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From ‘Zootopia’ to ‘Moana,’ How This Year’s Animation Race Has Embraced Female Empowerment

Female protagonists and supporting characters have enriched many of the animated Oscar contenders, headlined by Disney's frontrunning "Zootopia."

“Zootopia”

Animation

In many ways, it’s been the year of the self-reliant female in animation, headlined by”Zootopia’s” Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), Ellen DeGeneres’ forgetful but streetwise Blue Tang from “Finding Dory,” the eponymous teenage Polynesian in “Moana” (Auli’i Cravalho), the eternally optimistic Princess Poppy (Anna Kendrick) from “Trolls” and the trio of gals from “Sing.”

READ MORE: How GKIDS Doubled Down to Compete in the Most Crowded Animation Oscar Race

They reflect hopes and dreams and empowerment in both individual and universal ways. What’s more, their journeys are so relatable and inspiring that they’ve been embraced by audiences around the world.

“Zootopia”

It made total sense to switch protagonists from cynical, hustling fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to idealistic bunny cop Judy Hopps in Disney’s zeitgeist-grabbing, Oscar frontrunner. You not only have more of a rooting interest in saving and healing Zootopia but it also deepens the personal story about inadvertent prejudice. If Judy’s revealed to have hidden prejudice about predators despite her good nature, than it makes it easier for us to empathize and recognize a propensity for prejudice within ourselves.

And the greatest gift of “Zootopia” has been to help unite us at a time when we need it most.

Finding Dory

“Finding Dory”

“Finding Dory”

Whatever one’s views of sequels, the backstory of Dory’s memory deficit disorder deserved to be told. And director Andrew Stanton couldn’t stop thinking about how Dory would find her way home if she ever got lost again. The challenge was elevating her from sidekick to heroine. But in cracking it, Stanton was forced him to analyze her more deeply. She’s driven by an internal fear of being alone, devoid of self-reflection, yet that becomes her great survival strength. Only by embracing her identity can she find closure and happiness with her newfound family.

As a result, Stanton offered yet another personal, mid-life crisis movie from Pixar.

Moana

“Moana”

Disney

“Moana”

Disney’s other groundbreaking accomplishment was providing a badass, self-reliant heroine — in this case a teenage, Polynesian navigator — who saves her world without being rescued or finding a love interest. She’s also a capable warrior, taking on a ship full of tiny coconut pirates called Kakakora.

And although she’s joined by the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) — a reluctant sidekick at first — their relationship remains strictly platonic. Discovering Moana’s personal journey was the hardest part of the story, but once they figured out that she wants to rid her island of its isolation and once again embrace its navigational roots, they had a more satisfying character arc.

Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake in Trolls

“Trolls”

“Trolls”

There are actually two important females in the DreamWorks retro musical about the importance of happiness and uniting disparate groups in fuzzy immersion: the singing, hugging, scrapbooking Princess Poppy, who’s forced to rescue her tribe from the mean-spirited Bergens, and Bridget (Zooey Deschanel), the kind-hearted Bergen who works as a scullery maid. She has a secret crush on Prince Gristle Jr. (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and, together, Poppy and Bridget rescue one another and help the Bergens overcome their prejudice and enjoy life more like the Trolls.

“Sing”

“Sing”

There are a trio of performers in Illumination’s talent content musical: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a domestic pig with great singing chops, who gave up her dream to raise a family; Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a punk-rock porcupine abandoned by her boyfriend/partner, who composes a personal song; and Meena (Tori Kelly), a teenage elephant with stage fright, who brings down the house with Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.”

Then there’s Nana Noodleman, a Suffolk sheep (Jennifer Saunders), the mesmerizing singer who inspired impresario Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) to go into show biz when he saw her perform as a child. Thus, the ladies play a major role in saving Moon’s theater and uniting their community.

“Your Name”

FUNimation Entertainment

“Your Name”

How we meet and fall in love with a mysterious sense of deja vu is at the heart of Makoto Shinkai’s body switching blockbuster from Japan (the LA Film Critics Association’s best animated feature winner). Mitsuha’s a country girl who wishes to become a Tokyo boy in her next life, who switches bodies with Taki, a high school boy from Tokyo. They grow closer together not only through gender-bending experiences but also by writing notes on their hands and faces. But Mitsuha becomes the driving force by persuading her estranged father to help evacuate their village when a comet threatens to destroy it.

Miss Hokusai

“Miss Hokusai”

“Miss Hokusai”

Female empowerment takes on new meaning in Keiichi Hara’s poignant 2D drama from GKIDS. Based on the real life story of a female artist living in her father’s shadow in 19th century Japan, O-Ei experiences a dangerous rite of passage as both woman and artist. By day she finishes her father’s work; by night she’s haunted by supernatural demons and goblins. In the end, she finds her own individuality and artistic style.

“Long Way North”

“Long Way North”

In Rémi Chayé’s adventure from Shout Factory, Sasha, a young Russian aristocrat sets out to find her grandfather and his missing ship that disappeared during an expedition to the North Pole. Of course, everyone dismisses and then underestimates her drive and talent, but after toughening up, Sasha leads her own expedition to find her grandfather and redeem her family’s tradition. Like Moana, Sasha’s a self-reliant navigator with her own special qualities.

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