Pixar Veteran Brenda Chapman Reanimates Herself in Sundance Debut

Brenda Chapman - directorial debut, Come away - Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Alex Bailey/Endurance

Eight years after being unceremoniously removed from 'Brave' by John Lasseter, the groundbreaking animation director heads to the festival with her live-action debut, 'Come Away.'

The last time moviegoers saw Brenda Chapman was a bittersweet moment onstage at the Oscars in 2013, when the animation director appeared, ever so briefly, to thank her daughter for inspiring the movie Brave. In the midst of production, Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter had removed Chapman from Brave over creative differences and replaced her with director Mark Andrews, a move that particularly smarted for many in the animation world because of the ground Chapman had broken — she was Pixar's first female director and remains the only woman to have helmed a film at the celebrated studio. The movie itself introduced Pixar's first female protagonist, a plucky heroine who was a sharp departure from Disney's long tradition of docile princesses.

Seven years after Brave won the Academy Award for animated feature and grossed $539 million at the worldwide box office, Chapman, 57, is set to unveil her follow-up at Sundance, a family fantasy called Come Away, which marks the filmmaker's live-action debut. Chapman's career turn comes as some of the same gender bias issues that cropped up at Pixar are resurfacing in an Oscar race devoid of female directors, and as Lasseter, who left Disney and Pixar in 2017 after admitting that he had committed unspecified behavioral "missteps," is ensconced in a new role at Skydance Animation.

Based on a script by newcomer Marissa Kate Goodhill and starring Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo, Come Away is a prequel to Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, set in the late 19th century, that imagines that before Alice went to Wonderland and before Peter became Pan, they were brother and sister. The siblings are played by child actors Jordan A. Nash and Keira Chansa. "When I read this script, I thought, 'Well, if I'm ever going to do a live-action film, this is the one,' " Chapman says of the feature, which was financed by Endurance Media and shot in London. She says she was drawn to the "fantasy aspect of the story, the two characters we all know and love, and having an opportunity to tell that story in a very different way." Jolie and Oyelowo are Alice and Peter's parents, who suffer a grave loss, sparking the movie's overarching theme. "It's to encourage the idea of imagination and going into fantasy worlds to cope with the hard things in life," Chapman says. When Oyelowo first met with Chapman, he says, she brought to the material the same storytelling intuition that had driven her animation successes. "It was very clear that even though it was going to be her first live-action film, she was definitely trying to bring that sensibility of not patronizing children while also not alienating grown-ups," says Oyelowo, who is also a producer on the film. "That's a rare quality. Not everyone can thread that needle."

Before arriving at Pixar, Chapman already had notched a number of firsts in the male-dominated field of animation. She was the first woman to direct an animated feature from a major studio, DreamWorks Animation's The Prince of Egypt in 1998, and the first woman to serve as head of story at Disney, during the making of 1994's The Lion King. At Pixar, sources who worked at the studio at the time say Chapman contended with a boys-club atmosphere, with male colleagues likening her objections to story changes to their wives' nagging. Since leaving Pixar, Chapman has held a range of jobs, including consulting at Lucasfilm, working for a time at DreamWorks Animation and starting a production company, Twas Entertainment, with her husband, animation director Kevin Lima, that focuses on family-driven films.

Lasseter's high-profile departure from Pixar, which happened amid the #MeToo movement four years after Chapman left the studio, "was an interesting time," Chapman says. "I just tried not to put too much into it and just let it happen as it happens because he's no longer really a part of my wheelhouse anymore." When asked her opinion about Skydance's hiring of Lasseter, Chapman points to a scathing letter Emma Thompson wrote explaining that she was backing out of a Skydance project because of Lasseter's history of making "women at his companies feel undervalued and disrespected for decades." Says Chapman: "I was very grateful and admired very much Emma Thompson's response to all of that. I do wonder what it's like at Pixar now, just out of curiosity. But I haven't been there for a while, so I don't know."

Chapman will be seeking distribution for Come Away at Sundance, and she and Lima are working on another project, a hybrid of animation and live action. The industry has evolved somewhat since Chapman was last in the director's chair — 10.6 percent of the 100 highest-grossing films of 2019 were by female directors, up from 4 percent the year Brave opened. She's feeling the changes. "People are reaching out to me more, and to some of my female colleagues, yet it still feels like it's very, very sluggish in its movement," she says, citing the exclusion of female directors in the awards race. "It's very frustrating, but I'm happy for any forward movement."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.