands in modern Hollywood. They have the best track record in the business for a reason. They have a carefully managed story department, and they are ruthless during development. They have had several major shake-ups on films, including “Cars,” “Ratatouille,” and “Toy Story 2,” with directors being replaced and big chunks of story being thrown out. Recently, they pulled the plug on “Newt,” and some of the concept art for that ended up on their Facebook page. John Lasseter is now also the man in charge over at Walt Disney Feature Animation, and he’s had a major late-in-the-game influence on both “Bolt!,” which began life under the direction of Chris Sanders as “American Dog,” and “Tangled,” which arrives in theaters next month in a very different form than was originally intended by Glen Keane.
Obviously, none of that matters if the film actually works. And time after time, Pixar has managed to snatch success from the jaws of failure. They’ve been quite open in discussing the way the process works.
Now there’s been another shake-up on another picture, and so far, Cartoon Brew seems to have the only real reporting on it. No surprise. They’re one of the most informed and connected sources on the animation industry, in print or online or anywhere, and if you need further proof of it, just check out some of the names who pop up in that comments section below the story. People who have credits all over town, for Disney and Dreamworks and Sony Pictures Animation and even Pixar. And what’s interesting is how nakedly hostile some of the comments are, which flies right in the face of Pixar’s public and press image. Just personal opinions, of course, but some harsh ones.
That’s due in part to the reputation that Brenda Chapman has developed over the course of her career. She was one of the directors of the first Dreamworks Animation 2D feature, “The Prince Of Egypt,” and she was head of the story department on “The Lion King.” She’s a talented, well-liked artist, and she’s got a lot of fans in the industry. When she was announced as the director of “The Bear And The Bow,” which was the original title of “Brave,” there were a lot of people rooting for her. And not because she’s a woman, but because that particular woman developed that story, and because she has proven with her work that she’s got a real voice as a storyteller. I’ve talked to people who saw the story reel version of “The Bear and the Bow,” and I’ve heard some pretty great things about it. I’ve also heard that it wasn’t easy to describe or categorize, and that it resisted formula in the way it was told. That was one of the things people seemed excited by in describing it.
Now it appears Mark Andrews, another very talented artist, is being brought in to direct the film, or that he was a little while ago and the news is just now starting to leak. Andrews was part of “The Iron Giant” team back in ’99, and he was a director on the short film “One Man Band” for Pixar. I’m sure that whatever Andrews does, he’ll bring class and wit and style to the table, and he’ll have the full weight of the Pixar story department behind him.
I talked to a longtime friend who works in animation earlier today, and I asked him for his take on things. He talked about how upset many of his colleagues are, simply because they were hoping they were going to see Brenda’s film. It’s a real testament to her that it seems like this is the first one of these Pixar staff changes that has really upset other animators.
I’ve got a lot more to say about the state of Walt Disney Feature Animation in particular and the Pixar-Disney relationship, but I think in order to do so, I’ll need to wait until I can get into the specifics of their new film, “Tangled.” I’ll just say that I love and respect Pixar’s work… I think my history of writing about them over the last 15 years speaks to that quite clearly. But i think the more these companies stretch to accommodate visions and voices that stand outside of what’s been done before, the better they’ll be, and without that encouragement of the new, they risk making the same mistakes that have driven Disney aground in the past.
Maybe not on this film. Or the next one. But there’s only so much of the familiar anyone can take, and when you’ve got the enormous resources and talent that Pixar does, it’s important to make the very best use of everything at your disposal. I hope in this case, they’ve made the right choice.