Disney

Here's How Animation Is Paving The Way For A More Diverse Hollywood

"If we don’t have a decent message in there, I think we’ve missed an opportunity."

Hollywood's diversity problem is nothing new. In the past year alone, dozens of studies have highlighted the abysmal lack of minority representation both in film and TV and the incredible profitability of diverse casting. But a recent study suggests that animated films are making huge strides towards diversity.

The study, from the Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California, shows that while most Hollywood movies are still about straight white men, last year's animated films saw an increase in speaking characters who don't fit that tired, old description. With films like "The Book of Life," "Inside Out," and "Home" giving voices to often marginalized characters, animation is championing more inclusive storytelling -- and it's only going to get more diverse from here.

20th Century Fox

A still from 20th Century Fox's "The Book of Life."

Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios unveiled their upcoming slate over the weekend at the D23 fan expo, and they have a number of diverse projects currently in production. While diverse films like "Moana" and Pixar's forthcoming "Coco" are certainly steps in the right direction, there's still a lot of work that needs to be done. The majority of Disney's most iconic princesses, for the most part, are white and thin -- and no one is more critical of this than Disney animation head John Lasseter, who has been extremely candid about the creative direction the company is aiming its talents towards.

"It's very important to us... to have female and ethnic characters," Lasseter said during a press conference for "Inside Out" at this past year's Cannes Film Festival. "It's grown in importance over time. As you'll see in future films, we're really paying attention to that."

The first of those films is Disney Animation's "Moana," an ambitious project that also might be one of the studio's most important.

Directed by Disney legends Ron Clements and John Musker -- who are responsible for Disney classics like "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Princess and the Frog" -- "Moana" follows a spirited, Polynesian princess who sails out on a daring mission to fulfill her ancestors' unfinished quest.

Concept art from "Moana."

Per Clements and Musker, the film, set in the South Pacific over 2,000 years ago, will honor the rich history and cultural traditions upheld there. That, and the movie's plucky 16-year-old protagonist, makes "Moana" one of the most culturally diverse films on the studio's slate.

"We've certainly been intrigued by cultures around the world, and by interesting and strong women," Musker told MTV News at D23. "It's been appealing to us for 25 years. I do think animation has a better record when it comes to diversity -- there's still more work that needs to be done."

"When we were doing 'The Princess and the Frog,' the idea of having an African-American heroine and princess was groundbreaking," he added. "And now, seeing little girls dressed up as Tiana during the Disneyland parade, it's moving. They can see themselves in her and don't think that's outside of their possibilities. That's a rewarding thing to see."

However, the decision to make Tiana Disney's first black princess wasn't a calculated move by the directors. It was quite the opposite, actually: purely organic.

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"With each movie, we wonder how to approach it, and with 'The Princess and the Frog,' one thing lead to another, and it just seemed like an American take on a fairytale would be fun," Clements said. "New Orleans was a great city to set an American fairytale in, and Tiana was the right heroine to tell that story. And that's pretty much true of most of the stories we create."

But that doesn't mean that the creators don't feel a social responsibility to the young people they aim to make smile.

"We're very aware of what is happening in society," Chris Buck, co-director of "Frozen," told MTV News. "I don't think any of us take lightly -- even though they're very funny and entertaining -- the messages that our movies have, and the influence that they can have on young people... we want them to see what the world can be."

"Our movies, when kids like them, they watch it over and over and over and over," he added. "And if we don't have a decent message in there, I think we've missed an opportunity."