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Dr. Toon: Two for the Show

Dr. Toon shares his take on the announcements of Blue Sky’s Peanuts and Disney’s Sofia the First: Once Upon A Princess.

October of 2012 brought us several noteworthy events relating to mainstream American animation, both of which have cultural repercussions. One is highly positive and well-received, and the other has raised myriad points of controversy.  Both involve animated children, and as usual, the meanings of these events reflect who and where we are in 2012 America.

Image courtesy of Disney.

Working for Peanuts

In 1947, cartoonist Charles Schulz was working for a small hometown newspaper in St. Paul, Minnesota. His offering was a simply-drawn panel strip called L’il Folks. It featured an eponymous little boy named Charlie Brown, although the design tended to vary. Also featured was a dog that could justifiably be called Proto-Snoopy. By 1950 the strip had run its course, and Schulz managed to sell the concept (this time with a recurring cast) to United Features Syndicate. It was UFS, not Schulz, who named the strip Peanuts, referring to the term “peanut gallery”. Schulz hated it, and from then on he controlled every aspect of the strip’s production down to the hand-lettering. On October 2, 1950, Peanuts premiered in nine newspapers. It wouldn’t stay small for very long.

During the next decade the strip, forever bereft of adults, loaded with social commentary, and unafraid to show the unmotivated cruelty of children, became iconic.  What really matters to us is that Peanuts made a leap to the animated world in 1959 when the Ford Motor Company used the characters in a series of car commercials.  Bill Melendez, a veteran of Disney, Warner, and UPA, animated the ads at Playhouse Pictures; it was the beginning of a relationship with Schulz’ kids that would last until 2006.

Beginning in 1965 with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Melendez produced, directed, animated, and even provided voice work for 44 television specials and four theatrical features. By 2008 both he and Schulz had passed away, but the animated Peanuts legacy never did. 335 million people spanning 75 countries would not let it die. And so, through the efforts of Craig Schulz (Charles’ son) and Bryan Schulz (his grandson), Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, and the entire Peanuts gallery will be returning to the big screen for the first time since 1980.

20th Century Fox/Blue Sky will be handling the animation; there had been conflicting reports about the medium of animation that will be used, but at the time of this writing, it seems that the use of CGI is expected. Perhaps the best news is that the picture is being done right. The film won’t premiere until Nov. 25th, 2015 so that it can coincide with the 65th anniversary of the strip and the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Christmas, so there is ample time to ensure the quality of the production. Craig and Bryan Schulz will handle the scriptwriting, along with Cornelius Uliano. Steve Martino, late of Ice Age: Continental Drift and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who will be directing.

Thirty-two years is a long time, especially in the history of animation. Considering the technological changes, the influence of anime, changes in the nature of entertainment (Family Guy and South Park would have been unthinkable in 1980), and changes in studio production itself, one wonders if the Peanuts gang can make the transition to feature films one more time. Can Peanuts entrance a generation raised on today’s animated fare? What sort of box office could it expect to earn?

I’m not sure it matters to the Schulz heirs.  They are fulfilling a legacy.

When the last Charlie Brown film played in theaters, the divorce rate was under fifty percent, brazen, gruesome child abductions were rare, no kid feared being gunned down in a classroom or in a mall, and the technology did not exist to drive children to depression at best or suicide at worst through social media and cell phone cameras. Cyber bullies would have been science-fiction entities in 1980. Humans and zombies did not go down in hyper-realistic florets of blood and cascades of guts on video game screens. The script for the Peanuts movie is unrevealed at this time, and it is my hope that none of these issues are addressed in it.

This film would best be served up as a charming throwback to the strip’s best days – 1965 or thereabouts – just before Snoopy took over as the premier character and merchandising lead. The characters may have engaged in such name-calling as “stupid” and “blockhead”, but their relationships bespoke a time when there was an understanding of community among child peers. The Peanuts characters related to each other more like brothers and sisters, complete with all the put-downs, irritations, and frustrations siblings endure and express.

This is not merely the wish of an aging cartoon fan growing soft; I continue to admire the edgiest animation produced today. It would simply be refreshing to enjoy the film on the terms set by Schulz and Melendez, untouched by edgy irony, revisionist tropes, or meddling forays into modernism.  You’re a good man, Charlie Brown; let’s hope you stay true to the spirit of your creator.

Pretender to the Throne

How do you do wrong by doing right?  That’s what they must be asking themselves at Disney these days. The studio is set to debut its first Latina character (not counting Donna Duck in 1937 I guess), and the backlash from the Hispanic community has not been totally kind. Princess Sofia is set to debut in a television film called Sofia the First on November 18th, and executive producer Jamie Mitchell insists that the young star is “Latina”. The only problem in this noteworthy venture is: you sure can’t tell by looking, reading the script, or checking out her kingdom.

It doesn’t help that said kingdom is mythical. Sofia’s mother is Queen Miranda of Galdiz, who subsequently married Birk Balthazar of Freezenburg. They didn’t conceive the princess until they relocated to Enchancia. Queen Miranda has a darker complexion than Sofia, partly explained by the fact that her dad is, um, Scandinavian, or something similar.  Still, there are Swedes with darker complexions than Princess Sofia, who also has blue eyes and a fluffy coif of light reddish-brown hair. There is something about Sofia that suggests a vaguely ethnic marker, but it’s a good bet – if one didn’t know the context and went by the character’s appearance alone – that ten different people might make ten differing guesses as to Sofia’s nationality.  And this has not pleased many members of the Latino community.

A typical response comes from Alex Nogales, President and CEO for the National Hispanic Media Coalition.  He makes the point that “We need more heroes now that are very identifiable…If you’re going to promote this to the public, and Latinos in particular, do us a favor and make it a real Latina.” Prominent blogger Ana Flores added, “If Disney were truly trying to step out and directly cater to the Latino community that has been crying out for decades for a Latina princess to represent our girls…She would be as Latina as Tiana is black or Pocahontas is Indian-American (sic).” Some Latinos are simply happy that a Latina princess exists at all, but a glance at Sofia the First suggests that they are oddly settling for less.

This is truly one of Disney’s strangest mysteries. As noted, Tiana is black, Pocahontas is indeed Native American, and Mulan was unmistakably Oriental. Not only that, the female protagonists of Lilo and Stitch sported authentic Hawaiian physiognomy. Now, it may be true that Latinos are widely diverse. Some can sport shades of blonde, possess blue eyes, or have very light skin. However, a combination of all three, along with no cultural signifiers (mythological kingdoms don’t really count, do they?) are more suggestive of an Anglo princess, despite what Jamie Mitchell tells us. Dora the Explorer makes Sofia look like Snow White, and her design is far simpler than Sofia’s.

Image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Would it have been that difficult to given Sofia a skin tone at least more in line with her mother’s? There are no mistakes using digital paint, after all. Might she at least have had brown eyes, slightly darker hair? It would have been supremely possible for Disney animators to design a realistic Latina princess without resorting to crass stereotype, so…why didn’t they?

Hispanics are the fastest-growing, largest minority in the United States today, and that is not news that is kindly received among some. Anger over immigration issues, jobs allegedly being taken, and English (rather than Spanish) becoming a second language have fired up many a conservative jeremiad. Some sociologists suggest (perhaps inaccurately) that Hispanics may eventually become the majority in this country due to their greater fecundity. Fear, much of it irrational, more easily finds a home in times of economic uncertainty. As Alex Nogales points out, “We’re in a time when Latinos are taking the blame for everything that is wrong with America.”

In past columns I have smiled benignly upon the Disney Princesses, at the same time noting that they are a billion-dollar industry fueled by countless preteen females. I find myself wondering whether Princess Sofia the First is some sort of bizarre compromise, one in which a Latina Princess is introduced in a watered-down, less threatening form to the white majority in America. Perhaps Disney felt that some sort of transitional step was needed, all the while making Sofia more marketable (and profitable) among Anglo girls. Is this wild conjecture on my part? Could be, but I am drawn to an interesting quote by Disney Channel Vice President of original programming, Joe D’Ambrosia. After averring that Disney deliberately did not play up the idea that Sofia was Latina, D’Ambrosia stated:

“We never actually call it out. When we go into schools [to talk to young students about the show] what I find fascinating is that every girl thinks they’re Sofia.”

Every girl? If so, doesn’t that make Sofia just another Disney princess?  What, then, is the point of Mitchell’s confirmation that Sofia is Latina?

There appears to be an element of confusion here, and it is not helped by looking at Sofia the First. For my part, I wish that Disney had simply given young Latina girls the animated princess they truly deserved, not some compromised version. To paraphrase D’Ambrosia, they should have called it out, loudly and proudly. ¡Basta, Disney!


Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.