Everyone who knows me even a little knows this about me.
I have seen all but one (A Bug's Life, their second) of their movies in the theatre, and own all but one (Cars, the A student's only B+) thus far available on DVD, in addition to the collection of their shorts. Last night I bought and rewatched Up, and it was still superb. Not necessarily my favorite, but then it's so difficult to pick a favorite. All of their movies have such original stories (except for the aforementioned Cars), such believable characters, such complex themes that don't talk down to the audience, child or adult, such incredible attention to detail, such brilliant visuals, that they make nearly every other American animated movie seem positively amateurish by comparison. My ticket to Toy Story was one of the first I kept. Toy Story 2 pulled off the nearly impossible feat of being a sequel that is arguably better than the original. Monsters, Inc., perennially overlooked, cracks me up, and has one of the greatest child movie characters ever. Ratatouille had one of the most effective character moments I've ever seen, in thirty seconds without dialogue. Last year, I sat literally open-mouthed through nearly all of WALL-E. Up managed to choke me up within the first ten minutes. It can be safely said that I am, indeed, a huge fan, and have been for a long time.
With each successive movie they've put out, I've had a growing unease. Not because of the quality, or the themes, or the messages, or anything like that. No. It's because, over the course of ten feature films, they have yet to have a female protagonist. Woody (with Buzz as second lead), Flik, Woody and Buzz again, Sulley (with Mike as second lead), Marlin, Bob "Mr. Incredible" Parr, Lightning McQueen (with Mater or possibly Doc as second lead), Remy (with Linguini as second lead), WALL-E, and now Carl Fredericksen (with Russell as second lead). Now, don't get me wrong, these films have had many wonderful, strong, believable female characters, some of them even second leads: Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl, Dory, Helen "Elastigirl" Parr, Collette, and EVE immediately leap to mind. They're all fantastic characters, and none have been there purely as a romantic foil, even the one in the (robot) romance movie. But the story hasn't been focused around any of these characters; they at best play a major role in the story of the male protagonist. Their story arc, even if it's a good, strong, compelling arc, is still secondary to his.
Over the last several years/movies since I noticed the pattern, it's been getting increasingly embarrassing. It's like when your dear, loving grandmother, who taught you so much about treating everyone with respect, refers to your adult black friend as "a colored boy," and locks her jewelry box when he visits. You find yourself making excuses, because you know she obviously doesn't mean to be offensive, and all of her other actions show that she's not racist, and she just doesn't really know him yet, and she grew up in a different time, and and and....
And yet, there it is. Nine protagonists, no women.
But wait! There, in production! No, not Toy Story 3, presumably starring Woody and Buzz, due out next year. Not Cars 2, presumably starring Lightning and Mater, due out the year after. After that, in December 2011! It's The Bear and the Bow! Written and directed by a woman (both also a first for Pixar, which is telling), and starring Reese Witherspoon as Pixar's very first female lead character... Princess Merida.
Okay, look. There's nothing inherently wrong with princesses as lead female characters. And yes, I have faith that Pixar will put an interesting spin on it (already we can see that she wants to stop being royalty and become an archer, which has promise). They could turn it into a "take that" against the very idea of animated female leads needing to be princesses, much as Up took a shot at the idea of the hero needing to be young. They could end up turning the whole idea of princesses upside down, somehow. We can't really judge now, a full two years before it's even released, can we?
She could've been anything. They specialize in unlikely heroes: an old cloth doll, a rat who likes to cook, a lonely garbage compacter, the monster in your closet, a clown fish. Ed Asner. Do something else gosh-wow adventurey, like The Incredibles and Up: make her a time-traveler trying to fix the past. There can be dinosaurs, because everyone loves dinosaurs. Something else with animals, like Finding Nemo or Ratatouille: she could be the elephant who actually never forgets, and sees some sort of classified information. Something offbeat, like Toy Story or Cars or Wall-e: she's, I don't know, a sentient vacuum cleaner or something. I know, I know, my ideas suck (erm, no pun intended.) I'm not a writer. But come on. I could have come up with "princess." It's been done, it's played out. Disney even has a new animated movie with "Princess" right in the title! You folks can do so much better, I know you can. This is what you guys do.
Because no matter how well they handle it, no matter how much subversion they put in there, no matter how great a fighter she is, even if she saves him (though Pixar's been pretty good about such things so far, there most likely will be a "him") instead of the other way around, even if the entire point of the movie is about how girls don't have to be princesses and can be anything they want to be, even stereotypically male-dominated occupations, it doesn't really matter, because she's still a princess. She'll still be folded into the vastly disconcerting "Disney Princess" line, togged out in the dress she probably hated wearing at the beginning of the film. She'll still be made into a dress-up doll, likely without the archery outfit as an option. She'll still end up, somehow, irritatingly and horrifically pink. Hey, it happened to Mulan, and she's not even a princess in-story, through marriage or otherwise.
So I'm sure it'll be a fantastic movie. It'll be funny, touching, mature, beautiful, original and everything else we've come to expect of them, and I'll be there to see it in the theatre. I just wish that for their first female lead, after twelve movies, they could've picked something other than a princess.
Note: This was originally posted in slightly modified form last summer on Facebook.