This weekend, I went to see Big Hero 6 as a well-deserved break from the looming work deadlines that have been keeping me from my blog. (I do miss it when I can’t get at it! My draft box is full of half-baked posts that I’ll probably cut loose and publish when I’ve finished my seasonal projects.) Big Hero 6 is a wonderfully entertaining movie that plays a willing audience’s heartstrings like a fiddle. I enjoyed the roller coaster of feelings, not least because the ride was guided by a cast of male and female characters with distinct personalities and interests. It’s nice to see a few different forms of diversity at play in a blockbuster, and it’s particularly nice to see female characters that challenge some traditional feminine roles while cheerfully embracing others like it’s no big deal. Like real people do. (I’m partial to the character of Honey Lemon, who is Disney-princess-pretty but neither a main character nor a love interest, and is equal parts fashionista and mad scientist.)
So it seemed strange to open a film that makes such conscious, thoughtful choices about gender representation with a short film that makes rather lazy choices. Don’t get me wrong–“Feast” is also an enjoyable roller coaster, packing an ecstatic arc, a devastating conflict, and a joyful resolution into twenty adorable minutes. The short film follows a little Boston terrier stray who is adopted by a man who happens to share the pup’s taste for comfort foods: once hungry on the streets, the terrier finds the dog food bowl in his new home topped with eggs and bacon, spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, and other such human delicacies. Like short stories, animated shorts tend to focus on showing off technique, and there is some striking cinema magic in this film: for one, the little dog’s carefully observed facial and bodily expressions project a deeply lovable and sympathetic character, and for another, the Meander animation process permits the food in the film to flow in a river of beautifully rendered, minutely articulated bounty. (In one memorable scene, the terrier waits patiently for his owner’s football team to score a goal, causing the game-watching friends to kick over a table of snacks which rain Cheetos and chips into the waiting dog’s mouth.)
Spoilers to follow this charming intro. Enter conflict: the dog’s apparently single male owner gets a girlfriend. Suddenly, the feasts of cheesy, meaty human food are replaced by paltry plates of Brussels sprouts. When the dog whines for more food, he gets a spring of parsley as a garnish. The new menu is sparse, cold, and very green, and the formerly generous owner is too busy doing yoga with his lady love to notice his dog’s sad feelings.
Now, one could argue that a short film has to rely on simple paradigms to carry its plot and characters. And for sure, these are recognizable paradigms: new girlfriend changes things; guy’s buddies (and dog) have to adjust! Men are from Meatville; women are from Vegetariana! Women demand health, orderliness, and leafy greens; men otherwise live in meatballs and chaos! But my feeling is that if your goal is to animate adorable dog expressions and a cornucopia of delicious-looking food, surely there are other forms of conflict that would showcase those assets without relying on one of the oldest and most boring of gendered food tropes. (Indeed, one can make an entire feature-length film driven by an adorable mammal’s quest for fine human food, challenged by adversaries in many forms.)
As it is, the well-worn paradigm doesn’t make men or women look very good here. The couple break up, and the dog finds that his life is once again full of donuts, takeout, and other junk–which he devours with glee until he notices that his owner is listless, depressed, and looking sadly at a sprig of parsley. (Yep, the decorative, non-nourishing, non-comforting sprig of parsley becomes a stand-in for the female character.) The little dog brings the sprig like an olive branch to the female character, and the human couple marries. The little dog resigns himself to eating regular old dog food again–until one day! A meatball drops from the sky, thrown from a high chair. Cue outro: with a baby in the house, there is always human food falling and flying, and the terrier can feast again.
So: the appetites of men are like those of dogs and babies. The appetites of women are restrictive and mostly for ornament. Cool story, Disney!