“Pixar has a girl problem.—Joel Stein, Time magazine (38)
Until I visited Pixar’s offices, I did not know that 12-year-old boys were allowed to run major corporations.—Joel Stein, Time magazine (37)
Christian Metz’s observation that “a film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand” (69) appears particularly evident when one is teaching an undergraduate course on the animated feature films of Disney and Pixar. In a recent class taught in Chicago,1 many students were taken aback when they learned that the course involved historical, sociological, and theoretical framing and analysis. The students, it turned out, expected little more than discussions of the animated films’ plot events, some character and stylistic analysis, and the role of hand-drawn versus computer-generated (CG) animation in a film’s popular appeal. In addition, a refrain began to emerge—namely, “I love Disney films, but I never thought of them as being ideological.” In some instances, I sensed a hint of disapproval that the course would subject Disney and Pixar to the kind of analysis that might require students to reevaluate much-loved films associated with cherished memories of childhood. I reiterated the argument I make every time I teach the course, best encapsulated by Giroux and Pollock, that the pleasures of scopophilia notwithstanding, “it is as important to comprehend and mitigate what gives us pleasure as it is to examine what elicits our disapproval” (xvi). I also make no apology for sharing those pleasures, however mitigated those may be by my own position as a film scholar (and as a parent).
Having taught a course on children’s and family films since 2005 in South Africa, I found the aforementioned sentiment more pervasive among students in the US institution than among those in my home institution in Johannesburg, South Africa. The notion that this category of media texts is somehow excluded from ideological concerns—that the films are “ideologically empty,” so to speak—reflects a widespread perception within both broader cultures that children’s films are just innocent, escapist fun. Walt Disney himself was known to perpetuate this perception by, somewhat disingenuously, remarking, “We just make the pictures, and let the professors tell us what they mean” (qtd. in Bell, Haas, and Sells 1).
In both contexts, one finds that many students—especially, but definitely not only, males—are openly enamored of the films of Pixar Animation Studios. This is not surprising. In addition to the drama of the well-publicized agreements and conflicts between Disney and Pixar from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s (before Pixar was purchased by Disney), and in particular the tensions between their then two larger-than-life CEOs, Michael Eisner and Steve Jobs, Pixar’s films have made motion picture and animation history, with film after film achieving considerable box office success and critical acclaim. [End Page 43]
Departing from what is frequently seen as the Disney formula—even if that notion is something of a simplification—of princesses and fairy-tale fantasies, Pixar’s stories are perceived as fresh and innovative, combining a motley assortment of characters, both human and nonhuman, with technologically sophisticated and artistically acclaimed animation. Pixar’s tales of friendship, or other types of platonic bonds between male characters, have captivated animation fans, male and female.
In the months preceding Pixar’s June 2012 release of Brave, its first film with a female protagonist, Internet bloggers, animation and film Web sites, feminists, Pixar fans, newspapers, magazine columnists, and entertainment TV channels were all abuzz with speculation about what this departure from the animation studio’s well-established record of highly successful male-centric fare would mean. The anticipation, and in some instances trepidation, was almost palpable—would Pixar be able to give us girl stories comparable to its narratives of male homosocial bonding? Male bonding, in several variations, is a conspicuous theme in a number of Pixar films: a pair’s shift from rivals to friends in the Toy Story films; father-son bonds in Finding Nemo; interspecies symbiosis forged by challenging the “elitism and pretentiousness of . . . French haute cuisine...