Pixar’s Girl Story by Joel Stein
Until I visited Pixar’s offices, I did not know that 12-year-old boys were allowed to run major corporations. Yet I am walking through the lobby, and the room to my right is full of plastic bins dispensing every kind of cereal, free. Men pedal scooters past me. On Friday mornings an employee named Mark Andrews stands on the front lawn in a kilt, challenging co-workers to actual sword fights.
Deep in the back of the giant main building on Pixar’s 22-acre campus in Emeryville, Calif., animators work inside toolsheds designed like castles, jungles and Old West jails. In one office, a fake bookshelf opens onto a secret lounge. Guys carry official Pixar laminated cards in their wallets that read, “This card entitles the bearer to one Star Wars reference in a meeting.”
Even weirder: all the adults kind of look like 12-year-old boys. In fact, as I’m walking upstairs toward a display of clay model cars festooned with spy gadgets, a man passes by who looks precisely like the little boy in the movie Up. It turns out he’s animator Peter Sohn. And the boy in Up was based on him.
There are no rooms full of princess costumes to dress up in. No frosting stations. Not one My Little Pony poster.
Pixar has a girl problem.
All 12 of its unfathomably successful movies—which have made more than $7 billion at the box office, not counting toys, clothes, Disney rides, video games and TV shows—have male leads. Very male leads: cowboys, astronauts, robots, cars, Ed Asner. Pixar has been aware of this problem since its first feature film, Toy Story, back in 1995. “After we made Toy Story, my wife Nancy said, ‘Can you make strong female characters for me and your nieces?’” says John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer. He, too, looks a lot like a 12-year-old boy, wearing his regular workday uniform of a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, sitting in his huge L-shaped office lined with shelf after shelf of toy cars and trains.
So Lasseter, who has five sons and no daughters, added the cowgirl Jessie as the third lead in Toy Story 2 and 3. He added a female spy as the fourth lead in Cars 2. But an idea for a story with a female lead never jelled. In 2003 he hired Brenda Chapman, who had been story supervisor on Disney’s The Lion King and was one of three co-directors of DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, and asked her to pitch an idea for a film.
“She just pitched one story. Usually a director will pitch a bunch of stories, but John just glommed onto this right away,” says Steve Russell, who worked directly under Chapman on the idea that became Brave, Pixar’s 13th feature film (in theaters June 22). Lasseter made Chapman the first woman to direct a Pixar movie.
Chapman’s idea was a fairy tale about a princess, which wasn’t necessarily going to be exciting news for Pixar’s feminist critics. Or Pixar’s staff. “Brenda was telling me about it, and my eyes glazed over. Princess, king, mother-daughter, ancient kingdom—all words I didn’t like to think about,” says Steve Pilcher, the film’s production designer. Still, after hearing her full pitch, he signed on the same day. He liked that Chapman aimed to subvert the princess narrative in the same way Pixar’s The Incredibles tweaked superhero stories.
Liz is rad. :D