The Wikipedia page of famed frontierswoman Calamity Jane describes her occupation as „explorer, performer, dance-hall girl and prostitute.” She was involved in several campaigns against Native Americans- not really something that is celebrated in the pop culture of 2020. After a messy and adventurous life, she drank herself to death at the age of 51.
It hardly sounds like the biography of a heroine from a children’s movie, but Remi Chaye’s film „Calamity, a childhood of Martha Jane Cannary” (winner of the top prize at this year’s Annecy festival) sidesteps any thorny issues by focusing on Martha Jane’s early years. The film depicts her as a charming tomboy, troublesome enough but always likeable, defying norms and rules while forging her own path.
Chaye’s film finds the 11-year old Martha Jane travelling in a convoy to Oregon with her family, lured by the promise of the West like many people of that time. The convoy travellers are unprepared for the Wild West, though, especially Martha Jane’s father. It will be up to the young girl to save them, while also embarking on various picaresque adventures.
The way our heroine is portrayed here is a very conventional view of unconventional girls: she wears trousers and short hair, much to everyone’s horror, and she loves riding and driving a cart, unlike the other girls who are dainty and weak. The filmmakers do feel the need to specify that she is strictly heterosexual, though, by inserting no less than 2 potential love interests.
Perhaps this is all irrelevant, though, because „Calamity” doesn’t aim to be an innovative story for 2020; instead, it’s proudly old-fashioned in its awe for Westerns and old American tales of troublesome kids like „The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. The script is quite engaging, funny and it moves at a brisk pace, and Martha Jane is a a worthy protagonist, always smart, resourceful and competent, but also mischievous enough to steer clear of Mary Sue status. Maybe little girls do deserve a Western hero of their own.
The lineless visual style is similar to that of Remi Chaye’s other feature, „Long Way North”, another story of a girl behaving in non-girly ways in the 19th century. His previous work includes a stint on Cartoon Saloon’s „The Secret of Kells”, which makes sense, as Chaye has a strong sense of design and colour, but it feels entirely his own. The music is also on-point for the genre; strange to think that old-fashioned American Westerns are being kept alive in a kids’ movie in France.
I watched „Calamity, a childhood of Martha Jane Cannary” as part of Manchester Animation Festival 2020 online; the film is still available to UK-based viewers as an on-demand rental until 30 November.