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Sunday
Sep092012

ANIMATION IN BLACK AND WHITE: ARE HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS RACIST?

The third installment of the Madagascar franchise again raises questions as to whether or not Hollywood studios all to often rely upon racially-based humour and coarse ethnic characterisations in their animated blockbusters. At best, it represents lazy, uninspired writing; at worst, the implications are extremely worrying...

Madagascar 3 clearly exists to milk further cash from the animated family-film demographic already enamoured with the adventures of Alix, Melman, Marty and Gloria. Dreamworks Animation cartoons are generally awful (the Kung Fu Panda films being the exception that proves the rule) and reek of ambition-free, focus-group origination. Directors Eric Darnell, Tom McGrath and Conrad Vernon hurl colour and movement at the screen to appease the kids (taking their cue from Pixar’s worst, Cars 2) but, with no discernible adherence to plot, comedy or character, it’s an endurance test for parents.

But there is a more pertinent and deeply troubling reason to look upon Madagascar 3 with derision. The reliance upon crass racial stereotypes in the script by Darnell and indie-film poster boy Noah Baumbach (pictured, right) is remarkable in this day and age of cultural sensitivity. But Madagascar 3 goes there, unashamedly inflicting upon the littlies some of the most broadly distorting depictions of race you are likely to see in 2012.

Our heroes – with whom we are familiar after the box office success of Madagascars 1 (very good) and 2 (underwhelming) – are all descendants of the continent of Africa. But their specific origins have never been identified; despite being a continent comprised of 47 countries, it appears to be enough to bundle them together as just ‘African’. They are just from ‘over there’. Though they longed for their homeland in the previous films, by #3 nothing about them says they are happy with their place of birth, portrayed as a dusty, barren wasteland. In fact, the film begins with them pining to get back ‘home’, aka New York City Zoo.

At the start of the second act when the slim plot presents itself and our heroes join a circus train, a whole new wave of stereotypical ‘foreign’ animals join the fray. A Beningni-esque idiot seal who is Italian for no apparent reason (no seal species are native to Italian coastal regions); a tiger that recalls the Dolph Lundgren ‘Drago’ character from that Reagan-era travesty, Rocky 4; a pack of crotchety ‘cockney’ dogs.

Oh, and we’ve already met the film’s villain, Chantel Dubois (pictured, left), a snivelly, conniving French animal control officer. It is a caricature so grotesque it is inconceivable that any French actress of note would have been party to it; instead, Frances McDormand steps in to Clouseau-up her resume. That the organisers of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival saw fit to roll out the red carpet for the cast and crew is utterly bewildering, given the French film industry’s views on a) Hollywood’s bullying dominance of the world film market, and b) the portrayal of French characters in the most anachronistic of guises.

Before you come at me with “Oh, it’s just a kids’ movie”, I ask you to consider the impact that the cartoon characters of every modern generation’s childhood have had upon their collective psyche. Try getting fresh incarnations of a Pepe le Pew or a Hong Kong Phooey (or, for that matter, that deep south racist, Foghorn Leghorn) on Saturday morning television today. Such grotesque manifestations have been banished to the ironic realms of Adult Swim or Family Guy.

And it is not the first time that Hollywood animators have been questioned about their racially insensitive characterisations. The Disney Studio has sporadically copped flak for its insensitivity to, or downright exploitation of, ethnic stereotypes in films like Dumbo, The Jungle Book, Lady and The Tramp, Oliver and Company, Aladdin, Pocahontas (pictured, right), Tarzan, Mulan, The Lion King and The Princess and The Frog. Pixar has dodged the issue of racial stereotyping in its films by largely making every lead character a white male (less racist, but certainly exhibiting a narrow field of vision); much was made of the recent film Brave and the fact it was the first Pixar heroine in 25 years (and feel free to discuss amongst yourself the portrayal of that film’s Scottish characters).

Dreamworks took a lot of heat for its Italo-American sea life in the Mafia-themed Shark Tale and, as aesthetically lovely as the films are, the aforementioned Kung Fu Panda series has its fair share of questionable ethnic prosaism. But commentators have been particularly scathing of Dreamworks’ use of African-American voice actors to ‘urbanize’ support characters such as Chris Rock as Madagascar’s sassy, dippy zebra Marty or, perhaps most famously, Eddie Murphy’s Donkey (pictured, right) from the Shrek franchise. Accusations centring on these characters perpetuating the ‘minstrel’ archetype litter the blogsosphere.

Critics seem to generally give animated films a pass mark when judging character traits, largely ignoring obvious ‘ethnic comedy’ because it is all in the name of making kids laugh. I’m all for kids laughing, of course, but also hope that none of our future leaders are forming opinions of foreign cultures based upon the picture Hollywood paints. Imagine the following dialogue between parent and child after viewing Madagascar 3: “Mommy, why did the seal talk funny and act so stupid?”, “He was Italian, honey.”

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