Female Characters Dominated Animated Movies in 2019

This year’s leading animated films take us from the crowded streets of Victorian-era London to far off lands where dragons roam. Though their storytelling and locations couldn’t be more different, many share a common attribute: the emergence of a powerful female character (or two) that’s crucial to the story.

Frozen 2” has those unforgettable sisters, Anna and Elsa. “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” relies on Astrid’s grounded voice. Bo Peep led Woody toward a new life in “Toy Story 4.” In “Missing Link,” Adelina Fortnight demands your attention.

“They want to feel that they are being spoken to and that they are being heard,” says Jennifer Lee, director of “Frozen 2,” of the kids who flocked to see this film. “I think this generation of girls, and boys, expects to see themselves in these characters. It’s not just boys that drive box office — it’s everyone. That’s an opportunity for us to tell stories that will move a larger audience.”

These recent tough, fully rendered females aren’t new, even if the number of them is. Animation legend Hayao Miyazaki is known for creating powerful women in his stories, such as “Spirited Away.” For that film, he told Roger Ebert in 2002, he was inspired by his desire to make a film for the daughters of his friends.

Popular on Variety

Toy Story 4” helmer Josh Cooley was also inspired by an influential female in his life — his wife. When he set out to make the film, he realized Bo Peep over the course of the three previous “Toy Story” films had always been this kind of worldly and wise character who had the ability to make Woody listen when no one else could.

“I thought of how my wife could tell me things and influence me in so many ways,” says Cooley. “And Woody needed someone like that because he’s really lost when his old way of life starts to disappear. Bo Peep has always been smarter and more able to change than he has, so she has to be the one to lead him away from his old life.”

Astrid from “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” also finds a way move Hiccup in the right direction when Toothless starts to seek out the companionship of another dragon.

“Astrid was not in the original book so she was an invention for our stories,” says helmer Dean DeBlois. “We wanted a character who represented the next generation, someone who just had pure, natural Viking leadership skills and who was athletic and strong-willed and was just a contrast to Hiccup. So Astrid is always smarter and tougher but she was also someone that Hiccup would have to convince that dragons weren’t all bad and that they could be trusted.”

DeBlois has seen the trend of a more fully realized female character in animation build over time, from his days as co-head of story for “Mulan.”

“I think we brought a sensibility of these capable characters to the screen who were not reliant on the male characters in the story,” says DeBlois. “But Mulan is expected to be demure and subservient and she can’t help herself. She’s going to be someone who will take drastic steps to do what’s right. For me, I think having sisters helped me see the strengths (of female characters). My upbringing was influenced by my mother’s and sisters’ sensibilities as anything else.”

For Lee, who is also chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation, it was important to be real. Even if she was writing a princess, that character shouldn’t be perfect.

“There was a kind of princess I thought we needed, that would have strength and quirkiness, and a lack of grace, that some of us have because that resonated,” says Lee.



More Film

  • 'Charlatan' Review: Agnieszka Holland Shows Faith

    'Charlatan': Film Review

    At several points in “Charlatan,” the camera looks glossily on as our protagonist holds small bottles of amber liquid to the light, academically scrutinizing their contents as they beam a light golden glow onto his features: an effect both ennobling and almost romantic. The man is Jan Mikolášek, a famous Czech herbalist and healer with [...]

  • Toho Cinemas at Tokyo Midtown Hibiya

    Japanese Cinemas To Refund Tickets in Virus Response

    In response to the coronavirus crisis, the Japanese film industry has begun to delay releases, close theaters and refund ticket purchases. The releases of the new “Doraemon” and “Jimaro” feature animations targeted at kids out of school for the spring break, have been delayed. The former was scheduled to open March 6, the latter on [...]

  • Blood on Her Name

    Film Review: ‘Blood on Her Name’

    In the opening moments of “Blood on Her Name,” an arrestingly twisty and suspenseful Southern noir thriller in the tradition of “One False Move,” we’re introduced to Leigh, the working-class protagonist played by Bethany Anne Lind, with a jarring close-up that is at once explicit and ambiguous. Her face is battered, her breathing is labored, [...]

  • Liev Schreiber Broadway

    Film News Roundup: Liev Schreiber Joins Will Smith's Tennis Drama 'King Richard'

    In today’s film news roundup, Liev Schreiber and retired pro footballer Vernon Davis score roles, Jason Blum will speak at his alma mater, Irish drama “Rialto” finds a U.S. distributor and “1917” hits a box office milestone. CASTINGS Liev Schreiber will portray tennis coach Paul Cohen in Warner Bros.’ “King Richard” opposite Will Smith. Reinaldo [...]

  • AMC theater

    AMC Entertainment Reports Mixed Fourth-Quarter Results

    AMC Entertainment has reported mixed fourth-quarter results, which saw revenues rise 2.4% to $1.45 billion, despite a 4.4% drop in U.S. attendance to 62.3 million. The exhibitor, owned by Dalian Wanda Group, announced a fourth-quarter loss of $13.5 million, compared to a year-earlier profit of $170.6 million, due to $84.3 million of expense related to [...]

  • 'Straight Up' Review: James Sweeney's Gay

    'Straight Up': Film Review

    There’s a tradition in movies, as vital as a hypnotic action scene or a swooning love scene, of dialogue so witty and nimble and rapid-fire that it comes at you like something out of a stylized dream. I first encountered that brand of high-velocity verbal jousting in “A Hard Day’s Night,” and later on in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content