The once all-white world of feature animation is quickly fading away as minority and ethnic characters take center stage in a variety of recently released and upcoming films.
From Disney's "Mulan," last summer's successful animated musical about a Chinese girl, to DreamWorks' current release "The Prince of Egypt," about Moses and ancient Hebrews and Egyptians, to Warner Bros.' spring release "The King and I," characters of color are popping up all over in the suddenly wide world of animation.
The renderings of Asian, Native American, Arabic and Egyptian cultures present certain challenges to feature animators, who only recently have charted foreign locations. Still, others question why Hollywood has yet fully to explore the African American experience.
"For a lot of producers, it's dangerous ground," says Floyd Norman, an African American story artist on "Mulan" who's been in the animation business since 1956. "They're reluctant to use blacks because they might offend people of color, or they don't know how to handle black characters."
Disney's future lineup of animated features includes "Atlantis," in which a multiracial group of explorers discovers a lost city, and "Kingdom of the Sun," a tale of a boy who stumbles upon a lost ancient Inca civilization.
"As artists, we're trying to make the characters appealing," says Norman, who notes that Disney and other studios are moving away from the all-American WASPish model that characterized animated films from the days of "Snow White." (Depictions of nonwhite characters could often be embarrassing; in Disney's 1941 "Dumbo," the jive-talking black crows spoke in an Amos 'n' Andy dialect and appeared to be based on stereotypes of African Americans.)
Norman was a story sketch artist on Disney's "The Jungle Book" (1967), and he recalls how the Indian character of Mowgli resembled a kid from Van Nuys.
"If we were doing 'Jungle Book' today, I would guarantee that Mowgli would look Indian in appearance," Norman says. "Not just darker skin, but his features would be more Indian."
But times have changed, he says. "In 'Mulan,' they made Chinese characters look Chinese and stayed away from that generic Disney formula," Norman says, adding that Disney employed a number of Asian artists including co-writer Rita Hsiao and artistic supervisor Chen Yi-Chang. "You have to be true to your subject matter. Of course, the obvious thing is that you don't want to go after a racial stereotype and offend people. [But in "Mulan"] I felt we didn't have to soft-pedal the facial features."
Indeed, physical features and skin tones can be a tricky issue for animators. Bonne Radford, who's producing DreamWorks' "The Road to El Dorado" with Brooke Breton, says artists must be aware how the tones of flat, two-dimensional characters can clash with a colorful background.
"The Road to El Dorado" is DreamWorks' animated story about a couple of Spanish ne'er-do-wells and their adventures among 15th century Aztec and Mayan cultures. The movie features the voices of Edward James Olmos, Armand Assante and Rosie Perez and is tentatively scheduled for a fall release.
"If you have a really rich background, sometimes skin tones just blend, whether they're white, black or whatever," Radford says. "So you have to adjust because you have to read the characters."
With today's cartoons depicting foreign locations and ethnic cultures, animators must balance story appeal with authenticity. "We tried to capture as authentically as possible not just the skin tones but the facial characteristics," says "Prince of Egypt" producer Penney Finkelman Cox. "[But] you can only speculate. We knew that Egyptians have a darker-hued skin tone than Caucasians, and we tried to go in that direction."
While "The Prince of Egypt" consists mostly of Hebrew and Egyptian characters, Finkelman Cox explains that Jethro, the priest of Midian and Moses' father-in-law, is Nubian. (Ancient Nubia was located in northeastern Africa and its inhabitants were of black African descent.) In the movie, Danny Glover is the voice of Jethro.
"The nature of the character changed," says Finkelman Cox. "At one point [Jethro] was comedic, then he evolved into a very wise, spiritual presence."
Still, Jethro might be the only black animated character around DreamWorks for awhile. "In the four years I've been at DreamWorks, no one has pitched us an Afro-American [animated] story," Finkelman Cox says. "It's a lack of anyone getting out there and developing it."
But John Semper--an African American producer and writer of TV's animated "Kid 'N Play" from the early '90s and Fox's current "Spiderman" series, recently nominated for an NAACP Image Award--says animated feature stories about black characters don't get made because studios and audiences are not open to them.
"What I have found is that people are still very much in the 'Beauty and the Beast' mold," Semper says. "I think 'Mulan' is a step in the right direction. But [these cartoons] are period pieces. Nobody's making [animated] movies about contemporary times.
"There is a belief that black characters don't sell overseas," Semper says. "So if you're going to do a black character, make him one of the [animal] characters to sell overseas. Make him Eddie Murphy as a dragon [in "Mulan"] or Whoopi Goldberg as a hyena [in "The Lion King"]. You can still have a black character; you just don't have to have it be black."
In 1992, Hyperion Animation's "Bebe's Kids" focused on the hip-hop culture of African American youth. The movie earned only $4 million at the box office.
"If 'Bebe's Kids' had been done with a family of urban dogs, it might have been more successful," Semper says.
It's no surprise that major Hollywood studios prefer to hedge their bets on animated characters with proven marketability. "We had an established story to work from," says Robert Mandell, executive producer of "The King and I," a Morgan Creek Prods. / Warner Bros. Family Entertainment animated movie based on the popular Rodgers & Hammerstein musical. The film features eight musical numbers and is scheduled for a spring release. Richard Rich ("The Swan Princess") directs.
"The King and I" is based on the account of an English widow who ventures to Thailand to serve as governess to the king's children in the 19th century.
"We know audiences already accept these characters," says Mandell. "As far as Warner Bros. is concerned, it's a very important project for the international marketplace as well as the domestic marketplace," Mandell says.
But without a guaranteed audience, producers seem less enthusiastic about an African American animated movie. "I think that's the perception, but I don't agree with it," says Disney's Norman. "Many producers might perceive that black animated films won't sell. Personally, I think that's bogus."