Since Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts comic strip was a substantial part of my growing up — I loved Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Linus so much (and still do) that I overlooked how unlikable most of the girls were — The Peanuts Movie got a pass on being one of the legion of boy-led animated movies, and my husband and I went to see it, eager to reconnect with our twelve-year-old selves. The movie is quite charming, if not as profound as 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, with its point that the world doesn’t end when we lose. My main complaint would be that Linus, always my favorite and the character with whom I most identified when I was growing up, doesn’t get enough to do.
But yet again, the trailers were my least favorite part of my animated-moviegoing experience, as they offered another round of evidence of how committed Hollywood studios seem to be to turning out cartoon features about boys, for boys, despite the recent box-office successes of some girl-led films. One of the trailers, Kung Fu Panda 3, reminds me of the kinds of movies Pixar used to make, in which the protagonist might be male but female characters are still important and interesting; this one I might see. Another, The Secret Life of Pets, appears to have a mix of male and female pets, and it isn’t quite clear just which of them is the central protagonist; this one, too, I’m curious about. But in the others — Alvin and the Chipmunks: Road Chip (why, Hollywood, why?), Angry Birds, Norm of the North, and Ratchet and Clank — male characters dominate overwhelmingly, to the point where a female character is lucky if she gets to utter one brief line. I doubt I could be dragged to them.
But enough complaining. Rather than focus on the huge number of animated movies that all but ignore the existence of girls (when they’re not pushing them into “princess” roles), I want to highlight five of my favorite animated movies that center on girls, that let them be the heroes of their own stories and even save the day.
- Inside Out. I find this recent Pixar film far more satisfying from a feminist standpoint than Brave, the studio’s first female-led movie. While Brave‘s protagonist is skilled, energetic, and flawed, she’s yet another princess who isn’t in line to inherit a throne or to claim any authority in her own right. But in Inside Out we meet Joy, a female authority figure who must learn, through a journey outside her comfort zone, to wield her authority more wisely. She’s the driving force among the emotions that move inside Riley, a twelve-year-old hockey-playing tomboy dealing with her first real loss, the loss of the home she loves. This circumstance is pushing Sadness, another great female character, to play a larger role inside Riley’s head, and Sadness herself isn’t quite sure what’s going on. Joy’s first flawed impulse is to keep Sadness at bay, but the journey they take together helps her understand balance. Joy doesn’t have to surrender all her authority in the end. Instead she learns to delegate, the mark of a responsible leader.
- When Marnie Was There. Japan’s Studio Ghibli is the unrivaled king of female-centric animated features, and it’s no accident that three out of my five choices are Ghibli releases. This film, like Inside Out, looks at the ways a young girl copes with loss, though in all other respects it couldn’t be more different from the Pixar film. The protagonist, Anna, wins my interest immediately for being an outsider, an introverted artist who lashes out at well-meaning but ignorant people who try to help or befriend her and who despises herself for being “unpleasant.” Rarely do we see a girl protagonist so wonderfully flawed. In order to become her best self, she must love and lose all over again, and her bond with the “ghost child” Marnie is a touching and charmingly detailed depiction of girl-girl friendship. Anna may not save the world, but she saves herself by choosing love over safety. Also worth noting is the way female characters lift each other up: Marnie lifts Anna, while Anna lifts the energetic pig-tailed girl she befriends, and adult women like Anna’s foster mother and her friend are shown as wise and supportive, rather than dimwitted in the manner of so many adults in movies with child protagonists.
- Kiki’s Delivery Service, another Ghibli release about a young girl’s journey to maturity. Kiki, like Anna, is an outsider, a witch among ordinary mortals who isn’t quite sure how to make friends, but unlike Anna, Kiki is basically happy, and is eager to explore her difference rather than suppress it. To understand her power, she must lose it and confront the possibility of doing without it. Yet her true self comes through when it counts, and she saves the day for others as well as herself. This film, like When Marnie Was There, shows female characters supporting each other. At different points in the story, Kiki is aided by Osono, the baker’s wife who becomes her foster mother, Ursula, the artist who paints her portrait, and the grandmother whose gesture of gratitude for Kiki’s flying-delivery work gives the young witch heart when she needs it most. By the end, she has found friendship and love not in spite of her different-ness but because of it — and that message never gets old.
- Nausicaa and the Valley of Wind. I suppose it was inevitable that a “princess story” would turn up on this list, but then, Nausicaa is a Studio Ghibli princess, and as such diverges sharply from the usual “princess” personality we’ve come to expect. Nausicaa is a total Mary Sue. She’s a sky-rider, a diplomat, a scientist, a savior, good at everything she tries. And I adore her for it! It’s a treat to meet with a heroine so unapologetically awesome, realism be hanged. She has those painful moments of self-doubt that are very much a part of young adulthood, but it’s her boundless empathy and her determination to find out and do what’s right for her kingdom that make her a heroine worth rooting for.
- The Princess and the Frog. Don’t be misled by the title. The female lead, Tiana, isn’t really a princess at all. She’s a working-class African-American girl with abundant talent and ambition. I chose this film to represent Disney on my list because even though I like many of the heroines in the “Disney Renaissance” films that have appeared since 1989, only Tiana has concrete, focused aspirations, her goal of being a top chef at her own restaurant already set before the main plot gets started. She may find love, but her ambition remains consistent. It’s gratifying to meet a heroine who is already remarkable in her own way when the story begins, rather than being made remarkable by circumstance. Plus — Spoiler Alert — SPOILER ALERT — she gets to put an end to the villain herself. And honestly, in how many Disney films have we seen that?