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Hollywood Heroines Get Top Billing on the Big Screen

Movies like 'A Little Princess,' 'The Baby-Sitters Club,' and 'Pocahontas' are making 1995 the 'Year of the Girl'

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 16, 1995


FROM high-profile hits like ''Clueless'' and ''Pocahontas'' to would-be sleepers like ''A Little Princess'' and ''The Baby-Sitters Club,'' the message is clear: At the movies, 1995 is the year of the woman - or rather the girl, since the heroines and audiences of these pictures are younger than the twenty-somethings who traditionally crowd theaters in summertime.

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Films for children are always a key ingredient in Hollywood's annual warm-weather blitz, but this year's crop has two distinguishing features.

One is its generally high quality, with a noteworthy number of imaginative stories interpreted by skilled performers and directors who value sensitivity over sensation. For every bombardment of ''Bushwhacked'' vulgarity and ''Mighty Morphin Power Rangers'' violence, there's a low-key ''Indian in the Cupboard'' and a smartly written ''Casper'' to compensate.

The season's other surprise is its emphasis on young female characters. While this trend had its beginning last winter, when ''Little Women'' opened to critical and popular applause, it picked up steam in May when ''A Little Princess'' earned enthusiastic reviews.

The phenomenon then jumped into high gear when Walt Disney Pictures introduced Pocahontas, a far cry from the Snow Whites and Cinderellas who flowed from that studio in bygone years. A competent and confident young woman, she's also the first major figure in a Disney-animated feature to be based on a real historical person - which enhances her credibility as a character and her importance as a role model for young spectators.

The current visibility of Hollywood heroines doesn't mean a stream of similar characters is sure to follow. This season's developments are more likely driven by temporary market strategies - exploiting the novelty value of an underrepresented genre - than by a burst of social or moral awareness on Hollywood's part.

Box-office grosses reign supreme in the movie world, moreover, and the jury is still out on the profitability of pictures centering on girls and young women.

Exhibit A is ''A Little Princess,'' which entered the theatrical arena with excellent credentials - based on a Frances Hodgson Burnett novel, written and produced with obvious care, and directed by newcomer Alfonso Cuaron with an extraordinary number of striking visual ideas. Its very inventiveness seemed to confuse Warner Bros., however, which released it with a lackluster promotional campaign that prompted many observers to wonder if the studio would stand by the picture long enough for audiences to discover its merits.

Ticket sales were indeed sluggish, and the movie was quickly dropped from most of the theaters where it had opened. Discouraged by its lukewarm grosses but heedful of the enthusiastic press it had received, Warner Bros. reissued the film in early August with new advertising. The outcome is still uncertain, although there are no immediate signs that the picture is catching fire with enough viewers to withstand the fiery summer-season competition.

Nor is this a unique situation. ''The Secret of Roan Inish,'' an independent production made by John Sayles on a modest budget, has done only modest business in the months since it was released. And even the popular ''Pocahontas'' is lower on the ledger sheets than Hollywood accountants had anticipated - although the absence of other high-end animations should give it the ongoing ''legs'' for major profitability over the long haul.

These examples aside, other movies focusing on young women point the way to a possibly bright future for the genre. ''Clueless'' appears to be a blockbuster hit, boosted by spunky performances and a hilarious screenplay.