Merida, the character at the heart of Pixar's latest film, "Brave," is a medieval princess for the 21st century. Strikingly different from most of her animated predecessors, she's a rebellious Scottish teen, crowned with a massive bounty of flame-red curls, who can scale mountains, wield a sword and fire arrows with pinpoint accuracy.
Merida is also distinctive in another vital way: After a run of a dozen box-office hits led by heroes like Buzz and Woody and Mr. Incredible, she's the first female to headline a Disney-Pixar production. It's a trailblazing performance that has brought more focus to the role women play in the cartoon world, both on and behind the screen.
"This is huge because she's the kind of person who hasn't been explored before and one the audience is eager for," says Maija Burnett, associate director of the Character Animation Program at California Institute for the Arts (CalArts), the Valencia-based school that has produced many prominent Pixar artisans, including Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter. "Hopefully, this will set off a chain and open some doors."
But while Pixar may have crossed one gender divide with "Brave," the Emeryville studio fell short of spanning another when it dismissed original director Brenda Chapman in mid-production for "creative differences." It was Chapman who conceived the film's premise -- based on her relationship with her headstrong daughter -- and co-wrote the script.
"There was a collective sense of disappointment when Brenda was let go," says Mercedes Milligan, associate editor of AnimationMagazine.net. "Yes, it's common to swap directors, but this was a much bigger deal, especially considering that (the film) was her concept, her baby."
Chapman, who still was rewarded with a director's credit on "Brave," could not be reached for comment. After being removed from the film, she told the Los Angeles Times, "I think it's a really sad state. We're in the
Since Chapman's dismissal in fall 2010, Pixar has not publicly commented about the matter and at press time had not responded to questions for this story.
The animation industry has been dominated by men from the early days when Walt Disney and others usually consigned women to the tedious duty of inking and painting someone else's drawings on cels. And though women have made many inroads in recent years as producers, production designers and in other roles, the dearth of female directors is even more pronounced in animation than it is in live-action movies, where Kathryn Bigelow broke the glass ceiling by winning a best director Oscar for "The Hurt Locker" (2008).
That disparity, critics say, is noteworthy because directors, more than anyone, shape the vision of a film and tend to write and direct from their own experiences. Moreover, there remains a general assumption that Hollywood believes it must woo boys to make an expensive family film a success. Chapman's dismissal came roughly one year after Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" feature disappointed at the box office and prompted the company to make several revisions to "Tangled" (originally titled "Rapunzel") to broaden its appeal beyond a core audience of girls.
"There definitely should be more women directors in animation, just as more women should be directing live-action," says Jerry Beck, an author and animation historian.
"You look at where Pixar is -- in the heart of the Bay Area, one of the most liberal and diverse places in the country. If there are opportunities, you'd think this is where you're going to find them."
Indeed, Pixar is far from being a boys club, says Sarafian, an Oakland resident who joined the company at an entry-level position in 1994 and swiftly moved through the ranks. "I can honestly say that, from the day I walked in here, I felt valued and needed.
"I've never felt for a moment that they were looking at my gender. They were more interested in my talent."
Still, Sarafian recognizes the value of having even more women in key creative positions throughout the industry.
"It's important that everyone have a seat at the table," she says. "The more voices you have out there, the more interesting and different the stories are."
To that end, the future appears bright. According to statistics provided by CalArts, women made up 57.2 percent of the school's enrollment in the undergraduate character animation program in the fall, compared with just 25.6 percent in fall 2001. Female enrollment in the experimental animation program jumped from 39.4 to 64.1 percent over the same period.
"Creativity knows no gender," says Burnett, who largely credits the Internet and advances in software for the rise in female participation. "Women today aren't intimidated in any way by the art form and the technology. They're absolutely gung-ho, and they kick butt in our program."
Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who broke through as the director of "Kung Fu Panda 2" (2011) for DreamWorks, believes it's only a matter of time before more women take charge of animated features at major Hollywood studios.
"Maybe it's going to take more students and women envisioning themselves in the role and not making a big deal (of gender)," she says.
"I think the numbers will even out eventually."
Milligan asserts that signs of real progress will come only when a display of girl power finds its way to the big screen in new and imaginative ways.
"I love that Merida is a very different kind of princess," she says. "But why a princess at all? It seems so limiting. How about a pirate-ship captain or a dinosaur hunter? And let's make sure they're not in a Lara Croft tank top."