Pixar has a girl problem.
All 12 of its unfathomably successful movies—which have made more than $7 billion at the box office, not counting toys, clothes, Disney rides, video games and TV shows—have male leads. Very male leads: cowboys, astronauts, robots, cars, Ed Asner. Pixar has been aware of this problem since its first feature film, Toy Story, back in 1995. “After we made Toy Story, my wife Nancy said, ‘Can you make strong female characters for me and your nieces?’” says John Lasseter, Pixar’s chief creative officer. He, too, looks a lot like a 12-year-old boy, wearing his regular workday uniform of a Hawaiian shirt and jeans, sitting in his huge L-shaped office lined with shelf after shelf of toy cars and trains.
So Lasseter, who has five sons and no daughters, added the cowgirl Jessie as the third lead in Toy Story 2 and 3. He added a female spy as the fourth lead in Cars 2. But an idea for a story with a female lead never jelled. In 2003 he hired Brenda Chapman, who had been story supervisor on Disney’s The Lion King and was one of three co-directors of DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, and asked her to pitch an idea for a film.
“She just pitched one story. Usually a director will pitch a bunch of stories, but John just glommed onto this right away,” says Steve Russell, who worked directly under Chapman on the idea that became Brave, Pixar’s 13th feature film (in theaters June 22). Lasseter made Chapman the first woman to direct a Pixar movie.
Chapman’s idea was a fairy tale about a princess, which wasn’t necessarily going to be exciting news for Pixar’s feminist critics. Or Pixar’s staff. “Brenda was telling me about it, and my eyes glazed over. Princess, king, mother-daughter, ancient kingdom—all words I didn’t like to think about,” says Steve Pilcher, the film’s production designer. Still, after hearing her full pitch, he signed on the same day. He liked that Chapman aimed to subvert the princess narrative in the same way Pixar’s The Incredibles tweaked superhero stories.
Brave’s medieval Scottish princess, Merida (voiced by Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald), almost never wears princess clothes. Instead, she rides a horse and shoots a bow and arrow. Her mom Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) insists she follow tradition and let the eldest sons of the heads of the kingdom’s clans compete in a series of games for her hand in marriage. But Merida doesn’t tell her mom that she’s going to pick her own husband, as princesses sometimes do in films. This is a fairy tale without a romance. Merida tells her that she isn’t marrying anyone. Then she fights bears. But mostly, like all teenage girls, she fights with her mom.
Chapman, who’s a redhead like Merida and part Scottish, took conflicts with her then 5-year-old daughter and fairy-tale-ized them. In one scene, which has since been cut from the film, Merida and her mother take a break midargument to hug and say good morning before they resume fighting, just as Chapman and her kid did. “I have this amazing daughter, and she is really strong-willed, and I’m strong-willed,” Chapman says. “She competes with me for her dad. I was thinking, What’s she going to be like as a teenager?”
Chapman isn’t worried that boys will shy away from a film about a princess, even though industry research indicates that boys have more influence than their sisters in convincing their parents which movies to see. “Back in my day, boys and girls both went to see Cinderella and Snow White and Sleeping Beauty,” she says. “It’s just a change in media and advertising.”