As part of the dialogue on race we’re all supposedly having in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, I’d like to ask: can we pleeeeease ask Hollywood why they seem reluctant to make an animated kids’ movie with a central black or Latino character??
To escape the heat and threat of rain, I took the kids to see "Turbo," the latest Dreamworks kid flick about a little snail with a big dream: to win the Indianapolis 500. Through a series of unlikely happenstances (it’s a kids’ movie, after all) the snail sees his dream come true – courtesy of a pair of Latino brothers from Los Angeles, one of whom believes in the snail and his dreams.
Though the movie’s pretty predictable and not the worst animated feature film I’ve ever seen. The obligatory central message imbedded in the movie – dream big, and work to make it happen – is supported by a less obvious,secondary affirmation: diversity is a good thing.
The snail, who comes from the suburbs, is befriended by the aforementioned brothers, whose taco restaurant is the lynchpin of a down-at-the-heels urban strip mall. Their mall "family" includes a female Latino mechanic, a sassy Korean woman who owns a nail salon and an old white man who runs a hobby shop. It's a far cry from the well-scrubbed castle of "Cinderella" or the antiseptic woods in "Snow White."
Given that, Turbo does better than most movies of the genre; there’s real economic and racial diversity on the screen. But the bar is pretty damn low.
Michael Pena and Luis Guzman are outstanding in decent roles that push the story along. But most of the story – and the heroic moments that had me and my kids enthralled -- are told through or focused on Turbo, the star of the movie.
A friend noted there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, and I agree: the movie is, after all, called “Turbo,” not “Turbo the African American Wonder-Snail.” But why not have Turbo voiced by a black or Latino actor? How come precious few movies are made with a black hero? Do they think whites won't relate to black characters? Or that the movie won't make enough money at the box office?
Which brings me to Pixar, creators of my two favorite movies, and not just in the animated category: “Cars,” and “The Incredibles.” Both feature great storytelling, believably flawed, three-dimensional characters who have depth and texture. And they're visually amazing.
Clearly, those guys are geniuses.
Yet of Pixar’s blockbusters – “Cars,” the “Toy Story” franchise, “The Incredibles,” which is poised for a sequel – there are only a handful of characters who aren’t black, and they’re ALL SIDEKICKS. Frozone, voiced by Samuel L. Jackson in “The Incredibles,” is blond, blue-eyed hero Bob Parr’s loyal buddy. Flo and Ramon – she an African American “show car ” from Detroit; he a Latino body painting artist from Los Angeles – are part of the town, but they barely factor into Lightning McQueen’s road to redemption.
And if memory serves, “Toy Stoy,” “Toy Story 2,” and “Toy Story 3” – which made billions of dollars worldwide in box office receipts alone, spawned several catch phrases and arguably put Pixar on the map as a kids’ entertainment force – didn't have a single character of color in the whole cast. I could be wrong but I don’t think I am.
I wish I could say I’m surprised by the fact that diversity hasn’t caught on. But I’ve been watching animated films for 14 years now and, other than “The Princess and the Frog,” which made headlines because it featured a black princess and a mostly black cast, I can't remember seeing a movie where the main characters look like my kids.
And there’s no sign of improvement: at the “Turbo” screening, we saw about five trailers for children’s animated features coming up for the holiday season – including what looked like lame sequels for “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Lego Movie” – and none featured identifiable characters of color.
So why does it matter? After all, my kids don’t seem to mind, mostly because they’re kids. “Turbo” hooked them: they laughed, they cried, they cheered when the hero went for his dream instead of playing it safe.
Well, this is why it matters. And this. Also, as the father of a young black boy, I think this is kind of important, too.
In the New York Times article on "Princess and the Frog," the reporter quotes Michael D. Baran, a cognitive psychologist and anthropologist who teaches at Harvard and specializes in how children learn about race. He was asked specifically about "The Princess and the Frog," but his answer pretty much applies across the board.
It matters, he says, because of Disney’s outsize impact on children.
Think merchandising: Products from hit animated films are everywhere in our kids’ lives. Toys. Backpacks, Sheets, pajamas, toothbrushes, salty snacks, breakfast cereal, yogurt packs, video games. Ad executives have even hooked up those stupid yellow, capsule-shaped Minions from “Despicable Me 2” with Flo, selling insurance between McDonald's Happy Meals commercials.
My daughter, when she was a toddler, had a Disney Princess gown and wand. My son has a pair of slippers shaped like Mater, Lightning McQueen's buddy in "Cars." When those messages of approval -- and exclusion -- invade your child's world, 24-7, for years at a time, it takes a strong kid and an even stronger parent to push back fight back.
Says Baran: “People think that kids don’t catch subtle messages about race and gender in movies, but it’s quite the opposite.”
Even Chris Rock, who co-starred as the motor-mouthed sidekick Marty the Zebra in the “Madagascar” movies, got the memo.
At the 2012 Oscars, Rock told a national audience that voicing kids' films are an actor's dream because, “in the world of animation, you can be anything you wanna be.”
“If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess," he said. "If you’re short wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince.
“And if you’re a black man,” he said, “you can play a donkey or a zebra.”