Miyazaki and the Ghibli Girls

Everyone in the animation world knows of acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki. Known for such classic films as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Castle in the Sky (1986) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989). The director gained major western popularity after his 2002 film Spirited Away received an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It had grabbed the attention of folks around the world, including major U.S. animation studios.

Beyond Miyazaki’s incredible storytelling and phenomenal craftsmanship he has managed to create some of the strongest female protagonists known in film, but more particularly, young girls.

Miyazaki’s girls manage to lead charming and detailed stories, embrace their strengths, express intricate emotions and avoid stereotyping. What you may not realize is that most animated films that star a female protagonist center on a teen to adult age range. Seeing young girls, 4-12 as strong leads in feature films is relatively uncommon, played down or babied.

Often times the Ghibli will even incorporate a complete gender-role reversal (in regards to western cinema) when it comes to its male and female characters.

Kiki’s Delivery Service ©Studio Ghibli

In Kiki’s Delivery Service we follow Kiki, a witch who has come of age and must travel out into the world and carve her own way. She happens upon a small town where she befriends a kind baker woman and an artist in the country. From this point she sprouts her own business, which, along with her magic powers, gets the attention of a young boy in town. Where you might think this would lead to romance, it instead becomes a strong friendship. Later she even saves him from nearly falling to his death, which puts her in the position of a brave hero and the boy as what might be called a damsel in distress. Beyond that, the boy is never critiqued or teased for being saved by a girl, her heroism is never treated as less-than if she were male.

In Castle in the Sky we start with a young girl named Sheeta that meets a boy named Pazu, after she spontaneously comes falling from the sky. It turns out Sheeta is being chased by pirates and the army and is revealed to be a princess with an amazing gift. Through the length of the film a romance is never forced on the children and much like in Kiki’s Delivery Service they simply form a strong friendship that U.S. audiences might view as a relationship. The two children work together to defeat the bad guys, one never appearing stronger than the other, they work as a team.

Castle in the Sky ©Studio Ghibli

Instead of focusing on a romantic relationship between his male and female characters Miyazaki chooses to guide them in the direction of a friendship. This is uncommon in Western cinema. Children are taught from an early age that friendship without romance between boys and girls is nearly impossible. If a boy and girl go on a grand adventure together, they are sure to fall in love is the message given to young audiences.

We see this in many films, even great one with amazing female characters. Such as Harry Potter where nearly every kid pairs with another of the opposite gender by the end of the 8-film series, which seriously bothered me when I was a kid. Or how about Princess Leia ending up with Han Solo in the original Star Wars films. The romance was not necessary in the plot, they could have just been buddies fighting for justice, but nope. And lets not forget 90% of the Disney Princess franchise. It seems the message is that boys and girls simply can not exist as “just friends,” which is a shame because many of these films create incredibly well-done characters, and feature strong females, but still they push the idea that boys and girls can never just be friends.

“I’ve become skeptical of the unwritten rule that just because a boy and girl appear in the same feature, a romance must ensue. Rather, I want to portray a slightly different relationship, one where the two mutually inspire each other to live – if I’m able to, then perhaps I’ll be closer to portraying a true expression of love.”- Hayao Miyazaki

What is just as uncommon is seeing a young girl as the lead protagonist. When girls exist in animated films for children they tend to be near adult women as mentioned prior. The age tends to be sixteen to twenty-one, which makes the obstacles they face not exactly relate-able to their intended young audience. The few times we’ve seen younger girls in such films as Alice in Wonderland (1951) or Coraline (2009), we could say Peter Pan (1953), but Wendy was treated like garbage, Tiger Lily was objectified, and Tinker Bell was obsessed with Peter Pan.

In Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, our story is told through the eyes of Chihiro, a ten-year-old girl who loses her way in a land of spirits. The story is all hers and all about her learning and growth. She earns her happy ending through hardwork, perseverance and finds that trust is not given, its earned.

Spirited Away @Studio Ghibli

At first glance one might believe her and Haku (the young male character), might end up in a romance but it never comes to fruition. Instead the two learn from one another, guiding eachother along their journey and say goodbye at the end as very good friends (not a romance as much as many U.S. fans try to push onto the characters). So strange, a BOY and GIRL existing as independent human beings? Never!

Additionally Miyazaki’s films manage to portray a different kind of villain (or sometimes not at all!) that these young girls must face. Rather than to injure or even kill the given opponent the character must simply outsmart them, sometimes even befriending them in the process (Yubaba in Spirited Away, or Captain Dola in Castle in the Sky). The two realize that their issues are simply misunderstandings. Often times films primarily aimed at children lead to the villains death, where Miyazki chooses to portray a level-headed and more realistic way of overcoming an enemy.

In My Neighbor Totoro we manage to avoid the idea of a villain completely. In fact we avoid most traditional storytelling techniques completely. Rather than follow an ordinary structured plotline we are given a day-in-the life of two young girls with a hint of magic tossed in. Satsuki and Mei are sisters who have just moved to the countryside with their father, soon after they meet a strange creature in the woods that calls itself “Totoro.” It takes them on several small adventures that involve flying through the air and planting a tree. While it avoids all common ideals in movies it manages to be one of the most critically acclaimed animated films of all time.

My Neighbor Totoro ©Studio Ghibli

Even beyond Miyazaki’s films, his animation house Studio Ghibli portrays fully dimensional characters in every one of their films, regardless of the director assigned to the film. The latest and possibly last of Ghibli When Marnie Was There portrays a friendship developed between two young girls, one of which suffers from depression and a feeling of being unwanted. It features no villain and instead goes about a simple story of one characters personal wellbeing.

Time and time again Miyazaki and the films of Studio Ghibli have portrayed girls in such a way that they feel so real. The characters they produce are incredibly interesting and positive for both young girls and boys.

Overall Studio Ghibli films are a great alternative for young girls and boys alike.

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The Latest Tinker Bell Film will Break Your Heart

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast ©2015 Disney Toon Studios

When it comes to Disney films most people think of the ones created by the Walt Disney Animation Studios. They produce the classics, from Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) to the recent hits like Tangled (2010), Frozen (2013) and Big Hero 6 (2014). Not many acknowledge the ones Disney Toon Studios is producing because they tend to simply be sequels, follow ups to animated series and franchises based on product sales.

Tinker Bell (2008) © Disney Toon Studios

Now it’s time for me to get you caught up on a series you’ve probably missed out on. Disney’s Tinker Bell series, based on the 1953 Disney classic Peter Pan and the stories of J.M. Barrie follows none other than Tinker Bell. Tinker Bell is quite possibly the most beloved Disney character outside of Mickey Mouse himself. The silent, hot-tempered fairy is known world-round.

In 2008 Disney Toon Studios decided to give her a voice in the film obviously called Tinker Bell. Which is of course focused entirely on her creation and friends we’ve never met, along with other references to J.M. Barrie’s novels. Tinker Bell’s world of Pixie Hollow (a place in Never land) is weaved quickly and beautifully and we see a side of this little fairy we had never gotten to previously. A lot of people were skeptical of Tinker Bell being given a voice and being shown as anything other that an angry little jerk tugging on Peter’s arm and trying to drown Wendy. But nonetheless Disney Toon Studios created a sweet little tale about misunderstandings, friendship and being who you are.

Tinker Bell (2008) © Disney Toon Studios

We are also introduced a group of fairy friends that are prominently presented throughout all the films and products as well as an all-star cast; Tinker Bell, a tinker fairy (Mae Whitman), Silvermist, a water fairy (Lucy Liu), Rosetta, a garden fairy (Kristin Chenoweth), Iridessa, a light fairy (Raven Symone), Fawn, an animal fairy (America Fererra, Angela Bartys, Ginnifer Goodwin), and Vidia, a wind fairy (Pemela Adlon).

Of course it’s quite apparent that the Tinker Bell films have the main goal of drawing attention to merchandise featuring the already high-selling fairy. That fact is why many overlook these  movies, that and the fact that their target audience is more directly aimed at elementary school children rather than families as a whole like traditional Disney movies.

Nonetheless Tinker Bell and the sequels to the 2008 film are well-animated, heartwarming and at times straight-up epic as well as being extremely well-animated and visually beautiful.

Secret of the Wings (2012) ©Disney Toon Studios

In Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure (2009) Tink is given a very rare and important moonstone to guard, regardless of the fact that she is very clumsy and reckless. This very moonstone is what powers the fairy dust that keeps all of the fairies magic and ability to fly. After an argument with her friend, Terence (who was trying to help) she reveals her hot temper we all know and accidentally breaks the stone. An adventure unravels as she tries to fix it.

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (2010) is the first to have a human interact with the fairies. Tinks curiosity gets the best of her and she finds herself caught by a little girl named Lizzie who is obsessed with fairies. Tinker Bell quickly realizes that Lizzie is neglected by her father and spends time with her teaching her everything she needs to know about fairies, while her fairy friends frantically search for her.

Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue (2010) ©Disney Toon Studios

In Secret of the Wings (2012) it is quickly revealed that Tink has a sister who was born of the same laugh (fairies are created when a baby laughs for the very first time). Her sister, Periwinkle has identical wings but more importantly she’s a winter fairy and Tink is a warm fairy. Winter and warm fairies can not cross to eachothers sides without danger of getting ill and breaking their wings.

In the Pirate Fairy (2014) we meet Zarina, a dust keeper fairy who likes to experiment with the pixie dust making all sorts of concoctions. After an error is made she flees with all of the very important blue pixie dust. Tink and her friends chase after her only to find she has joined a band of pirates.

That brings us to our latest Tinker Bell film and probably the last as Disney has stated they have ceased production on further fairy movies. Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast (2015) is the first in the series to hardly involve Tinker Bell at all. Instead it follows Fawn, Tink’s animal fairy friend. Fawn loves animals and while her heart is always in the right place, that doesn’t keep her from endangering all the other fairies in the process. After she nurses a baby hawk (an enemy to fairies) back to health before it lets loose over Pixie Hollow, she is then put on high alert by the Scout Fairies (protectors of Pixie Hollow). Fawn tries to cool it on the dangerous animals, but when she hears a strange growl she just has to explore it.

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast (2015) ©Disney Toon Studios

Enter Gruff, a very different creature that comes across as powerful and menacing but on further studies is more like a giant pet. Fawn and the creature form a bond much like a kid and their pet. But Fawn must hide their friendship from the other fairies, except her close friends of course. From this point the film takes a turn for the epic and heart-wrenching, soaring miles above the previous films in emotional draw. It encompasses betrayal, misunderstandings, sacrifice, loss and even death. The finale of the film comes across a lot sadder than it might have been intended, if you’ve ever had a pet or experienced losing one you might understand why. The sad feeling is only magnified when it cuts straight to the credits, offering no moment of pixie-coated fun as it fades out into a melancholy song. [1000 Years performed by KT Tunstal & Bleu].

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast (2015) ©Disney Toon Studios

Whether or not you’ve seen the previous Tink movies, the Legend of the Neverbeast is sure to have an emotional impact and even draw up a “what??” factor. Nearly every review of the film so far includes something along the lines of “Surprisingly heartfelt and sad,” “I came pretty close to tears,” “This movie ends on a sad note. I even cried,” which are all taken from real reviews.

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast (2015) ©Disney Toon Studios

Now, it’s not uncommon to be moved by an animated film. At this point it’s almost common with How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014), Big Hero 6 (2014), Lilo & Stitch (2002) and the Iron Giant (1999) are a few movies I know that may or may not have ripped my heart from my chest. The difference however is that the Tinker Bell films are straight-to-DVD fun entertainment aimed specifically at young kids (more than likely ones who aren’t even in school yet). That meaning that big-theater films are expected to have a wide range of emotions to encompass both kids and adults while you don’t really expect that of a movie aimed at preschoolers. But nope, Disney pulls no punches and goes all the way reeling in as many witty jokes, humor, heart and emotion that they can gather.

Additionally, as prior mentioned, the film is extremely well-animated. All of the Tinker Bell movies border the quality of big-theater CGI and are utterly breathtaking. This of course adds tremendously to the story, along with the brilliant soundtrack and score. All of the Tink films are composed by Joel McNeely (previously scoring nearly every Disney sequel). Each of the films features a number of songs that encompass the themes of the film, the first featured a bubbly song by Selena Gomez (Fly to Your Heart) but the songs featured in the Neverbeast all of which are performed by KT Tunstall are a little less bubbly and more beautiful. Strange Sight, Float, and Strange Sight Reprise, which is featured in the final scene and really helps force the tears from your eyes.

Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Neverbeast takes a leap from the prior heartwarming and sweet Tinker Bell films, while it encompasses those feelings as well it takes an entirely different turn that might leave it’s adult viewers sadder than its intended child audience.

Right now all of the Tink films are available to purchase anywhere and are also available for streaming on netflix!

Until next time!

damian alexander

Some Clay Works this Spring

Here are most of the whosits and whatsits I made in my pottery class this past Spring. Some of them I like a lot, while others, not so much. But I think they have interesting qualities regardless of how they turned out.

The first piece I made this spring was a vase. It was meant to look as though it was wiggling around and then flail out a bit at the top. I wanted the top more open so that the flowers have room to breathe. It’s a deep black inside and a jade green outside.

The second piece was a jar with a lid. I liked the deep blue it ended up being with the bits of scattered white. It almost makes it look like the ocean, and the top like ripples.

This one is meant too look like water coming up around the figure. I thought it might look interesting with a plant growing all around it inside. I experimented with wax under the glaze on the side and got this strange speckled effect.

This is a triangular pot done with coils. It’s face looks completely tortured and contorted. It’s mean to go along with another vase that I made (it’s still on display so I haven’t taken pictures).

This was intended to go into a small animals cage, somewhere that a hamster or ferret would snuggled up with a matching bowl. It was mildly inspired by the Flintstones.

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These plates were made with two completely different techniques. The whitish one was done with coils and the green one was done on a wheel.

And those are all my miscellaneous pottery pieces from this year! My favorites will be up in another post.

Until next time!

damian alexander

Disposable Childhood – A Sculpture

Imagine a bedroom floor coated with the flesh of a couple dozen nude Barbie dolls, or the missing piece from the board game that’s coated in lint under the living room couch, the pieces that get lost and prevent you from completing your LEGO airplane, or the dollhouse furniture that broke when you shoved your brother into them, the doll head pulled from its body or the tiny green soldiers you experimented the melting process with.

That was the inspiration for this piece.

When given the assignment of a piece that needed to be bound together my instant though was that I would use toys. For anyone who knows me, I collect toys, even broken ones. I always figure they’ll come in handy later and well…they did!

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I grew up through the 90s and 00s and it was a good portion of the generation that got an explosion of media shoved in their faces. Somewhere in the 80s TV stations were created that specifically targeted children, dozens of commercials advertising toys were on and off, toy stores were stuffed to the brim with must-have toys. Kids got several movies in a year aimed just at them with marketing schemes and billboards, characters covering bedsheets and accompanying action figures, dolls, clothes. You bought a Happy Meal and then there was another toy when you were just trying to eat. Most kids don’t keep them around forever. It’s disposable. They’re all disposable.

With so many bits of media, so many toys and objects coated in hot pink and metallic blue, made each one worth a lot less than it might have years before. Even the poorest kids I knew had ten Barbies when they only needed 1, they had videogames coming and going like cheeseburgers and it just never ended. You walk into any thrift store and you’ll find a naked doll with the hand chewed off from a dog, a dollhouse coated in dirt from when it was left outside, action figures with the faces scuffed off from being abused, teddy bears with bursts and holes and a smell of mildew.

That’s what this piece is about. An ode to nostalgia and the waste of childhood, the forgotten bits and pieces that broke off when it met its end.

[when looking through the photographs below play this tune in a separate tab for added effect].

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Disposable Childhood will be on display at the Arno Maris gallery at Westfield State University on April 27th.

Until next time!

damian alexander

Sculpting a Face

As strange as this may sound, one of my favorite things to do within art is create a face. I feel like every artist has their thing. Some love drawing dogs over and over or working with flowers or extreme lines or bright colors. My thing is faces.

There’s just something I love about creating a human face. It’s just so indescribably exciting.

I find myself at any given time, staring at people and gathering in the idea of them. Their eyes, mouth and nose, lips, freckles, cheekbones, skin tone, the ears or neck or jawline. Every face is so fascinating. And while I don’t often use references in print (as in photos) for my work I do find myself referencing the people I’ve seen, from memory. Of course, these are generally exaggerated references and stylized artistically, which has become apparent throughout my work.

I find it so exciting when I first see this new person peaking though, when all those dabs of paint or scratched in lines start to come alive. It’s probably the most exciting thing about painting and why I have a hard time branching out into other subjects, like plants or scenery. I get so thrilled when I see the sparkle in their eye and they become real to me.

Sculpting a face garners a similar reaction. When I choose to sculpt a face instead of a flowerpot or cookie jar I find myself unable to stop working until they are completed. I will keep working and working until I see the nose and eyes poking through that wad of clay. The hours melt away. Next thing I know I’m looking at the clock and four hours have past and I look back at my hand and I’m holding a person I could only see in my head.

Below is a sculpture I worked on this Saturday. She is a character from a children’s book I’ve been working on. I guess it might be harder for others to see, because I can envision her in full color (she’ll be painted soon) and I can see her cuteness and spunk shining through and she feels almost real to me now, a way she hadn’t exactly felt before. I’ll be making more characters as soon as I can.

I’m not sure if other artists feel this way but it’s one of the things that ­keeps me creating. To an extent, it feels like another way of creating life.

I guess it is.

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Until next time!

damian alexander

5 Bizarre and Charming Animated Films You Should Check Out

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As a lover of animated films I find myself digging around in the trenches searching for positively anything I can find. I have a special interest in those that come from smaller studios or are created outside of the United States. Or just present stories that have not yet been depicted through animation.

This list contains five I think may be of particular interest, in no particular order.

1. Mary and Max (2009) Austrailian – Directed by Adam Elliot

This stop-motion animated film is truly bizarre and fairly depressing. It illustrates the story of an 8-year-old Australian girl, Mary Daisy Dinkle, who is a weird little outcast. One day she pulls from a phonebook the address of a random man in New York City and begins sending him letters. This is Max, an obese Jewish man with Aspergers. The story follows the two outcasts through their not-so happy lives. The film covers such subjects as depression, isolation, panic and anxiety attacks as well as attempted suicide and so much more. All of which is told through these vaguely repulsive little clay stop-motion characters.

2. Wolf Children (2012) Japanese – Directed by Mamoru Hosada

At first glance I thought this film was just going to be a basic anime but it turned out to be so much more. After we have gotten past the plot of the woman and the wolf man falling in love we have this extremely in-depth story of a single mom raising two children on her own. This is something I’ve not seen tackled in any animated film ever and it was nice to see. It doesn’t glaze over the pains of pregnancy or loss of a loved one but goes into them head-on. Beyond that the animation is simply beautiful, with backgrounds so detailed you could cry and a soundtrack score (composed by Masakatsu Takagi) that could take your breath away.

3. A Town Called Panic (2009) French – Directed by Stéphane Aubier & Vincent Patar

Quite possibly the most bizarre film on this list is this stop-motion animated film based upon the French TV series of the same name. What makes this one so bizarre? Well, the main characters are Cowboy, Indian and Horse. They are three plastic figurines that live in a world filled with other plastic figurines just like themselves. However unlike Toy Story they are not logically on the floor of a 6-year-old boys bedroom. They live in a world that just is that way. A world where animals go to school, horses drive cars and everyone has a plastic board stuck to their feet. This one makes the list simply because it is so absurd it will have you saying “what?!?” every couple of minutes. I’m also fairly certain The Lego Movie jacked the concept of this film and applied LEGO bricks to it.

4. Colorful (2010)Japanese – Directed by Keiichi Hara

So you recently died and now have the chance to return to Earth…the catch is you’re going to be put into the body of a 14-year-old boy who recently committed suicide overdosing on pills. Now you’ve got to find out what you did wrong on Earth when you were alive along with trying to figure out what lead this kid to try and kill himself. A strange concept that adds in so many side plots like a cheating mother, being in love with a girl prostitute and having another girl from your school stock you, repeating that you’re so different now. Also, lets not forget the weird angel kid who seems to have a stop-watch waiting until your 6 months of discovery are up. (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t check this film out simply because it’s poster was lovely).

5. Ernest & Celestine (2012) – French – Directed by Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner

It only occurred to me just now that this particular film has two directors in common with A Town Called Panic (mentioned above). Ernest & Celestine might not be so obscure at this point as it had garnered an Academy Award nomination in 2013. The film follows a young mouse-girl below and a bear-man above who team up in an attempt to make both of their lives easier. They end up causing a huge problem as they are chased by both the mice and bear police and are taken to trial in each others worlds court houses to atone for the crimes they have committed, such as being friends. Told through beautiful water-color like animation with a charming soundtrack to boot this is one film that will really warm your heart (as cheesy as that sounds).

Now don’t watch them all at once, you might spoil your appetite!

Until next time!

damian alexander

Film Review: When Marnie Was There

Recently I was able to see the Studio Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There, which is suggested to be possibly the last feature film to be released by the critically acclaimed, Japan-based animation company.

When Marnie Was There ©Studio Ghibli [gif from ghibli-forever.tumblr.com]

When Marnie Was There is the story of a 12-year-old girl named Anna who is being fostered in the city. When she suffers from an asthma attack she is sent off to live with her foster mothers relatives out in the countryside. While she finds herself enjoying the peacefulness and lack of responsibility she is also plagued with an inability to find comfort in other people. That is, until she meets the mysterious Marnie, who seems to live in the old abandoned mansion on the marsh.

When Marnie Was There is based on the Joan G. Robinson novel of the same name, which is actually incredibly hard to find a copy of nowadays. Luckily it received a recent reprint (probably due to the release of the film).

Studio Ghibli has previously adapted such novels as Diana Wynne Jones Howl’s Moving Castle and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (into The Secret World of Arrietty). Arrietty and Marnie share the same director in fact, Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

The studio is more predominantly known for the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, whose films have received numerous awards including multiple Oscar nominations and even a win in 2002 for Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

Both When Marnie Was There and The Secret World of Arrietty have all the grace and charm of any Ghibli film. Though Yonebayashi’s tend to hold more of a focus in the absolutely ordinary amongst the extraordinary. Neither are shy of focusing on raindrops falling, birds pecking about in the background and other things we often look on by. While many Ghibli films allow the viewer time to breathe between plot advancement, these films seem to almost focus on it.

When Marnie Was There ©Studio Ghibli

When Marnie Was There ©Studio Ghibli

What is worth noting about When Marnie Was There are its depictions of social anxiety and depression. The main character, Anna has little idea as to how one interacts with someone. She finds herself constantly saying the wrong thing and being generally irritable around other people. In one sequence we even see her take a longer route simply to avoid interaction with a girl that is passing on by.

Her depression is depicted in forms of self-isolation. She sees herself as unloved and unwanted because she is a foster child and she believes she is ugly and weird because of the color of her eyes, which her peers don’t help with, often pointing out what makes her different or mocking her quiet nature. The only comfort Anna finds is within her sketching and spending time alone, exploring.

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When she comes upon the old marsh house she finds a girl named Marnie, who quickly becomes her closest friend regardless of the fact that Marnie keeps disappearing and coming back and changing. The two share secrets, including their friendship.

The film depicts a certain loneliness I’ve never seen in an animated film before. The laid out out, fully-realized depiction of social anxiety is done in such a way as the viewer can experience what the character is  going through even if they lack first-hand experience.

When Marnie Was There ©Studio Ghibli

That’s what ends up making the friendship developed between the two girls seem so charming and real.

When Marnie Was There ©Studio Ghibli [gif from oh-totoro.com]

When Marnie Was There (Japanese BluRay)

When Marnie Was There is now available on region-free Japanese BluRay and will be released in U.S. cinemas Spring 2015 by distribution company GKids.

For more high-resolution gifs and images of Studio Ghibli content, visit oh-totoro.com

Until next time!

damian alexander

Women as Creators in Animation (and Why it’s Important)

Several times I have gotten in a debate about why it is important to draw attention to women creators in the animation industry. “Why do you need to point out that they’re a woman?” they say. “Why does it matter?”

The argument often continues with saying that whether the creator is male or female all that matters is whether they portray girls and women in a positive light. It doesn’t matter the gender of the person creating the program or film.

But it does. While many might not know this, the percentage of female directors and showrunners in animation is incredibly small. Nearly microscopic.

The Walt Disney Animation Studios, who have been producing animated films since 1937 just had their first female director, Jennifer Lee co-directing Frozen in just 2013. She also wrote the screenplay. Disney’s long-time partner, PIXAR beat them out in 2012 with their studios first in 2012 with Brave with Brenda Chapman co-directing and writing the story. Many found this surprising seeing as a good portion of the Disney movies star women. Disney princess anyone?

Disney Princesses ©Disney Studios

Though Disney has had many female artists working on their projects, none had ever directed the films. It seemed the studio was male dominated. Interestingly enough both leads from Pixar’s Brave and Disney’s Frozen have been arguably considered some the strongest female characters created. With Merida, a fifteen-year-old girl who refuses an arranged marriage and Elsa an anxious, soon-to-be queen who tells her sister “you can’t marry a man you just met,” and continues to toss playful nudges at prior princess films.

Brenda Chapman, creator and co-director of Brave was also the first woman to direct a feature-length animated film of any studio. This was in 1998 with DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt. The film has popped up in recent arguments actually as having depicted Egyptians more historically accurate than several big Hollywood features (but that’s off topic).

So why is it important to see female directors and creators? Why aren’t strong female characters enough? Many men have created fine women and girl characters, I mean, check out Hayao Miyazaki’s plethora of critically acclaimed masterpieces, almost entirely starring girls.

Well, simple, because there are tons of girls who want to go into animation themselves. For one to see someone like them, doing what they want to do…well it sets of a little bulb that says it’s not impossible.

As a kid I wanted to create children’s books and I actually hid the fact that I was gay for several years because I thought it was something I couldn’t do if I was that. I didn’t see anyone gay writing or illustrating books for kids. Then I stumbled upon a documentary about Maurice Sendak, creator of the world famous Where the Wild Things Are who is gay and a thing clicked in my head that said “yeah I can do it too.”

So that’s why it’s important for girls to see women creating and running the show.

It was only in 2013 that Cartoon Network brought on its first series created by a woman, Steven Universe by Rebecca Sugar. An animated series that showcases a wide-array of diverse women and girl characters. This year Disney Channel brought on its first series created by a woman with Star Vs. the Forces of Evil, created by Daron Nefcy.

Women in animation have come a long way from the days of old.

Rejection letter from Walt Disney Animation Studios

A lot has changed since this letter. In fact many of Disney’s artists are women, many of them in prominant creative roles. Including the Disney famous Mary Blair, known for her concept art on anything from Cinderella to Peter Pan, her work is more prominently displayed in the Disney Parks attraction “it’s a small world.

Mary Blair and Walt Disney

The number of women in animation is growing in recent years and it’s always nice to see diversity in creators because it brings in a more diverse perspective on characters and stories.

Until next time!

damian alexander

PIXAR and the Female Driven Story, with Brave and Inside Out

By now everyone has probably seen a PIXAR film. From their first, Toy Story in 1995, to their Academy Award nominated and winning 7 films like UP (2009), Ratatouille (2007), The Incredibles (2004).

What you may have noticed was that many of their films are primarily buddy comedies involving two main male characters and all female characters either served minimal subplots or were love interests to the main protagonist.

The buddy trop is seen with Remmy and Linguini and Ratatouille, Buzz and Woody in the Toy Story franchise, Mater and Lightning McQueen in the Cars films, Mike and Sulley in the Monsters films and so on. Of course this isn’t saying they haven’t had a good number of great female characters. From Jessie in Toy Story 2 & 3 to Dory of Finding Nemo (2003), to Mrs. Incredible in the Incredibles.

The thing is just that these characters were never the main one or much of a focal point in anyway. They served a purpose but more or less side-kicks.

In 2012 this changed with Brave, an almost entirely female driven story about the relationship between mother and daughter. Of course this may have been because the film was directed by PIXAR’s first female director, Brenda Chapman who also created the original story. The film went on to receive and Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.

Brave ©PIXAR

Again, this summer, PIXAR will be releasing its second female-driven film. Inside Out (2015), check out the trailer right here:

The film revolves around the emotions bobbing about in a young girl’s head. These are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader), voiced by an all-star cast of current comedians. The group try to properly navigate the girl through her life after a big move with her family to San Francisco.

After watching the trailer it is clear that the two main characters will be Joy and Sadness, both of which are women or at least presented as such, since it’s strange to think of emotions as having genders. But regardless, it will follow the traditional buddy comedy that PIXAR loves to follow, but instead with two females.

The other three emotions are left to struggle with directing the young girl, minus Joy and Sadness, which of course doesn’t sound like an easy task.

Inside Out ©Disney/PIXAR

Inside Out ©Disney/PIXAR

What do you think of Inside Out? Are you going to see it this June?

Until next time!

damian alexander

 

Disney Films and the Orphaned Protagonist

“Deep in the woods Cinderella had planted a branch at the grave of her mother. And she visited there so often and wept so much that her tears watered it until it had become a magnificent tree.” – Into the Woods (2014)

Many people have critiqued Disney’s common trope of the parentless child. The orphan. It’s common in early films like Aladdin (1992) or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) where it opens to both of their parents having died already or in The Little Mermaid (1989) where only her mother has died before the start. In films like Lilo & Stitch (2002) the parents death is actually mentioned (“it was raining and they went for a drive”), in Bambi (1942) it is shown off-screen.

bambi1

While it is fairly common for one or both parents to be missing or dead in many of their films there are just as many with both parents shown or suggested. Peter Pan (1953) has both parents of the Darling children shown on-screen, while Alice in Wonderland (1951) suggest them off screen. Both of Aurora’s parents in Sleeping Beauty (1959) are alive, though she is raised by three fairies. Tangled (2010) has a similar concept where she was kidnapped and later returned to both her parents.

So I get a little irritated I guess by how often people rag on Disney films for presenting us with stories that portray loss, orphaned children, single parent house-holds or alternate legal guardians. For some strange reason people have decided that this is bad to show and/or funny, as depicted in the common tumblr meme below:

Meme from tumblr using clips from Disney films

As a child who grew up parentless and raised with my grandparents as my legal guardians I find myself kind of insulted. Many Disney films I found I connected to because of this reason. Beyond their catchy musical numbers and underdog storylines I found myself enjoying the films because they were one of the few things I could relate to.

Not all children have moms and dads. In fact, many don’t. I know this is hard to believe for people who grew up in households with both parents, but it’s actually fairly common. So Disney, depicting a mom or a dad with a child on their own, or grandparents or an aunt raising a child is just showing a different kind of family.

Big Hero 6 (2014) ©Walt Disney Animation Studios

Growing up is hard enough already without having kids pick on you for not having a family or your birth parents. I mean, they’re probably already picking on you for some other dumb little thing that they have way too much time to focus on. Disney movies offer a safe space not many kids get in their own lives.

Until next time!

damian alexander