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. “ ” 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.
“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.