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Pixar has always been a boys’ club

Rashida Jones is right: Pixar has failed to give women and people of colour as much creative control as white men.

Everybody loves Pixar films. How could you not? Toy Story is a stone cold classic, WALL-E is adorable, Finding Nemo is a perfect story. Don’t pretend you didn’t cry your little eyes out at Up and Inside Out. So what’s the problem?

Yesterday, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story accusing John Lasseter, the chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios and director of several Pixar films, of misconduct, including “grabbing, kissing [and] making comments about physical attributes”. Lasseter later released a statement apologising for “missteps” (including “an unwanted hug or any other gesture”) and announced he would be taking a six-month leave of absence.

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, several outlets jumped to conclusions about why Rashida Jones and Will McCormack – who had originally signed on to write the Toy Story 4 screenplay together – had left the film, with many falsely assuming Jones had been harassed by Lasseter. But the pair claim another kind of unequal workplace treatment caused them to quit.

“We did not leave Pixar because of unwanted advances. That is untrue,” the two wrote in a joint statement. “We parted ways because of creative and, more importantly, philosophical differences. There is so much talent at Pixar, and we remain enormous fans of their films. However, it is also a culture where women and people of color do not have an equal creative voice.”

In the absence of inside knowledge of how Pixar functions as a workplace, looking at the credits on their films provides some back-up for Jones and McCormack: since its inception, Pixar has been a white boys’ club.

Pixar has released 19 films since 1995. Almost all of those films have been directed by white men. There are some exceptions: The Good Dinosaur was directed by Korean-American Peter Sohn. Brave is directed by both Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman. Filipino animator Ronnie del Carman is listed as the co-director of Inside Out, while Pete Docter gets the main directing credit (just “director”, without the “co-”). There are only currently white men attached as directors to upcoming projects.

Of the 109 major writing credits across Pixar’s films, only 12 go to women or people of colour. 15 of Pixar’s 19 films feature a white male voice lead.

In their statement, Jones and McCormack added: “We encourage Pixar to be leaders in bolstering, hiring and promoting more diverse and female storytellers and leaders. We hope we can encourage all those who have felt like their voices could not be heard in the past to feel empowered.”

Lasseter mentioned no such changes in his statement, instead saying, “My hope is that a six-month sabbatical will give me the opportunity to start taking better care of myself, to recharge and be inspired, and ultimately return with the insight and perspective I need to be the leader you deserve.” It remains to be seen whether this will be enough to start a radical culture change at the studio.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.

Credit: The Bureau/Film4 Productions/British Film Council
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Lean on Pete builds on the proud history of horses in film

Cinema’s equine love affair is in no danger of dimming.

The mane attraction in cinemas next week is Andrew Haigh’s film adaptation of Willy Vlautin’s novel Lean On Pete, the story of a teenage boy and the horse he rescues.

If there’s any justice, audiences will gallop rather than trot to see it. Anyone who hasn’t read the book could be forgiven for expecting an inspirational, uplifting tale. Maybe, like the kid in Carroll Ballard’s beautiful, dialogue-light 1979 film The Black Stallion, the hero of Lean On Pete will train his four-legged companion to be a champion racehorse. But that isn’t how things turn out. Not even close. Haigh’s picture has more in common with Au hasard Balthazar, Bresson’s plaintive 1966 study of the sad life of a donkey, or Ken Loach’s Kes. Boy and horse help alleviate the other’s loneliness and suffering, at least in the short term, but they reflect it too.

That’s also the role of the horse that 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) finds tied up in Fish Tank, and attempts to liberate. As its title suggests, Andrea Arnold’s 2009 drama is not short on nature metaphors; there’s also a dog called Tennents, and a carp that meets a sticky end. To be honest, the horse is probably pushing things a bit. Don’t you see? It’s really Mia and she wants to set it free because she herself yearns to be emancipated! Yeah, yeah, we get it. But such objections count for little next to the sheer physical might of a horse on screen. There’s no getting around it. Did you ever see a horse that didn’t exude awesomeness, magnificence and film-star charisma? They’ve got what it takes.

Trigger was first out the gate. Though when Olivia de Havilland rode him in The Adventures of Robin Hood, he was still going by the name Golden Cloud, which sounds uncomfortably like an obscure sexual practice. Roy Rogers coughed up $2,500 to buy him, then changed the animal’s name when his co-star Smiley Burnette remarked that the beast was “quick on the trigger.” It stuck. Trigger and Rogers first appeared together in 1938 in Under Western Stars. Down the years, other horses sometimes stood in for him, so estimates vary as to how many appearances the horse-formerly-known-as-Golden-Cloud actually made. You’d need a photo finish, though, to tell the difference.

A horse plays a vital part in Valeska Grisebach’s recent Western, a tense and mysterious study of German labourers working in Bulgaria. The title demands at least one horse, I suppose, as well as the various macho stand-offs that occur in the course of the film, but its presence introduces an air of nobility and calm amidst the general lawlessness. “Horses make everything alright,” says a character in Willy Vlautin’s most recent novel, Don’t Skip Out On Me, and you’d have to agree. When the horse in Western is imperilled, you know trouble is a-coming. Look what happened in The Godfather.

Horse sense tells you these creatures have got to be respected. In the sort-of Bond movie Never Say Never Again (essentially a second adaptation of Thunderball, made possible due to complicated copyright reasons pertaining to the original novel), there’s a nasty stunt in which a horse leaps from a great height into the ocean, hitting the water upside down. There was a furore about it at the time of release in 1983 and it tends to be excised on those rare occasions when the film is screened today. Quite right, too. The filmmakers’ cavalier attitude toward animal safety really takes the Seabiscuit.

Equine enthusiasts aren’t short of cinematic opportunities to indulge their passion—everything from National Velvet and International Velvet to War Horse, Phar Lap and The Horse Whisperer. Among the various incarnations of Black Beauty, allow me to flag up the 1994 version, adapted and directed by Caroline Thompson, the pen behind Edward Scissorhands. Sadly it has no trace of the stirring theme music from the 1970s television series (surely a contender for greatest TV theme ever) but there is ample compensation in Alan Cummings’s gentle Scottish lilt, which gives Beauty’s internal monologue the ebbing rhythm of a bedtime story. Human roles are shaved bare but David Thewlis gets the sweetest moment, when Beauty steals his doorstep sandwich, gambols about with it victoriously, then showers him in a confetti of crumbs.

Jockeying for position with all these movie horses, though, are some that don’t exist anywhere except in the imagination. I’m referring, of course, to the invisible ones on which King Arthur rides through medieval England in Monty Python and the Holy Grail while his servant follows nearby, clapping together two halves of a coconut shell. This was the ultimate case of necessity being the mother of comic invention, since the budget wouldn’t stretch to actual horses. It’s just a shame that when Arthur later encounters three fabled knights, their catchphrase turns out to be “Nii!” rather than “neigh.”

Lean On Pete opens 4 May. Western is on release.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.