A few weeks ago, I wrote about Miyazaki movies and how wonderful they are. These animated films promote positive girlhood and give our daughters (and sons) characters to look up to besides the token tomboy sidekick or the movie’s love interest. If you haven’t read it yet, there are some great movies listed that you might want to check out to watch with your family.
Miyazaki’s films are the best, in my opinion, but another filmmaker that you may be more familiar with is Don Bluth. Before Disney started making millions on its often barf-inducing (albeit sometimes enjoyable and even empowering; I will write about the ones I like another day) princess franchise, Bluth’s movies were the most popular ones around. This was back in the 1980s when I was a child, so it’s no wonder that we all can’t very well remember Life Before Disney.
Bluth actually worked for Disney, but then decided to start his own company due to some artistic differences. I honestly don’t know the story there, but I really am glad that he decided to make the following movies that have such strong female characters—as well as positive messages about the environment, being truthful, and other themes.
The Secret of NIMH
This was one of my absolute favorite childhood movies. It is the quest of a determined widowed mother mouse to get the medicine her sick son needs. Mrs. Brisby also must struggle to move her family safely before the farmer’s plow is fixed. I can’t think of any other movie solely about a brave mother (especially one who doesn’t die!) fighting to save her family. Yes, she gets help from plenty of male characters—and female ones—but ultimately it is she who saves them all with the power of a mother’s love.
The Land Before Time
You’ve probably seen this classic about a group of dino kiddos orphaned by earthquakes who seek the “Great Valley” of leaves, or “green food,” to eat. They are led by the “long-neck” Little Foot, whose mother died defending him from a T-Rex, but Little Foot himself is guided by both his mother’s advice and his mother’s spirit—think The Lion King, but much sweeter and more meaningful. Half of the group is female dinosaurs, which makes you think that if Bluth could manage that in the 80s, why can’t Disney and other producers do it today? It’s another movie about the power of a mother’s love, as well as friendship.
An American Tale
When I was little, I called the movie simply Fievel, which is what Wood Sprite* does today. It is the story about a male mouse that is lost from his family as they immigrate to America. His mother and sister are pretty strong females—as is Tanya, the activist mouse who leads them against the cats who eat them, as well as the rich mouse Gussie who leads their rally against the cats. In the crowd scenes, there are equal amounts of male and female mice represented, which should be normal in a film. It’s not a particularly feminist film, but it could easily set the standard for anyone who wants to create entertainment with a male protagonist while not making females background scenery.
This movie is more for teens than littles, but I really want to include it because it features such strong female characters (voiced by Drew Barrymore and Janine Garofalo, no less). The film is set in a time after earth has been destroyed, and though it focuses on one young man’s journey to save the human species and rebuild the planet, he could not complete it without the badass females in the movie. In terms of modern movies, Wreck It Ralph comes close to this; had the female characters had a little more power without relying on Ralph himself, it would have been similar.
Based on the false rumors about the Grand Duchess Anastasia’s survival, this movie posed a “what-if” scenario regarding an orphan with memory loss who turns out to be Anastasia. It’s a gorgeous film, filled with lovely songs and a fiery heroine (with an equally fiery Dowager Empress). She is much more than the token feisty character, however; she is vulnerable, funny, feminine, strong, curious, and in love, too. In short, she is the complex female character that we all want to see. The ratio of male to female characters is farther off than in the other movies, but Anastasia herself is engaging, plucky, clever, and ultimately defeats the most evil villain of all time—something the rest of her family had been unable to do.
Bluth’s movies are not all sweetness and light; there is often grave danger to be combated. In fact, every single one of these movies does contain violence, which is why I do like Miyazaki better (among other reasons). But it’s not the constant!action! that kids get in today’s films; instead, it’s an artful progression toward tension. The peril is never central to the entire movie, but a part of the heroine’s journey.
I also love that the characters are multi-dimensional, with plenty of flaws. You don’t get an idealistic heroine, for example, who may be cool but has a milquetoast personality as is often the case in many films. You get a mom who is scared but faces her fears; a little girl who makes mistakes and has to come to terms with them. No hero in Bluth’s films is a saint or without some kind of flaw, and I really appreciate that.
When our kids break something or forget themselves and hit someone without thinking, they can look toward Bluth’s heroines and heroes and realize that we all make mistakes. You can still be a heroine even if you mess up; in fact, it’s by making mistakes that we learn and grow, becoming better people in the process.
*Wood Sprite is the online alias I use for my daughter.
Written by Sara Schmidt