Calamity allows audience members to step into a colorful world with a strong female character who takes the reins (literally and figuratively) and breaks down the barriers placed on her. When it comes to stories that showcase strong female leads that break out of the gender dynamic, Calamity achieves this with an inspiring story.
Calamity is loosely based on the life of Martha Jane Cannary “Calamity Jane” as a 10-year-old on her journey with her family on the Oregon Trail. While the character Martha Jane is a very real person, Calamity takes on a fictional storytelling approach to make her tale as a child one of empowerment. The film is a coming-of-age story during a time when girls were looked down on and were expected to be and dress a certain way. Martha Jane breaks free of those rules to prove herself and restore honor to her family.
Director Rémi Chayé shares during the New York International Children’s Film Festival that her history has been told and retold in so many different ways, but one thing that consistently stayed the same is that she is portrayed as an outlaw. Martha Jane is someone that pushes boundaries to prove those that doubt her wrong.
“The character of [Martha] was very inspiring from the very beginning, so when we were writing we had this heavy conscience that we were sort of in the queue of a long history of people: novelists, songwriters, cinematographers that use her character to say something about what it is to be a boy, what it is to be a girl and what this fantastic character, very subversive in a way, creates to the society, and [her] impact is huge,” Chayé said.
When Martha Jane’s father is injured, the caravan is forced to step in and begrudgingly help their family on the trip because the notion that a girl could manage the horses and wagon is unheard of in this time. Martha doesn’t like the idea that she is helpless and only good for caring for her siblings and father. This sparks late night training sessions to learn to lasso and ride like her male counterparts. The defiance sparked by her experiences with the convoy and her gender role within it are what makes this film so charming for young girls. Her character gives off a presence of, “Oh, I can do that because I’m a girl? Watch me!”
One of the things that stands out in Calamity is the layout of the beautiful landscapes in the film. It’s as if you’re stepping into a Northwest painting. The bright colors of the western sky bring in the younger viewers that may not be able to read the subtitles at the speed they appear on the screen but are mesmerized by the animation style. Chayé shares that in the scenes that are looking at the mountains in the background, the sky is bluer because of the reflection of the snow on the mountains. Many of the storyboards were created with oil paintings that helped to showcase the saturated solid colors that we see in the film.
While it looks like a minimislistic approach to animation, the rich scenary is one that audiences don’t see very often. Splotches of color that transform into changing sky or sprawling valley. It’s beautiful to just admire the animation itself.
It’s 1863, and 12-year-old Martha Jane and her family are headed West across the United States in search of a better life. After her father is hurt in a serious accident, she takes charge of her siblings and learns to drive the family wagon. Utterly practical and bold, Martha Jane trades her constricting skirts for the ease of boys breeches and never looks back. Her unconventional style and brazenness don’t sit well with the pioneer community, and when the leader of the convoy wrongly accuses her of theft, she must run away to find proof of her innocence. In the Wild, she discovers herself and a world that shapes her into the mythical and mysterious Calamity Jane. Recommended ages 8+