“Girl Power” Animated Films Used to Be No Big Deal

I don’t generally watch clips, let alone post them, for upcoming films.  I somewhat dislike the practice of releasing full-blown scenes of upcoming films, as it’s purely spoiler material, plain and simple.  But I will make an exception, as posting the above clip gives me the opportunity to rant about something that came to mind about a month ago while I was on a Disney Cruise with the wife and kids. Point being, there will be any number of essays written over the next few months about how Pixar’s Brave is some kind of groundbreaking picture because it has a female lead, a warrior princess no less.  But its story, which seems to involve a young girl who rebels against her family’s expectations regarding his place in life as a girl in 1300s (?) Scotland (see the teaser and the trailer HERE and HERE).  That’s fine.  The film looks gorgeous and I’m a sucker for Scottish music (Patrick Doyle is handling the scoring duties). Alas, I think it’s frankly downright regressive that we view this film as a feminist breakthrough.  Quite simply, Disney released an animated film back in 1998 starring a female protagonist who rebelled against society’s expectations of her.  Mulan was as much a feminist fable as Brave is selling itself as, and there wasn’t nearly as much huffing-and-puffing about it at the time. Mulan is neither one of the great Disney animated features nor one of the lesser ones.  It’s a rock-solid cartoon, arguably stronger in  its first third when it’s centered on family drama than its later acts which are somewhat dominated by comic supporting characters (Eddie Murphy’s dragon and Mulan’s fellow soldiers).  And, as much as I like Miguel Ferrer, I have never been able to buy his soft-spoken vocals coming out of a massive and physically imposing Hun leader.  But come what may, it is a straight-ahead action picture (with a decent-sized body count to boot) that not only stars a female warrior but explicitly deals with the kind of ‘girls can do what boys can’ messaging that the marketing materials for Brave seem to be emphasizing.  Whether or not Brave will be better or worse than Mulan is beside the point.  When Mulan was released in mid-June of 1998, its female-centric action story was basically treated as ‘no big deal,’ because at the time it somewhat was. Yes, it was unusual to see a female Disney character leading the charge into battle and even killing people as opposed to helping from the sidelines, but the idea of a big-budget cartoon featuring a female was pretty standard in the 1990s.  Even aside from Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, we had Pocahontas in 1995, which featured a headstrong Native American princess who prevented war through a show of moral force. The first big strike against Disney’s monopoly was Fox’s Anastasia in late 1997, which also featured a female lead who engaged in action as well as romance (while both are better films, its amusing to see how The Princess and the Frog and Tangled both take bits and pieces from that now-mostly forgotten picture).  Going all the way up to 2002, with Lilo and Stich, it was just as likely that a major animated film would feature a female protagonist as a male lead.  It wasn’t until the Pixar mold basically took over Disney around 2004  and Shrek solidified animated films as four-quadrant event films that we started to see a run of ‘no girls allowed’ animated films. That’s not a swipe at Pixar or Dreamworks, per se.  The Incredibles, Up, and Toy Story 3 were all my favorite films of their respective years, while Toy Story 2 was second only to The Sixth Sense in 1999 (and it’s so secret Kung Fu Panda 2 was my favorite film of last year).  I would argue that Pixar has worthwhile female supporting characters (Elastagirl, Violet, Dory, Jesse, Atta) in their male-centric narratives (I especially like how the climax of A Bug’s Life involves Hopper kidnapping Flik with Atta flying off to the rescue).  But at the end of the day, the last decade has not been a good time for female-centric animated films, to the point where Dreamworks’ Monsters Vs. Aliens was actually considered ‘a big deal’ in 2009 because it starred Reese Witherspoon in a somewhat feminist narrative.  Yes, the decade closed and a new one opened with The Princess and the Frog and Tangled. but The Princess and the Frog’s gender-demos was blamed for its mere $225 million worldwide take which caused Tangled to be infamously marketed as a boy-friendly adventure. Plus, Tangled marked the official end of fairy tale adaptations even as it out-grossed every prior non-Pixar Disney toon worldwide other than The Lion King. Even in the post-Twilight age where The Hunger Games is set to open on a massive scale, female-centric franchise pictures are still considered a risky bet, arguably riskier than they were considered just 15 years ago.  Hence, the seemingly progressive feminist narrative of Brave isn’t actually a step forward, but actually a step back, but back to a time when a movie like Brave wouldn’t have raised eyebrows in the first place.

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