Talking Brave and Other Female Empowerment Favorites

Brave, Pixar Studio’s first “princess” movie and first film to have a woman as a credited director (co-director and co-writer Brenda Chapman), is something you expect from the game-changing animation enterprise: Dazzling and different.

Set in the Scottish highlands of the 10th century, the film centers on Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), who is ill at ease being courted by three loser suitors. The princess is a rambunctious sort who wants to go her own way, much to the dismay of her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), her father, King Fergus (Billy Connelly), and three trouble-making brothers. The carrot-topped Merida has become an expert archer, and her bow-and-arrow tactics have come in handy on occasion, but Mom still wants her to sew, weave and do girly things. But Merida is so in need of independence that she seeks help from a witch (Julie Walters) in order to cast a spell on the queen mother in hopes she’ll change her mind.

The colorful and impressive animation is as expected by the Pixar gang, but what makes Brave really brave is the mother-daughter relationship that unfolds: Strong, fiercely determined young woman seeks to steer through life on her own while mother plans to use traditional values to put a kibosh on her dreams.

Brave, presented in both extras-packed DVD/Blu-ray and DVD/Blu-ray/Digital Copy combos, delivers the magical moments of classic fairy tales immortalized by Pixar parent company Disney, along with themes of female empowerment and self-determination that never entered Cinderella, Snow White or Sleeping Beauty’s dreams.

Here, then, are some other stories of courage, liberation and overcoming the odds, female variety, that preceded Brave.

The Princess and the Frog (2009): While Brave’s plucky heroine seems like a genuine feminist revolutionary compared to many an animated leading lady, the mostly  overlooked, first-rate Disney heroine showcased here serves as a kind of corrective to the way the studio’s women were dependent on men for decades. The sassy, traditionally animated story centers on Tiana (voiced by Anika Noni Rose), a young woman in New Orleans whose goal is to attain the dream never reached by her late father (Terrence Howard) of owning a restaurant in New Orleans.  She has her sights on a location, but unscrupulous real estate agents try to hold up her plan. Then a prince from a foreign land (Bruno Campos) is cursed by a local voodoo practitioner and turned into the title amphibian.  With spirited Crescent City music, a dollop of old-fashioned fantasy and a leading character who works hard for her dreams  The Princess and the Frog is visually old school Disney (in a good way) with a new school mindset.

Whale Rider (2003): A young Maori girl (Oscar-nominated first-time actor Keisha Castle-Hughes) is the rightful heir to her tribe’s throne following the deaths of her mother and male twin at birth. But because of her sex, she is looked down upon. After her father leaves to pursue a career in art in Europe, she is raised by her wise grandmother and must win over her difficult, by-the-rules grandfather so she can take her rightful position in her tribe. Stirring, mystical in spots and beautifully filmed, this film takes you to a different world and allows audiences to share the heroine’s struggles and triumphs.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006): Guillermo del Toro’s dark fantasy is not for the kiddies, as it mixes horror, politics, amazing special effects/makeup, and an unsettling tale of female empowerment. Set in embattled Spain during World War II, the film centers on Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young woman whose stepfather is a vicious officer in Franco’s army. While exploring the area near her new home, she encounters an underground world inhabited by incredible creatures. She also discovers she may be the daughter of the King of the Underworld, but must complete three tasks in order to prove it.

Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989): The fifth feature film from master Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) has themes similar to many of his other acclaimed efforts, including a perky heroine trying to succeed in a quest against insurmountable odds. Kiki (voiced in the Disney-sanctioned English dubbed version by Kirsten Dunst) is a teenage witch in training, joined by her wisecracking cat (Phil Hartman) on a year-long excursion in a European town that’s necessary for the retention of her mystic powers. She takes a job working for a bakery as a delivery girl. She (and her diminishing abilities) gets put to the test when Tombo (Matthew Lawrence), a boy who likes her, lands in trouble. Along with fabulous old school animation, the film features poignant lessons about girls just being themselves and calling on their inner strength to succeed.

A League of Their Own (1992): A spunky, true-life tale of the 1940s-based All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, a wartime venture boasting the best female players in the country. The focus is on the Rockford Peaches, headed by Geena Davis, known as “The Queen of Diamonds” and her sister, played by Lori Petty. Also on the team are Rosie O’Donnell and Madonna, while Tom Hanks’ alcoholic ex-major leaguer manages. The colorful personalities of the eclectic teammates often clash, but they eventually put aside their differences for some genuine sisterhood and camaraderie, smartly handled by director Penny Marshall and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood).

Adam’s Rib (1949): Katharine Hepburn always seemed to embody women’s empowerment on the silver screen, and this is a great example of her wily ways opposite long-time professional (and personal) partner Spencer Tracy. The married couple–he’s an assistant DA and she’s a defense attorney– face off against each other in the courtroom and on the homefront. Judy Holiday, fresh from her Broadway triumph in “Born Yesterday,” is the suspect accused of attempting to murder straying hubby Tom Ewell. Director George Cukor keeps Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon’s bon mot-filled script moving quickly, with “Hep” matching Tracy line by line, action by action.

Alien (1979): In space, no one may be able to hear you scream, but in theaters around the world, they could, as Ridley Scott’s sci-fi haunted house became a hit, scaring everyone in its wake. The fact of the matter is that a woman—Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, believe it or not—was a bona fide action heroine; in the sequel Aliens, she faced the mother of all drooling, razor-sharp-toothed, elongated-jawed monstrosities woman(o)-a-woman(o).  With her fearless demeanor, intelligence and slinky but well-toned body, Weaver’s wonder woman would be on board for the Alien sequels, and the actress would continue to show her chops in Aliens creator James Cameron’s 3-D game changer Avatar.

Thelma and Louise (1991): Ridley Scott, feminist filmmaker? Sure seems that way when you add this road movie to his credits. Two put-upon friends—waitress Susan Sarandon and unhappily married Geena Davis—are on the run from the law after an attempted rape of Davis forces Sarandon to shoot the assailant. With authorities in pursuit, the two decide to flee to Mexico, but there’s trouble—in the guise of unscrupulous men—along the way. Though the revved-up ride continues until it has no place else to go but oblivion, Thelma and Louise provokes thought, thrills, laughs and fatalism, all in the name of female bonding.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974): Martin Scorsese, of all people, directed this saga of Alice Hyatt (Oscar-winning Ellen Burstyn), a New Mexico housewife who takes off to California in search of a better life for her young son after her husband dies. Though a talented singer, Alice recognizes her need to be independent, especially after falling into a relationship with an abusive man (Harvey Keitel), so she takes a job as a waitress at a Tucson diner. There, she meets other servers who she bonds with. The themes of independence and the difficulties of single motherhood are drawn powerfully through superior acting, Scorsese’s surprisingly sensitive way with women’s issues, and an undertone of danger and edginess (thanks, mostly, to some unsettling male characters). It’s not the fluffy stuff of the spinoff TV series “Alice,” nor the grittiness of Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, but powerfully pitched somewhere in-between.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006): Anne Hathaway is the writer wannabe who takes a position as an assistant to notoriously difficult and cranky NYC fashion editor Meryl Streep. Hathaway eventually learns to play the game, becoming a super worker and beginning to ascend the industry ladder, but finds that she is sacrificing her integrity to do so. This fine adaptation of a best-selling book entertains and teaches lessons about compromising oneself at the same time.  In other words, a rom-com that guys may dig, too.