by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)
This year, DreamWorks Animation celebrates its 20th anniversary. To mark the occasion, Callum Petch is going through their entire animated canon, one film a week for the next 30 weeks, and giving them a full-on retrospective treatment. Prior entries can be found here, should you desire.
18] Monsters vs. Aliens (7th November 2008)
Budget: $175 million
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%
In 2012, Pixar made major waves by releasing Brave, their first animated feature in the 26 years that they had existed (17 since they started releasing feature films) to feature a lead female protagonist. Conversation about the film primarily revolved around this aspect and the company was roundly praised and criticised for the execution of said creative choice. In late 2013, Disney released Frozen and one couldn’t move in 2014 without being drowned in think-pieces about whether the film was feminist or not. 2014 has also been the year in which the lack of female characters in films, long since held onto by movie executives who believe that female leads can’t carry non-romance movies – despite these past several years offering a laundry list to the contrary, and women now making up the majority of cinemagoers – has been roundly called out and questioned at large.
You can extend those questions of representation to the animated realm, too. For example, Pop Quiz: name me five non-sequel Western animated films released in cinemas in the past 10 years that feature a lead female protagonist… who is not, or does not become, a princess. Not a secondary lead character – so throw away Wreck-It Ralph – not a love interest, the lead character. Off the top of my head, I can name Persepolis (which is cheating, seeing as it is based on a true story), Coraline, The Croods, this week’s film Monsters vs. Aliens… No, that’s about all I can name.
The official list, which I have discovered through Wikipedia so apologies if some of these are wrong, consists of those films, Hoodwinked! (barely qualifies, it’s an ensemble piece by nature), Battle For Terra, Happily N’Ever After (again, barely), The Snow Queen, Anina, Epic and Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return. That’s 11. 11 in 10 years. You can also throw the Tinkerbell series in that pile too – alongside the instalments of series like Barbie, Winx Club etc. that actually get a cinema release and fit the criteria – but it doesn’t change the fact that animation has a major female representation problem. Pixar’s Brave provoked some heated conversation for not adding to that pile – something they will attempt to rectify possibly with next year’s Inside Out – and, although I enjoyed Brave, it’s an understandable thing to rake them over the coals for.
Especially since DreamWorks Animation will have already fulfilled this criteria six years before Inside Out attempts to.
Despite appearances, Monsters vs. Aliens is very resolutely Susan’s story. There are stretches of the film where we hand proceedings over to the monsters or The President Of The United States, but those are basically just borrowing the film from Susan for a short while. At its core, at its centre, Monsters vs. Aliens is a film about a woman who learns to take control of her life and stop taking men’s sh*t. Susan is absolutely the main character, Susan is the character whose arc is the most fleshed out, Susan is the character who gets the lion’s share of the film’s awesome moments (as well as the best of them), and Susan is the emotional centre of the film.
Susan is Monsters vs. Aliens and her tale of female empowerment is why I spent so, so, so much of this film eating out of the palm of its hand. Many stories of female empowerment that I have come across recently – best epitomised by the latest Tomb Raider, which is a videogame but is too relevant to this topic to not address – mistake actual lead female growth for “Let’s constantly put her down and beat her up until she finally turns around and fights back.” They don’t let them grow emotionally, they don’t really let them choose to become powerful. They’re forced into violence, forced into fighting back and they don’t really grow as a person besides a proclivity for violence. There are ways to do this right, don’t get me wrong, but too many times I’ve seen media essentially put their lead female character through a Trauma Conga Line and have them come out of the other side broken but not stronger.
For an example of how to do this right, Monsters vs. Aliens spends much of its first half having bad things happen to Susan. Her fiancée relocates their honeymoon to Fresno instead of Paris in order to try and further his career, she gets hit by a meteor and grows nearly 50 feet tall, she is captured by the military and forcibly locked away in prison, denied the chance to see any of the people she loves ever again, and is renamed “Ginormica” by the government. She takes all of this how pretty much anybody would and retreats into despair, albeit trying to make the best of her situation by making friends with her fellow monsters. When told that she would gain her freedom if she helps take down a giant alien robot, she runs away, not wanting to be put into that situation.
But, and this is the crucial bit, she then stops mid-escape on the Golden Gate bridge to help those people who she has inadvertently put in danger. She risks her own life to help others, even though she has no reason to believe that she would make it out of the encounter alive. Her growth is not motivated by her own survival instinct, it’s motivated by her naturally-being-a-good-person-ness being enhanced by her powers. Susan is not a tormented dog turning around and biting back after being provoked enough because she has no other choice, she is somebody who actively chooses. She chooses her destiny, she chooses her strength, she chooses to embrace her new role.
After the robot battle, Susan is on Cloud Nine. She’s discovered a strength and a near-independence she didn’t know came with her personality, and she is proud of that fact! And that pride ends up becoming a defining feature of her character. Derek dumps her because Derek is a selfish dick, but he doesn’t take her pride with him. If anything, he re-enforces her independence. Naturally, she’s heartbroken for a short while, but the experience reminds her of how much more she’s accomplished by herself without holding the hand of Derek and that re-asserts her confidence. When she’s captured by Gallaxhar, she doesn’t even pretend to play the scared damsel, she’s immediately breaking out and trying to kick ass. When she’s de-powered, her first instinct is still to try and beat the crap out of Gallaxhar. When she’s home free but her friends are trapped, she goes back and sacrifices her prior life to save them.
And she makes all of these choices herself. Her agency becomes the drive for the film. Whenever somebody else tries to snatch her agency away from her, she takes it, or tries to take it, right back. Derek dumps her and breaks her heart; she seizes the wake-up call and announces that she will go on without him, no problem. Gallaxhar kidnaps her; she immediately breaks free and rampages across the ship in an attempt to beat him down in response. Gallaxhar takes her powers; her first instinct is still to try and take him down. About to be swarmed by clones? Susan immediately grabs a blaster and starts fending for herself. Her friends are set to die? Not whilst there’s still breath in Susan’s body!
She’s strong of mind, strong of personality. Her ability to kick copious amounts of ass is just another side to her – it’s not the only side to her and it’s not the only way she asserts her independence as a woman. She is – and I know that people absolutely detest this phrase but I can’t think of a better time to deploy it than now – a Strong Female Character. Way stronger than anything that DreamWorks had concocted up to this point – way more so than the supposedly progressive Shrek series and waaaaaaaaay more so than the supposedly-openly-feminist Shrek The Third. In fact, she reminds me at points – not always, their characterisations are rather different after all – of Korra from The Legend Of Korra, especially during her rampage through Gallaxhar’s spaceship which gave me flashbacks to the Korra Book 3 finale – where her kicking ass is not the empowering moment, because she doesn’t, but the fact that she is standing up and actively metaphorically yelling ‘no more!’ at her male oppressor.
This all being said, one could read the scene in which Susan fully rejects her original name and embraces Ginormica instead as yet another example of strong women being equated to masculinity – having to sacrifice their femininity to be happy or strong. However, I think it’s hard to read it fully like that. For one, Susan is rejecting the negative aspects of her old self – her passivity, her dependence on her man, the side of her that smiles and accepts bad things happening to her instead of fighting back – not her entire self. She’s embracing the side she didn’t realise she had until she become Ginormica, so she’s associating that new identity, which combines the best aspects of her old self – compassion, strong loyal bonds – with her newly discovered independence and personal strength; with her new outlook on life.
For two, Ginormica still has a distinctly feminine edge to it, primarily coming from the “a” affixed to the end of the name. It may have been assigned to her by somebody else – formally by General W. R. Monger, more than likely decided by a room full of men – but she has claimed the name back for herself. What started as an unwanted designation turns into a name that she is proud to sport, one that denotes her strength and her femininity. And for three, Susan doesn’t do anything, in this scene or in the remainder of the film’s runtime, that she hasn’t already proven herself capable of doing. She’s not suddenly becoming more masculine, she’s just owning up to the identity that she has now created.
Plus, this scene is just absolutely f*cking amazing and I will hear absolutely no ill will spoken against it.
Yet, I saw pretty much zilch comments about this aspect of the film during my research for this entry. Variety’s review – and I sh*t you not, here, go and follow the link to see for yourself – spends its paragraph on her talking about her in purely visual terms, as a thing to be attracted to and whose looks are the sole thing worth talking about. Empire managed to get a brief segment in about it, Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek notes that the film’s very-unsubtle delivery of that message undermines and grates, but that’s about it. Professional reviewers instead judged it by the usual things they judge animated films by – pretty colours, pop culture jokes, level of heart, nowhere near as good as Pixar – and I count 2 think-pieces at the time on its feminism.
The point I’m trying to make is that there was no conversation. Brave sparked a conversation. Monsters vs. Aliens did not. Pixar sparked a conversation. Disney are deemed worthy of a conversation. DreamWorks were deemed unworthy of that conversation. Now, why do you think that is? After all, as I’ve pointed out time and again throughout this series, DreamWorks are a company with a complicated and storied history with characters of the female gender – next week I’m going to have to talk about Astrid, for example, and I am bracing myself accordingly – shouldn’t we be scrutinising their works the same way we scrutinise Disney or Pixar?
Now, of course, one can explain these away by either noting that a lot has changed in the last five years – hence why I noted the uptick in demands for representation this past year – and that Disney has a longer history than DreamWorks so there’s more to cull from. That first one is sort of understandable, I guess, but the second is what I call shenanigans on. After all, Pixar have only been releasing animated features for 3 years longer than DreamWorks have, and they’ve released less films overall than DreamWorks have. So why do Pixar get preferential treatment?
It probably comes down to that rep that DreamWorks have accumulated. I am not going to go over this in full again, as I have covered it multiple times in this series – hell, that rep is what basically helped kick-start this series in the first place – and it helps none of us if I spend forever repeating myself, but DreamWorks are seen as a commercial outhouse. A factory, if you will, one that pumps out an endless stream of films – at least half of which are sequels – with no semblance of quality control in the hopes that something strikes financial, and maybe also critical if that’s possible, gold. And whilst 2014 has shown that to be completely untrue – three home runs creatively, even if the How To Train Your Dragon series does nothing for me – that’s the rep they’ve acquired and it’s not one that they’re shaking any time soon.
Pixar releases, though, and official Disney releases are seen as events. Because they limit themselves to one film a year, even taking a year off in some cases, each release and each entry into their canon is seen as something special, something to take notice of. It’s why when they release a Cars 2 or a Home On The Range/Chicken Little, everybody is harder on them – those are seen as sullying marks on a track record that has shown it can do better. Yet if DreamWorks releases a sub-par Shrek, everybody shrugs their shoulders and collectively goes, “Well what did you expect?” before proceeding on with their lives. It’s why negative Cars 2 reviews compare it to Pixar’s prior classics, whilst negative Penguins Of Madagascar reviews also compare it to Pixar’s prior classics despite DreamWorks having a rapidly-growing list of quality films of their own to compare themselves to.
Look, I get it, Pixar are The Gold Standard for animation – hopefully still are, I pray to various deities that 2015 is the year in which everybody pulls their fingers out of their arses and gets back to a level somewhere close to where they were operating on up to and including Toy Story 3 – but they should not be the be all end all of conversation in the medium. DreamWorks Animation are one of the biggest and most successful animation companies in the Western world for a reason, and their creative decisions should be getting as much scrutiny as their competitors. You know how many think-pieces I’ve seen on How To Train Your Dragon 2’s gender roles in the past six months? Three. That Tasha Robinson piece from earlier that used the film as a jumping-off point to look at the industry at large, a short blog entry by Margot Magowan, and a list piece by Gina Luttrell.
Next year, both Pixar and DreamWorks are releasing films with female protagonists. Pixar are releasing Inside Out, a film about the various emotions inside a 10 year-old girl’s mind, DreamWorks are releasing Home, a film about a black teenage girl who teams up with a not-particularly smart alien to thwart a double invasion of Earth. I guarantee you that Inside Out will be talked about and scrutinised more for its depiction of the female gender than Home ever will be. I mean, I’m also pretty sure that Inside Out will be a better film than Home as well, but that’s not the point.
The point is that we can’t and shouldn’t pick and choose which animated films and which animation studios are worth hard analysis. This is a medium that deserves to be taken seriously – as I have repeatedly made clear in articles on this site – and that’s not going to happen until we look at everything with the same staunchly critical and analytical eye that we do for Pixar and Disney. Do you think I wrote 3,108 words on Sinbad: Legend Of The Seven Seas because I had nothing better to do with my time? I mean, I don’t, but the point is that Sinbad had that much going on in it that I didn’t need to work especially hard to hit my self-assigned word count. Ditto films like The Nut Job, or Escape From Planet Earth, or the Tinker Bell series. They’re not high art, but they are still worthy and capable of supporting in-depth discussion.
And so does Monsters vs. Aliens, which I believe is a very feminist film. It’s not a perfect feminist film – Susan is still the only girl, girl-ish screams are the focal point for a very long gag, “You got beat by a girl” is deployed as an insult form but at least in a dramatic way that affects character work this time – but I believe that it is still a loud, proud and powerfully feminist film about female self-empowerment. I may be wrong. Hell, I want to be wrong; I want a hundred feminist critics – preferably women, who have far more of a say in this discussion than I do – to come charging down the hill and take up both sides of the argument, either agreeing with my assessment or disagreeing and showing me ten to fifteen reasons why.
I want to see lengthy conversations about the film’s messy structure, about its uninteresting villain, about why the humour does or does not work, about whether the art style works or just ends up freaking the writer out for the length of the film, about how badly the unspoken “All Animated Movies Must Be 90 Minutes Under Pain Of Death” rule hobbles the film from excellency. All things I would have talked about at length had I the time – although, for the record: awkwardly paced first half but the film soars from San Francisco onwards, script doesn’t give him anything to do, too low-brow for the most part and the film’s very dramatic undercurrent means that the attempts at parody undercut proceedings, takes a while to get used to but at least makes Susan and the monsters look great, and this needed to be 2 hours or even a full season of TV – and all things I could have easily based at least half an article of this length on individually.
Point is, I want a conversation to start. Animation needs a conversation if it’s going to better itself and be fully respected, and that conversation needs to cover everyone – not just critical golden boy Pixar and good old Disney. DreamWorks Animation should be allowed in on that conversation, regardless of its past or its very commercial and prolific nature. I am one of about three people talking about feminism and non-Shrek DreamWorks films. This should not be the case. So, start conversing.
Monsters vs. Aliens continued DreamWorks Animation’s re-ascension to quality filmmaking in the eyes of critics, although the film’s major underperformance overseas prevented it from being the financial smash that the studio would have liked. It wasn’t a failure, though, and so the company would close out the decade – Monsters vs. Aliens being their only release for 2009 – on a decent note with the company still looking strong. Their first film of the new decade, though, would take everybody by surprise and be seen as the company’s new Magnum Opus, as well as the start of a very successful new franchise.
Next week, we look at the first How To Train Your Dragon.
A new edition of DreamWorks! A Retrospective will be posted here every Monday at 1PM BST!
Callum Petch should have cut his losses long before he knew. Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!