By Quinton J. Hobson
For almost 80 years, animated films have remained an invaluable part of our existence, ever since Walt Disney released the very first one, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937, thus founding the juggernaut that would become Walt Disney Animation Studios.
The iconic film established several themes and motifs that would eventually become staples of the animation world today: sweeping visuals, catchy tunes and endearing heroines. But while these would gradually evolve with time and technology – hand-drawn images replaced by computers, musical genres updated to reflect the times, heroines kicked Prince Charming to the curb to fight their own battles – critics continue to observe that the content of both Disney and non-Disney animated films remains notably colourless, referring of course to something other than their visuals.
In 2013, Disney released the animated musical Frozen. While the film was lauded for its strong heroines and feminist themes, it failed to avoid criticism for lacking in ethnic diversity. Only two years later, DreamWorks, a long-time rival of Disney, released Home, in which Barbadian recording star Rihanna voices a young girl who befriends an alien in order to reunite with her mother.
Released last weekend, the film has already grossed nearly $100 million in a matter of days, breaking previous box office records and overshadowing comedian Kevin Hart’s Get Hard. More importantly, however, audiences have taken note of the film’s young Black heroine, Tip, whose brown afro bounces realistically when she moves, like so many with similar hair can relate to.
Now DreamWorks is a considerably younger studio than Disney and hasn’t necessarily had to deal with such political subjects as its predecessor, the latter of who has been accused on several occasions of being racist. But it isn’t entirely Disney’s fault; the studio remains best-known for adapting European fairytales that pre-date the 18th century, so one can’t really blame them for sticking to what they’re good at.
Realistically speaking, incorporating characters of colour into these stories is admittedly difficult and each time Disney has tried they have been met with controversy: Aladdin was banned in the Middle East in 1992; Pocahontas was dubbed racist by historians in 1995.
Most relevant remains the release of The Princess and the Frog (2009), Disney’s loose adaptation of The Frog Prince, their first fantasy film to star a Black princess. While the film met decent reviews upon release, its troubled production is scarred by audiences panning its sensitive subject matter, New Orleans setting and originally naming its heroine Maddy, which ultimately contributed to it underperforming at the box office.
Meanwhile, Home has yet to encounter such issues although critical reception towards the film has been mixed at best. However, its use of a Black heroine has been widely praised, with CNN already hailing Tip as the girl who saved DreamWorks.
But the heroine is especially comforting given this year’s events, specifically the controversy that spawned from Fashion Police earlier this year when the show took aim at a young starlet’s dreadlocks, reinstalling confidence in young girls of colour.
If Disney wants to take back its crown, it appears as though the studio will have to take a page out of DreamWorks’ book and release a controversy-free, critically and commercially successful film starring a heroine of colour in order to surpass their rival.