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Miscellanea / Manjula Padmanabhan

Female characters in Disney films have for long been locked into Princess or Wicked Witch stereotypes

Even the clouds are in 3-D!" whispered a couple to one another as the opening titles rolled on Disney's feature film, Toy Story. And yes, the smooth-skinned roundedness of this computer animated world was initially enthralling. There was none of that tell-tale jerkiness of conventional cartooning, the flat colours, the harsh defining line that is its hallmark. Instead, there was minute detail, awesome depth-of-field, and the kind of variety in action and character that would have been uneconomical to produce manually.

But just as a waxwork is enchanting only because it is not real, so too a cartoon is amusing because it takes off from where life stops. Toy Story stops where life begins. It had three dimensional toys struggling within the confines of a one dimensional story. Woody, a cowboy doll, competes with Buzz Lightyear, an astrobot, for the affections of their owner, Andy.

The major adventure is Buzz and Woody's escape from the neighbouring home of Sid, a brat-sized Ivan the Terrible. En route Woody conquers his jealousy of Buzz, who in turn learns a thing or two about being a toy rather than a space-man. There's a wild car chase as the two heroes hurtle through life-size traffic to catch up with the moving van in which the other toys are being transported to Andy's new home. And - surprise, surprise! -- they succeed.

Andy is blond and blue-eyed while Sid has brown hair, eyes as black as his heart and industrial-strength braces on his teeth. Their neighbourhood is miraculously free of the stain of coloured races. Aside from Andy's mother, who appears to be single, the female stereotypes are of the kind that cause women like myself to consider sex-change surgery.

The token female on Andy's toy team is a hot little number called BoPeep who spouts Mae West dialogue as she rounds up her three-headed sheep. Sid also has a token female amongst his mutilated toys, represented by a pair of naked legs with a construction-crane suspended between them! Andy's baby sister is a babbling tyrant who chews on toys, while Sid's sister is a frightened wimp whose idea of playing is to be a gracious hostess at her doll's tea party.

Female main characters in Disney films have for long been locked into Princess or Wicked Witch stereotypes. In recent years princesses have evolved into beautiful but chaste girls whose major virtue is their ability to face mountains of housework a song on their lips. Witches have mutated into sex bombs whose potent allure can cause naive male characters to lose their magic powers, betray their boyhood friends and stray from the path of righteousness.

In the Jungle Book, with one glimpse of a coy little girl fetching water, Mowgli is spellbound, forgets his animal buddies and leaves the jungle. In Peter Pan Tinkerbell is a jealous sprite who must share her hero with a whole lagoon of curvaceous mermaids. Even in Pinocchio, otherwise free of a love interest, Cleo the goldfish flirts outrageously with the kitten Figaro.

While the early films may be excused on the plea of a general innocence, today's films cannot. A film like Toy Story must have run the gauntlet of fierce debates about the messages being loaded into the capsule of its story, yet the result is about as progressive as a cast iron corset.

Remember The Lion King? Under the sublimely beautiful animation was a baldly anthropocentric story of a patrilineal monarchy run by lions. Lionesses, who in real life are brassy hunters, in this film are reduced to being indolent matrons whose only purpose is to rear the Cub and Heir. Simba's girlfriend plays rough with him in youth but as an adult, she is the slinking seductress who scorns his prey-species playmates and recalls him to his destiny as King.

In Alladin Princess Jasmine is an elitist little prig who rejects Alladin when his princely origin is in doubt. He himself is a thief and a liar whose genie just happens to be a genius. As in Cinderella40 years ago, the message is that without the magic of smart marketing, beauty and wit will languish unseen in the supermarket of True Love. Pocahontas was the rare exception with a gutsy, vigorous, brown-skinned heroine - though of course, we'd never have heard of her if not for her white-skinned lover!

For all their excesses, however, Disney films are such a feast for the eyes, that we forgive them. The problem with Toy Story is that it's too realistic to be attractive. It looks like a live action documentary, shot in the Plasticene Era of the Earth's future, polythene children play in a plexiglass world and all that magic so unique to the Disney vision is reduced to a handful of soggy computer chips.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Manjula Padmanabhan

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