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'

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.

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.

Lending a touch of irony to its success is the fact that filmmaker Amy Heckerling borrowed her basic plot - about a teenager who fancies herself more sophisticated than the younger girl she takes under her wing - from Jane Austen's great novel ''Emma,'' dating from 1816. While there's little trace of Austen's elegant style in the volleys of ''y'know'' and ''as if!'' that pour from the film's Valley Girl-type characters, their Los Angeles high school amusingly fits the author's description of a learning institution ''where girls might be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.'' (The film also touches on contemporary issues of premarital sex and drug use.)

On a lower literary level, the comic-book spinoff ''Casper'' is one of the season's more successful moneymakers, fortunately for the Universal Pictures executives who sank $50 million into it. Its strongest asset is young Christina Ricci, who projects a distinctive and appealing personality - as she did in the ''Addams Family'' movies - despite the expensive visual effects competing for attention in almost every scene. She'll star again for Universal in ''Gold Diggers: The Secret of Bear Mountain,'' a story of friendship between two 13-year-old girls, opening Nov. 3.

At Columbia Pictures, hopes are high for ''The Baby-Sitters Club,'' opening Aug. 18 with box-office assistance from the best-selling Ann M. Martin books that inspired it. Featuring almost a dozen teenage girls, its sometimes sentimental story - about a youngster getting to know her estranged father while helping her friends run a backyard summer camp - is directed by Melanie Mayron with a laid-back style that distinguishes it from high-energy pictures like ''Casper'' and ''Clueless.''

Meanwhile, there are plenty of movies with not-so-young heroines to catch up with. These include ''Dangerous Minds,'' with Michelle Pfeiffer as a high school teacher confronting a class of inner-city students, and ''Something to Talk About,'' scripted by ''Thelma and Louise'' writer Callie Khouri, starring Julia Roberts as a woman coping with a crisis in her marriage. While neither film merits much enthusiasm on dramatic or cinematic grounds, each places feminine concerns squarely at the center of interest.

And coming soon, by some strange coincidence, are two unrelated vampire movies with female monsters: ''The Addiction,'' featuring Lili Taylor under Abel Ferrara's direction, and ''Nadja,'' with Elina Lowensohn starring for director Michael Almereyda and producer David Lynch.

Filmmakers far from Hollywood are also weighing in with woman-centered works. An example currently on American screens is ''Double Happiness,'' written and directed by Mina Shum, who tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian woman trying to satisfy her parents' old-world values while finding an up-to-date Western identity of her own.

All this female-oriented activity notwithstanding, boy-centered pictures are as plentiful as ever. Current offerings range from the tried-and-true heroics of ''Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home,'' a garden-variety sequel about a boy and his whale, to the understated whimsy of ''The Indian in the Cupboard,'' a fantasy about a preteen who finds that his new cupboard brings toy cowboys and Indians to life.

Although director Frank Oz doesn't bring enough energy to this picture - perhaps accounting for its sleepy performance at the ticket window - it's one of the few summer pictures with a genuine idea to get across, reminding youngsters that history is made of real people rather than Hollywood caricatures, and suggesting that on-screen violence may contribute to chaos and confusion in real life.

Whatever the movie's shortcomings, that's a message worth considering by boys and girls alike.

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