The Brave and the Bold

Disney, and why character design matters.

This post was originally shared on my tumblr in May of 2013. I repost it here in case it is useful to anyone.

I recently posted a link on Facebook to this petition regarding the redesign of Merida from Brave that Disney is reportedly doing to include her in the Disney Princess line and I got this response.

“I don’t get the hoopla over this. Apart from wearing a different outfit and being drawn by a different artist, I don’t really see a difference. Is it that a woman without a weapon is weak?”

Character design matters.

If there’s one thing the character design class I took in college stressed more than anything else it’s that a good character design informs the viewer who the character is, what they are like. What they wear, how they stand, how they do their hair, the shape of their face, their standard expressions, what they carry with them, these are all vital decisions in a good design.

Few have embraced this philosophy more wholeheartedly than Disney. Take a look at some of these designs and think about how well the designer conveys the basic concepts of the character through the design alone.

image source
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Disney knows how to do this and their choices are deliberate. A misstep in the design of a character can make the difference between one that is marketable and one that is not. That’s extremely important to Disney, and a task that they do not treat cavalierly. If you have to sum up the character in just one image, like you often have to do with marketing materials or toys, qualities like the ones listed above are the only tools you have.

Artistic Interpretations

The argument that a character always looks somewhat different when a different artist draws them doesn’t apply when you’re talking about Disney. If you think I’m wrong, think of how many drawings you’ve seen Disney publish of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Aladdin, or Woody that look exactly like they did in the movies. While things like comics have some leeway to veer off model a bit, marketing materials need to match as closely as possible to key images and are scrutinized by Disney for inaccuracies. I’ve had friends who have drawn licensed properties professionally and, in general, if you aren’t able to keep your drawing “on model” you aren’t going to keep working on the project. The point being that the changes in the design of Merida were most likely not a decision made by an individual artist on a whim, but something that Disney has signed off on.

An Experiment

Think about the choices that were made in designing the original Merida and the ones that were made in the redesign.

If you were asked to design a character that was a beautiful, rough and tumble, Scottish adventurer who was technically a princess but rebelled against the frill, pomp, and sexisim that came with her post, what are some good choices you could make?

  • You could dress her in a plain green wool dress that fits with her earthy surroundings.
  • You could give her a wide, plain face, and the expressions of a normal attractive girl; likely avoiding the full red lips, thick eyelashes, or pointed jaw that you might find on a princesses such as, say, Cinderella.
  • You could make her standard postures and facial expressions defiant, strong, and powerful.
  • You could give her a weapon and you could make it one of her defining characteristics. If you really wanted to drive the point home, you could make her weapon a defining element of the plot and marketing of the film.

Now, let’s say you were given the task of taking the established Merida design from the film and re-imagining her to more closely resemble the typical damsel in distress that the Disney princess line seems to champion. What choices could you make given that she still needs to be recognizable as the character from the movie?

  • Perhaps you could take her plain wool dress and make it a beautiful gown. You could take the earthy green color and change it to a shimmering turquoise, cover it with sparkles, and drop the neckline over the shoulders.
  • You could add intricate gold embellishment wherever possible including an elaborate foot wide band around the hem of her dress.
  • You could drastically thin her waist and face and thicken her eyelashes.
  • You would have to remove her bow and pouch full of arrows, replacing the strap that held the arrows in place with a wide belt and giant gold belt buckle.
  • Attached to the buckle you could put a shimmering turquoise scarf.
  • You could change her standard postures and facial expressions from aggressive, assertive, and defiant to sassy, cute, and submissive.
Do the above descriptions sound like something the character from the film would be excited about?

Who would win in a fight, Bruce Wayne or Disney Princess Merida?

Now, you could point out that the redesign isn’t that much of a stretch. Merida does wear a more glamorous gown in the movie that does, with the help of an excruciatingly painful corset, make her appear much thinner. She is sometimes sassy. Both points are true and a good choice for the filmmakers to have made. Allowing a character to have multiple different qualities, sometimes contradictory, can make a story better, but we’re not talking about a story in this circumstance. We’re talking about marketing.

When you market a character you have to boil them down to their essential elements. Take Batman for example. Bruce Wayne can sometimes be dressed to the nines; handsome and glamorous, but when you choose the images you’re going to use to market Batman those qualities don’t come up so much. You want Batman to be strong, heroic, aggressive, adventurous, and sometimes menacing. That’s why the children’s section at Walmart has a lot of things that look like this:

and less that look like this:

Merida was originally marketed similarly. She was depicted in trailers and posters as strong, determined, adventurous, beautiful, and heroic.

This redesign de-emphasizes those qualities and pushes for a Merida that is more glamorous, sassy, and passive.

I drew a brief sketch of a corresponding version of Batman:

Here’s a link to that petition again.

Matthew Bogart is the cartoonist behind the graphic novel The Chairs’ Hiatus and Oh, It’s the End of the World which you can download for free here.