This film was part of the 2021 virtual New York International Children’s Film Festival.
Calamity is a 2020 French-Danish animated film that tells the fictionalized childhood story of the real Martha Jane Cannary, showing how she took her first steps toward becoming the renowned Calamity Jane. Having been a fan of director Rémi Chayé’s previous film, Long Way North, I had fairly high expectations that Calamity easily surpasses.
Martha Jane Cannary is traveling with her family as part of a wagon train to Oregon, where they hope to find land and a better life. While not much is expected of her because of her gender, Martha Jane believes she’s capable of doing more. When her father is severely hurt trying to rope a runaway horse, Martha Jane takes it upon herself to learn the skills necessary to keep their wagon going, but her fellow travelers (including her own dad and sisters) don’t take so kindly to her trying to behave like a man.
I only know the barest details about Calamity Jane (and mostly from a 1990s cartoon), but I know she has a place in the United States’ cultural legacy as a feminist icon: someone who could keep up with the boys and who is as much a legend of the wild west as Billy the Kid or Buffalo Bill. Within the context of the film itself, although I can’t relate to her specific circumstances, Martha Jane’s struggle with the expectations foisted upon her by a society with very rigid gender roles, really hit me deep inside. Martha Jane lives in a world that tries to box her into a certain way of being, a world that would rather keep her tied down even if letting her free would be beneficial. When others see Martha Jane wearing pants, they are shocked and outraged. This might seem like a relic of the past, but that view persisted deep into the 20th century—a reminder that the fight for equality is ongoing.
The film is visually rich and stunning, giving a sense of the outdoors that is beautiful yet expresses the terror that an unknown trailer to an unseen land can bring about. Everything animates naturally yet not confined by excessive realism, with particularly impressive detail given to the high-paced movement of horses and the mischief of Martha Jane alike. I’m especially fond of Martha Jane’s thick and powerful eyebrows, as they alone seem to stand in defiance of what everyone else tells her is “proper,” and the rest of her character proceeds beautifully from that rebelliousness.
Sometimes a film with a similarly empowering theme will mean well, but seems to get too caught up in the messaging at the expense of execution. However, Calamity avoids that pitfall in a most impressive fashion. The ups and downs experienced by Martha Jane as she tries to learn and master all the skills that aren’t “supposed” to be hers feels genuine—the right amount of grit combined with a lack of experience and a desire to achieve more. It makes her strides and her challenges all the more poignant, and by the time the film is over, the path she marked for herself feels like it can lead to greatness.