Addicted to novelty since 2001

Why Pixar Films Appeal to Everyone (and Maybe Why They Don’t)

New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott narrates a nice five-minute video exploring the excellence and universal appeal of Pixar’s films. His thesis, in summary, is that they often feature an identity crisis–the hero feels he doesn’t belong. Humans of all stripes respond to such notions. Plus, of course, they’re usually exceptionally executed.

On a related note, I was recently listening in to a conversation among five 30-something, university-educated women. They were talking about movies. Despite being aware of the glowing reviews for Pixar’s Wall-E, they were unanimous in their lack of interest in seeing the movie.

I don’t want to inspire a lot of female commenters to contradict me, but I have a sense that women are generally less interested in animated films than men. This seems entirely understandable, given that most of the animated work they’ve seen has been a) made primarily for boys, featuring male protagonists and b) bad. Still, I think it’s unfortunate, because some of the most remarkable and effective movies of the last decade have been animated. I’m thinking here of Persepolis, Ratatouille and The Incredibles. The former of these movies obviously bucks this trend, but it didn’t necessarily have the broad appeal of the Pixar movies.

14 Responses to “Why Pixar Films Appeal to Everyone (and Maybe Why They Don’t)”

  1. Derek K. Miller

    Might it in part be that, even at Pixar, all the key protagonists in the films are male (or presumably male), although they need not be? Think: Woody and Buzz, Flick, Mike and Sully, Marlin and Nemo, Mr. Incredible, Lightning McQueen, Ratatouille, WALL-E.

    Sure, there are some strong supporting female characters, particularly in Toy Story 2 and The Incredibles, but why couldn’t the protagonists in A Bug’s Life (especially given real-life ant society), Monsters Inc., Ratatouille, or WALL-E have been female? No real reason, other than that all the key people at Pixar also seem to be men, who create what they know.

    WALL-E, in particular, being about robots and a dystopic future earth, without much dialogue, at least on the surface checks all sorts of boxes that women (though not necessarily girls) might, on average, take as “not for me.”

    That said, there are plenty of fun female-focused films that guys shy away from — I enjoyed the “Sex and the City” movie (as well as the series) on its terms, but I don’t know *any* group of guys (straight ones, anyway) who would have gone to it on their own.

    Similarly, “Atonement” was supposed to be great, but I had no interest in seeing it, because it purports to be (and apparently is, according to my wife) very sad — and sadness is not what I or most men go to movies for.

  2. darren

    Derek: Indeed, male protagonists all over the place. I’d be careful before I said there were ‘plenty’ of movies that are female-focused. In sheer number of films or (even worse) production budgets, I don’t think it’s remotely even yet. It will become so, though, as consumer spending is increasingly female-focused.

  3. Michael Kwan

    Maybe it’s because I’m still a 20-something, but I find that the women that I know are MORE interested in animated films than the men that I know. This could stem from their (referring to the women) relatively bigger interest in “cute” and anime compared to their male counterparts. By contrast, guys are raised to be “tough” and something as “childish” as an animated film is harder to justify for a group of grown men to watch together than it is for a group of grown women.

    Following a similar line of thought, society has made it “okay” for a group of women to watch a movie, television program, or whatever with a primarily male-dominated cast with male-dominated themes. Seinfeld, for example, was a popular TV show although only one “main” character was female. Even most of the supporting and transient characters were male. By contrast, it is not as accepted for a group of men to get together and watch something that is prototypically female… “chick flicks” like Sex in the City.

    I’m not saying that these prevailing themes in society are right or wrong, but I think that my observations are reasonably accurate. No?

  4. Michael Kwan

    On a side note, I just came back from watching WALL-E and I thought it was good. It was gut-wretchingly cute at times, but it was very endearing too.

  5. Marina

    I won’t argue with the fact that Pixar’s films have a sort of universal appeal though I admit I’d never paid much attention to the fact that most of their lead characters have been male. It may have something to do with the fact that most of the big players at Pixar are also men. But that’s not limited to Pixar, it’s a problem throughout Hollywood and even with a large number of female executives working at big studios, the number of “female” oriented films hasn’t really gone up – or perhaps it has but their quality seems to be greatly diminishing. But that’s another topic all together.

    On the animation front, as much as I love Pixar, I find some of their work highly over rated and comparing them to another great animation studio, Japan’s great Studio Ghibli, brings up an interesting fact. Where as America’s Pixar has mostly male leads, Japan’s Ghibli has mostly female leads and looking at some of my favourite Anime films, they also feature female leads which leads me to wonder if maybe this disparity is due, in part, to the culture. It’s an interesting point and one I hadn’t considered until now but something that could be worth a discussion.

  6. Stacy

    As a 41 year old female, I can say I have simply never warmed up to digital animation – I can’t get past how ugly it looks to even care about the story.

    Dave Reply:

    what century did you watch your last animated movie?

  7. col

    i’ve always been interested in animated movies…though i can’t explain why i didn’t have much interest in seeing Wall-E–I did end up seeing it.

  8. Norlinda

    I don’t think it’s necessarily the animation that turns some women off Wall-E; I suspect it’s the robots and the science fiction genre.
    Personally, as a 30-something female, I have enjoyed most of the Pixar offerings (Toy Story and A Bug’s Life not so much), and found Wall-E to be refreshingly funny. And how can anyone not love Dory from Finding Nemo?

  9. raincoaster

    Derek nailed it in one. Not only do the pictures lack female protagonists, they very often lack strong female characters at all: the romantic interest is more MacGuffin than character in a lot of these films, even if she’s equipped with token “gumption.”

    I’ve interviewed John Lassetter (probably spelled wrong, but it WAS back in the Tin Toy days) and dealt with Pixar and it’s a fairly macho corporate culture.

    I agree with Marina as well. My favorite animated movies aren’t American; they’re Japanese. Have you seen Spirited Away? And that has a female protagonist as well.

  10. Davin

    I have never gone to see an animated movie with any of my man-friends. The only ones I have seen, in fact, have been pushed upon me exclusively by females.

    And they’ve all been rentals.

    I’m not against animation, I think they’re cool. But I also generally feel they’re targeted at kids and families more specifically, and as a result I generally find them safe, boring and predictable. Not my style.

  11. Renee

    Mind you, I’ll take robots over rats in the kitchen any day…

  12. Ben

    Intelligent and sophisticated though Pixar’s movies may be, kids are a huge part of their target market. By and large, girls are willing to follow the story of a male protagonist where boys refuse to support something they see as girlish. Thus, male Pixar lead characters.

    As Jo Rowling has told interviewers, there was no chance Harry Potter could have been Harriet. She wanted to reach every child, not half of them.

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