Will Pixar’s First Female Lead Break the Mold?

Princess Merida is a Pixar princess but a princess nonetheless

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Disney / Pixar

As much as everyone loves Pixar, it’s tough to defend the studio’s record on women protagonists in its feature films because there haven’t been any. Yes, female Pixar characters have helped drive and inspire the actions of their leading “men” (EVE in WALL•E, the late Ellie in Up), and the story of Jessie the Cowgirl’s owner throwing her over for makeup and fashion is arguably the second-most-poignant sequence in the Toy Story trilogy. But for every strong character like Helen Parr in The Incredibles there are plenty of undifferentiated “girlfriend” roles, or even just a blue fish who’s a complete idiot. Not to mention: makeup and fashion? Seriously, Jessie’s owner?

(PHOTOS: A Brief History of Pixar)

Fortunately, Pixar looks like it’s finally ready to let its protagonists cross the gender divide with Brave and after only 1.75 decades. The trailer’s been around for a couple of weeks now (it’s online and in theaters,) and it seems to trade in Pixar’s frequent pattern of subverting expectations. Beginning with a deep-voiced Scottish burr portentously narrating images of a hooded rider galloping through picturesque highland wilderness, the tale is abruptly hijacked by a spirited lass named Merida whose unruly shock of flaming hair alone must have required entire server farms to animate. There’s your hooded rider, and this is not your father’s Pixar.

The trailer goes on to hint at Merida’s own battle against certain expectations, namely those that rest on a princess. Yes, Merida is a princess, like dozens of heroines before her in films released by Pixar’s owner Disney. But much in the way Pixar has tended to distance itself artistically from Disney, its first princess seems less interested in the trappings of court than in freedom and adventure. Hence the title.

First, let’s give Pixar credit for finally getting off the ball here; better late than never. I just wish its first feature about a female wasn’t so apparently about being a female. Its other movies aren’t about being dudes; they’re about the importance of friendship and of being the best person (or monster, or car, or robot, or bug, or rat) you can be. Why couldn’t Pixar’s first movie about a young woman be like that?

Of course, maybe it is and I’m getting the wrong idea from a trailer, not for the first time. Or maybe Pixar’s so anxious to grow their femalePri audience that they’re releasing a medieval feminist tract. I have nothing against those, having once written one myself, but then I wasn’t looking to pack in the family crowd to cover a multimillion-dollar investment.

(MORE: Children’s Movies Have Too Many Orphans)

The other thing that worries me is the scrutiny Brave will have to endure, which, I know, I’m contributing to right now. What happens in the event Brave ranks at the bottom of Pixar’s moneymakers? (Even Cars cleaned up on merchandising in a way Brave seems unlikely to.) Will the studio give up on female leads? Speaking as the father of a 7-year-old boy who is very excited to see Brave but who somehow recently and unaccountably picked up the expression “fight like a girl,” I certainly hope not.

My worries about grosses are probably unfounded, however. After all, there are plenty of people who will go see anything that has the famous desk lamp at the beginning of it, no matter what. And it’s not that long ago that critics fretted that a failed female foray into another male-dominated genre might scuttle future efforts. That genre was R-rated comedies, and that female foray turned out to be Bridesmaids, which went on to rake in nearly $300 million worldwide.

Of course, it helped that Bridesmaids was good. If Brave can say the same, the other stuff should take care of itself. Including my son’s tendency to say “fight like a girl.”