Whether you love it or hate it, Frozen has nonetheless changed the landscape of feature animation in a big way. One of the major ways it did so was in validating the power of an animated female protagonist at the box office.
An article from The Vancouver Sun had recently written an interesting article that was focused around such topic.
The Little Prince‘s Female Lead
First, it highlighted one of this year’s upcoming features: Mark Osborne’s adaptation of The Little Prince. In adapting the 1943 novella, which revolved around a relationship between a stranded pilot and a young prince from a distant planet, Osborne mad the creative decision early on to include a framing story that revolved around a young girl and her encounter with the pilot as an old man.
Apart from taking a very complex tale and filtering it through a more accessible lens, Osborne told The Vancouver Sun that the decision was also made as a conscious subversion of what would have been a male-dominated narrative:
In animation, it always had to be boy-centric. Right now there seems to be a changing of the tide but these things don’t happen overnight. These movies take years to make, so back when I was first pushing to make the little girl the main character it was seen as quite revolutionary.
Osborne’s insistence on having the girl be the main character was inspired by a 2010 study by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. This study, which had included the first Kung Fu Panda (a film that Osborne co-directed), highlighted a lack of female speaking parts and leading roles compared to males in animated features.
Studios Prior Reluctance
While there were female-led animated features being made before Frozen came along, they weren’t exactly being made in abundance and studios were initially hesitant to take a chance on one if any of them flopped.
But thanks to Frozen, the tides have begun to change rapidly on that front, with a number of upcoming animated films now featuring female characters in leading or very prominent parts.
Taking this year for example, we had DreamWorks Animation’s Home, Pixar’s Inside Out, and Illumination Entertainment’s Minions, in which the human lead character is a female mad scientist (Sandra Bullock as Scarlet Overkill).
Looking ahead, 2016 will bring Disney’s Moana, DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls, and Pixar’s Finding Dory, a sequel to Finding Nemo that puts the focus on the female blue tang fish with a short attention span.
Much like how The Hunger Games has inspired new confidence in female-led action films, Frozen has done the same for feature animation. In general, they have both successfully challenged notions that males won’t go see films with girls in starring roles. But beyond the surprise of success, studios are now seeing the commercial viability behind the shift as well.
Paul Degarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak, noted that the success of female-led animated features also open the door for lucrative merchandising and franchise opportunities that go beyond hits at the box office. Hence why Disney has decided to go ahead with Frozen 2, and why a sequel to Home might not be far off.
Directors’ Personal Experience in Selecting Lead Gender
But one factor that hasn’t yet been taken into account are the personal reasons behind making animated films with female leads. At least, with the directors that were highlighted in the article, they didn’t decide to do female-led films just for the sake of it.
Pete Docter, director of Inside Out, told the website that the film is “a personal story about my daughter.”
In fact, much of the inspiration for the film came from witnessing the mood swings of his daughter Elie.
For Jonas Rivera, the main concern was being able to craft a story that could appeal audiences of both genders:
As a proud father of daughters, (depicting) the joy and sadness that’s within Riley, we are proud of that. That’s the world, and I think it is good for our daughters and sons.
For The Little Prince, Osborne was also inspired by his daughter, Maddie:
While she was growing up, I was always excited by movies like ‘Mulan,’ that had a strong female central character. I think I was really focused on that when we were making ‘Kung Fu Panda’ and very happy that we were creating strong female characters with Tigress and (Viper).
He even points out the works of Hayao Miyazaki as motivation for him when he realized that he could do more:
I’m like, if Miyazaki can do it over and over, why shouldn’t we be able to do it?
Again, it’s a timely subject in the animation world. Even more so since this year’s Annecy festival will be devoted to highlighting women animators, filmmakers, and talent in the animation industry.
All Animated Females the Same?
The article ended surprisingly by pointing out recent criticisms aimed towards Disney and Pixar concerning their approach to drawing female characters with similar features and little variety.
Pete Docter even took it upon himself to address those criticisms, referring specifically to a vocal post on Tumblr when saying that it was “a little bit selective in which females she was selecting,” whilst pointing to the variety of female characters on The Incredibles. That being said, he admitted that it was easy to “fall into a rut.”
It’s a challenge for sure. We really need to push and (say): ‘How can we do something that’s not been done before? How can we push this?
But in the end, the biggest lesson seems to be that boys will watch a film if its good. Similarly, the most important thing to remember (and the easiest thing to forget when it comes to this subject) is that audiences in general will flock to the theaters to see an animated film if its simply good.
Do you think there is a shift in female leads in animated films? What is your opinion on the subject?
Edited by: Morgan Stradling