Friday, June 22, 2012

Finally Brave

Today marks the premiere of this year's Pixar offering: Brave. As many news articles and reviews have pointed out, Brave is notable as the first Pixar film to have a female protagonist. Sure, they've had a few important female characters in some of their movies--Helen, EVE, Jessie, Dory--but the main characters at the center of each of their first 12 films were all male. In fact, I'd say only two female characters in previous Pixar films have even held the distinction of playing the second lead role (The Incredibles, WALL-E).

I actually wrote about this problem three years ago, when DreamWorks Animation was releasing its first film with a female protagonist (Monsters vs. Aliens), after 11 male-led CG feature films. I figure I might as well update my lists for Pixar and DreamWorks films and their protagonists...

CG feature films (and main character, females in bold):

1. Toy Story (Woody)
2. A Bug's Life (Flik)
3. Toy Story 2 (Woody)
4. Monsters, Inc. (Sulley)
5. Finding Nemo (Marlin)
6. The Incredibles (Mr. Incredible)
7. Cars (Lightning McQueen)
8. Ratatoille (Remy)
9. Wall-E (Wall-E)
10. Up (Carl Fredricksen)
11. Toy Story 3 (Woody)
12. Cars 2 (Lightning McQueen)
13. Brave (Merida)

DreamWorks Animation
1. Antz (Z)
2. Shrek (Shrek)
3. Shrek 2 (Shrek)
4. Shark Tale (Oscar)
5. Madagascar (Alex)
6. Over the Hedge (RJ)
7. Flushed Away (Roddy)
8. Shrek the Third (Shrek)
9. Bee Movie (Barry)
10. Kung Fu Panda (Po)
11. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (Alex)
12. Monsters vs. Aliens (Susan)
13. How to Train Your Dragon (Hiccup)
14. Shrek Forever After (Shrek)
15. Megamind (Megamind)
16. Kung Fu Panda 2 (Po)
17. Puss in Boots (Puss)
18. Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted (Alex)

DreamWorks may have beaten Pixar to the punch with its first female protagonist, but now they're tied again. Looking ahead, DreamWorks has seven films with estimated release dates (according to Wikipedia); the last one, scheduled for late 2014, appears to be the only one with a female protagonist. Pixar's next film will be a Monsters, Inc. sequel with the same old male protagonists. I can't determine any characters in The Good Dinosaur, though the following Pixar film, planned for 2015, will at least take place inside a girl's mind. I would hope mainly female characters populate a girl's mind...

So we have some female protagonists now in this highest echelon of children's animated movies (not that there aren't other great kids' films, but these studios are definitely the two powerhouses), though they are still few and far between. As I said in my old post, I understand that film studios and development teams are mostly composed of men, and people like to create stories about what they know and relate to. First of all, they should try to find more women. But in any case, we are not so different that good writers can't write for the opposite sex. Really, if you can get inside the head of a trash-compacting robot who lives with a cockroach on a long-abandoned Earth, you can probably get inside the head of a woman. We're not that mysterious.

I also understand that movies are a business, and if boys respond more negatively to female-led films than girls do to male-led films, that gives studios motivation to release only male-led movies. But as I argued before, if you always release male-led kids films, of course young boys aren't going to learn to appreciate films with female leads. It's basically a self-fulfilling prophesy. Girls deserve characters to look up to just as much as boys do. Girls don't have to be the best friend or the love interest--we can be heroes in our own right. Pixar and DreamWorks films are so popular and successful, I think they can stand to be put a little faith in their storytelling and their audience, be brave, and release more female-starring films. Help little girls dream bigger. This is a good start, but more often than once a decade would be preferable.

It seems preliminary reviews for Brave are positive but not ecstatic. Certainly better than last year's Cars 2, widely recognized as Pixar's worst, but not as magical as the great Pixar films. The primary criticism is that it seems too...Disneyfied. That is, it's a somewhat formulaic princess fairy tale. I have nothing against princess stories if the princess is as capable as Merida, but I do remember some people expressing disappointment upon learning that Pixar's first female-led movie would be about a princess. It seems they had a point.

I remain extremely excited and optimistic about Brave, and I hope it's a huge hit in theaters. I love bows and arrows, I love spunky young female protagonists, and I adore Scottish accents. I will see the movie this weekend, and in all likelihood I will love it. It doesn't matter if Merida is a princess--she's a master archer and a worthy hero for any kid to admire. Thanks, Pixar, just keep the female protagonists coming.

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