The Pixar Princess

A surprising number of animated classics have been created during my lifetime. Two important revolutions happened in America at the end of the 20th century: the “Disney Renaissance” and the arrival of computer-based animation. While the explosive impact of 3D was hard to miss, another important factor was subtle and sociopolitical.

The Little Mermaid was a regression in one sense, to the animated Broadway-musical royal romances that defined early Disney animation. In another sense, it broke new ground for the format. Ariel is the titular 19th-century ocean-dwelling heroine who makes a faustian deal to win the heart of Prince Eric, a boring but beautiful human. As only the fourth official Disney Princess, she does something other than be in distress, which is notable. The box office returns were impressive, and the royal romance was back in a big way. However, that whole singing princess trope hasn’t transcended its gendered appeal to this day. Consider that Pixar out-earned Disney at the box office without featuring a princess for 17 years. Or consider Halloween costume sales.

Anyway, let’s continue. Belle is also an “interesting princess” with all the book learning and such, but her character has more depth in that she learns to love a hideous creature. There’s not much else that needs to be said here, but imagine if the genders were switched!

Jasmine is the bride of Aladdin. She is notable for being non-European and owning a tiger. Perhaps because boys would balk at Beauty and the Beast, the action in that movie revolves around the illegitimate title prince. The Lion King doesn’t actually marry an official Disney Princess, which is just as well because lions are polygynous cannibals.

Pocahontas is next, featuring a quasi-historical (Native) American. The wheels were coming off the royal romance gravy train by this time, and her movie was slightly overshadowed by Pixar’s explosive debut. Animation would be changed forever; 2D was suddenly old-fashioned and unmarketable (see The Iron Giant). While its shiny new rendering process got a lot of attention, Toy Story was also at the vanguard of a different narrative technique. Gone were the musical numbers and pretty princesses – the only romance in Toy Story is between Woody and Bo Peep, and the framing device literally casts them as role-playing toys.

That stroke of genius allowed the franchise to explore mature themes like jealousy, existential angst, and the social contract, while basing all the action around a child and his possessions. Perhaps there is some significance to Andy’s gender and the fact that his pretend play always involves aggressive conflict between good and evil. The neighbor Sid takes this to a perverted extreme, obliterating and mutilating toys, while his sister Hannah has them share idle gossip over tea.

In any case, Pixar’s movies have avoided the royal romance trope almost entirely. Shrek absolutely wallowed in fairy-tale nonsense, and eventually The Princess and the Frog and Tangled introduced Tiana and Rapunzel as the first Black and 3D Disney Princesses, respectively. Meanwhile, Finding Nemo celebrated guardianship and adventure, The Incredibles focused on ability and the family unit, and Ratatouille studied ambition and creative expression. The latter did have a romantic subplot and a peerage aspect which was subversive at best.

To get to the point, Merida the Brave is scheduled to become the first official Pixar Princess in July. This is interesting for several reasons: First, she stays single until the end of the movie! Her three would-be suitors are not very charming, to say the least. Second, she doesn’t sing, except for one Gaelic lullaby. Finally, Merida isn’t actually the first romantic female lead in a Pixar movie. That honor goes to EVE, a machine with a fusion reactor and a minimalist design supervised by Jony Ive. Clever.

I’m leaving out several other animated features of note, like Wallace and Gromit, Persepolis, and Coraline, and that isn’t even mentioning Miyazaki or the rest of Japan. Here’s to all these great artists, and congratulations to Princess Merida!

Review: Team Fortress 2

I’m writing about one of my all-time favorite games today, because last week I remembered that it recently switched over to a “free-to-play” model with a brand new market for in-game cosmetic and practical items. I downloaded it on yet another new computer because I supposed that there would be a veritable goldmine of free (inexperienced!) players to kill, a fresh selection of map updates, and brand-new play styles made possible by all the cool new weapons. Boy, was that supposition correct! I don’t remember the old game being this fun at all, and the old game was a whole lot of fun!

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Team Fortress 2 is a video game where one team tries to defend strategic points on a map, and the other team tries to infiltrate their defenses and capture whatever needs capturing. Players on either team get to choose from 9 different “classes” of militant, which have different strengths, use different weapons and require very different play styles to see any success. I’m told the Pyro is a girl under the gas mask, but otherwise all the soldiers are male, which angers some people. Anyway, the game is the most fully realized competitive multiplayer experience ever to grace the PC or Mac or console. The strategic possibilities are mind-blowing and hardly anybody gets left out, even people who normally suck at “shootey” games. I loved this game when it came out and I still have to keep myself away from it to this day, like cigarettes for normal people.

Most amazing is that, had the folks at Valve sat around and boozed away their profits from the Orange Box rather than going right back to work on the community, I would have never spent another dime to play the thing! As it stands, the $10 in my Steam wallet has been used up over the course of 3 days and I will have to refill it soon. There is less of a “walled garden” feeling with all the new free players, but Valve never forgot how to treat its loyal customers and as a result they’re simply printing money over there these days. Good for them.

I want to use part of this review to imagine what the wild success of this format means for the future of the entertainment industry. Valve has changed the world, by creating a virtual place that is completely free to access (barring hardware limitations), and selling virtual things that only work in that virtual place! Luddites will scoff and say that we’re all suckers for thinking that these ideas can really be valuable, but here’s a real hard serious question for them: does paying $2 at an arcade to pretend to race a motorcycle 3 times around a track give me more “fun” than owning a virtual rocket launcher would? I don’t think many people are prepared to argue that point.

Some gamers also complain that new weapons will introduce game balance issues, even though this does not make good logical sense. The market will demand any weapon that is found to be disproportionately effective, and Valve will be able to identify it and take any corrective action necessary. In addition, having hundreds of slightly different “enhancements” to choose from means not having enough time to study all their strengths and weaknesses.

What we should take away is that by sacrificing a dwindling source of revenue, Valve has turned intellectual property that might still be able to generate meager sales on a good day into a thriving economy that is driving their current profits. “Common sense” might say that giving away your product is a bad idea, but it doesn’t really have to be. This is hard evidence.

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino’s newest movie, Inglourious Basterds, is the best picture I’ve ever seen at a multiplex. This is no hyperbole, it easily tops anything else he has directed (disclaimer: I haven’t seen Jackie Brown) and it makes the rest of the “best picture” nominees from 2009 look like amateur trash. It earned some fairly strong reviews, but unfortunately Inglourious Basterds happens to be an incredibly dangerous piece of cinema, and most mainstream critics happen to be cowards. I’m going to pause here for a second and say that this review is going to spoil the shit out of the movie if you haven’t seen it already, in which case you should stop reading right now and go buy it on DVD – and regret missing it in theaters for the rest of your life.

Those of you who are still here might be wondering exactly why the film is so dangerous, or perhaps thinking it must have something to do with the gratuitous on-screen murder of hundreds of Top Nazis. That certainly drew attention and criticism from the press, but the far more subversive details have been all but ignored. To fully appreciate these details, we need to look not only at the characters on the screen, but also at what each character represents. This will be mostly speculation on my part, but I am convinced that the interpretation is correct.

First things first: the movie is dangerous specifically because the Nazis represent the Hollywood film industry. This is most obvious during the premiere of Goebbels’ film, a transparent subversion of American war movies (curiously containing all of the most traditional “war action” in Basterds). Moviegoers who were expecting epic Tarantino-styled battles got a bit of what they wanted, but the Nazi was the protagonist and the segment was directed by Eli Roth. Tarantino has often used movie symbolism within his work, and in Basterds the place of the producer is undeniably occupied by the Nazi Party: the fact that the final acts revolve around a cinema premiere is no coincidence. The very clear message contained in the framework of a French cinema “hijacked” by racist murderers isn’t a coincidence either.

Now if the Nazis represent the Hollywood establishment, the good guys obviously represent Tarantino (and company). This is very interesting, because I think we can pin specific character traits that he sees in himself on each character. Aldo the Apache represents Tarantino the Guerrilla, working “behind enemy lines” or within the film industry. The Bear Jew represents Tarantino the Exploiter, and Eli Roth absolutely is the perfect person for the role – say what you will about his acting. The rest of the Basterds could represent other sides of Tarantino the Director, or they could be homages to others in the community.

Shosanna is a bit of an anomaly: she doesn’t meet up with the rest of the good guys until the very end. While the Basterds’ story is violent, suspenseful and funny, hers is tragic and touching. Her character is probably a very profound statement of what Tarantino aspires to be, rather than a narcissistic idea of who he already is. Where the Basterds are savage men at war, Shosanna is classy and intelligent. Her motive is pure, born from a determination to see justice for her family. Theirs is a desire to kill the enemy, plain and simple. In the end, her mission tragically fails, but theirs succeeds, and this is certainly not without significance.

Which brings us to the target of Shosanna’s mission: Colonel Hans Landa. I’m fairly certain that Landa represents Harvey Weinstein: as a power player in the film industry, he obviously evokes a ruthlessly effective Nazi. The deal at the end between Col. Landa and Lt. Raine represents the deal Tarantino made with Weinstein, to produce Inglourious Basterds itself. By making such a deal, Aldo forfeits any hope of fulfilling the dead Shosanna’s mission (eliminating Weinstein) for the sake of the war effort (making Basterds). However, he does get away with brutally carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead – Shosanna the Virtuous is replaced by Tarantino the Narcissist, who declares Basterds to be his “masterpiece.”

The funny thing is, he’s right.