"Brave" might have been her most high profile project, and her removal from it her most public failure, to date, but Brenda Chapman is just getting started. 

Brenda Chapman may not be a household name, though the films that she has worked on—The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Cars, and Brave, which she directed and won an Oscar for, among others—certainly are

As far as Chapman is concerned, not being in the limelight is A-OK. “I was just a filmmaker, a storyteller who wanted to tell another story,” she told Bustle in an interview about her barrier-breaking work. “I don’t look at myself as someone going to go out there and break some ground. I just went out there to do what I love to do.” Besides, the work for which the animator is perhaps best-known was bittersweet. 

Chapman joined Pixar Studios in 2003, after getting a professional start at Disney, initially as a story trainee on The Little Mermaid before working her way up to head of story. She then a successful stint at Dreamworks, where she became the first woman to ever direct an animated studio feature film, 1998’s The Prince of Egypt.

After leaving Dreamworks and working on Pixar Studio’s Cars, Chapman began developing Brave, an original fairytale about a Scottish princess that needed neither to be rescued nor a prince charming to be interesting. Chapman developed and directed the film, becoming the first woman in Pixar history to do so. Brave was inspired by Chapman’s own relationship with her daughter, which was, as mother-daughter relationships always are, complicated. As she shared with Polygon magazine in 2018, may be “the greatest love story in a woman’s life, you know?” 

After working on Brave for six years, Chapman was forced to leave the film due to what she diplomatically called “creative differences” with the head of Pixar Studios, John Lasseter. The movie’s direction was turned over to Mark Andrews, the director of such Pixar hits as The Incredibles and Up. While a talented filmmaker, Andrews was still a man brought in to tell a story created by and about strong women. 

This, unfortunately, is a common dynamic in Hollywood. In 2008, the first Twilight movie broke box office records with a $192.8 million opening weekend gross, the highest ever for a female-directed live action film. However, director Catherine Hardwicke was taken off the project and labeled as difficult to work with and “irrational,” which she said has since affected her career. More recently, it was revealed that director Andrea Arnolds, who was brought in to helm the second season of the HBO hit show Big Little Lies, had most of her contributions cut halfway through production in favor of season one’s director, Jean-Marc Vallee. 

Chapman was devastated when she was removed from her project, and recalled in a New York Times essay: “To have it taken away and given to someone else, and a man at that, was truly distressing on so many levels.” After the film was released, Chapman left Pixar for good. 

But as heart-breaking as the experience was, Chapman refused to let this low point in her career keep her down—nor did her professional colleagues. “I had every studio call me almost the week after I was taken off Brave to offer me a job,” she told Polygon. “I was kind of blown away by that.” 

In the end, she was still credited as a director on the film, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Chapman was the first woman to win animated film’s most prestigious honor. 

While her name may have faded out of headlines, Chapman is busier than ever with new projects that continue to push her past her comfort zone. 

She’s currently working on Come Away, her first live action film and a retelling of Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan that reimagines the title characters as brother and sister before their respective entries into their fantastical worlds. The film stars Angelina Jolie and David Oyelowo as parents. She also started a production company with her husband, animator Kevin Lima, who had worked on Disney’s Enchanted.

Despite the painful experience with Pixar in Brave, “The movie opened many doors for me,” she told Polygon

For a generation of female animators in an industry dominated by men, Chapman has always been a much-needed role model. This was true before Brave and her Oscar win, and it continues to be true now. As Melissa Cobb, the producer of Kung Fu Panda 2, put it: “There are no 80-year-old animators out there today for women to look up to. It’s taken a moment for women to realize there is a lot of opportunity here.”

Chapman hopes that her experiences are just the beginning of a larger movement for more women’s voices to be included, telling Polygon, “I’ve definitely noticed more women directing, not necessarily [just] in animation, but in general. But my hope is that it just continues until it’s the norm.” 

While Chapman’s “happily ever after” ending might not reflect those of the children’s stories she’s worked on, her own developing story has its own lesson: Even (or especially) when we think we’ve come to an insurmountable end, the story goes on—and it may be bigger than we ever imagined. 


Eileen Guo is a Los Angeles-based freelance magazine and audio journalist. Her reporting on elections fraud, informal economies, and transnational smuggling has brought her across the world, from rural Appalachia, Central America, the US-Mexico border, China, to Afghanistan. In her free time, Eileen enjoys practicing the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira, surfing, and leash-training her cat.