'Frozen' credited with ushering in more female-focused animated features

This photo provided by Disney-Pixar shows , Anger, Fear, Joy, Sadness and Disgust look out upon Riley's Islands of Personality, in a scene from the new animated film, "Inside Out."
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Copyright Disney-Pixar

TORONTO - In tackling a big screen adaptation of the literary classic "The Little Prince," director Mark Osborne decided one thing early on — the hero of his animated film would be female.

Of course, the Little Prince is male, but in recreating the delicate beauty of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's famed fable, Osborne says he wanted to place the tale within a larger story.

And why not make that story be about a little girl?

"In animation, it always had to be boy-centric," Osborne says of most North American kid tales.

"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 hopes his film, expected this Christmas, helps remedy a gender imbalance he was alerted to by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

The think tank included his 2008 comedy "Kung Fu Panda" in a 2010 study that found male speaking parts significantly outnumbered female parts in 122 live and animated family films released between 2006 and 2009.

A scan of the big animated titles bound for the multiplex suggests that could be changing — several boast female leads or very prominent female characters.

That includes the recently released "Home," about an alien who befriends a pre-teen girl; the upcoming "Inside Out," about the tumultuous emotions of a moody adolescent; this summer's "Minions," with Sandra Bullock as a female super-villain; and next year's "Finding Dory," the "Finding Nemo" sequel centred on the forgetful female blue tang fish.

Just as "Twilight"'s juggernaut success ushered in female-driven live-action forays — "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent" franchises among them — some industry observers say 2013's "Frozen" is thawing out notions that young boys won't cheer for a female lead.

"Clearly you look at a movie like 'Frozen' and you can see how powerful having a strong female character at the centre can be," says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with the box office firm Rentrak.

But any apparent shift could have more to do with commercial interests rather than any attempt at redress, he suggests. Animated fare in particular offers lucrative merchandising and spinoff opportunities far beyond the box office, even decades after release.

Such is the fate of "Frozen.

"Frozen's just going to go on forever," Dergarabedian says.

Nevertheless, the lesson here is that young boys will watch if the film is good, says Elizabeth Muskala, director of the TIFF Kids International Film Festival.

Her festival asked youngsters to review their favourite film if they wanted to win a spot on a festival jury.

"There were probably more entries from young boys about 'Frozen' than young girls," says Muskala, whose festival runs until April 19.

"Boys are certainly comfortable with (heroines) up until the age of eight or nine. And then I think things start to change."

Female-led films at this year's fest include Australia/Germany's "Maya the Bee Movie" (for ages 3 to 7), France's "Mune" (for ages 8 to 13) and Japan's "When Marnie Was There" (for ages 10 to 13).

For Oscar-winning director Pete Docter, his female-focused followup to "Up" is simply "a personal story about my daughter."

He says "Inside Out," due for release in June, was inspired by witnessing the emotional turmoil of his own daughter, Elie.

The film centres on the similarly moody character Riley — an exuberant and joyful child who becomes sullen and withdrawn as her teen years approach.

Producer Jonas Rivera says their main concern was crafting a story that connects with the audience, boys and girls.

"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."

Osborne, too, is 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)."

Since then, he's realized he can do more.

"The example I give is Miyazaki — every single Miyazaki film has a little girl or a woman as a main character," he says of celebrated Japanese anime director Hayao Miyazaki.

"I'm like, if Miyazaki can do it over and over, why shouldn't we be able to do it?"

It helps that more women seem to be entering the industry, adds Muskala, who points to "many more female animators" both here and abroad.

"And certainly over the 10-plus years that I've been here I've seen increasingly more animation films being submitted to the festival with a female director."

This year, women will take centre stage at the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival, set for June 15 to 20.

The long-running fest will highlight female filmmakers, figureheads, and emerging artists with an all-female jury, programs of films by women directors, and a tribute to female animation pioneers.

Such a spotlight could encourage more girls to enter the field, further changing the way females are portrayed onscreen.

A recent poster on Tumblr criticized the way recent Disney and Pixar animators drew female characters, suggesting they all looked the same — with round or heart-shaped faces and a button nose.

Docter says the poster was "a little bit selective in which females she was selecting," pointing to the variety of female looks on "The Incredibles."

Nevertheless, he admits it's easy to "fall into a rut."

"It's a challenge for sure," he says.

"We really need to push and (say): 'How can we do something that's not been done before? How can we push this?'"

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