Do I need to explain why Pixar’s awesome? It’s a given by now, and I’ll only add that they prove a company made up of self-motivated artists devoted to their craft can enjoy continued commercial and critical success.
That said, I just came back from seeing Brave, the most interesting mess of a film this summer alongside Prometheus. I can’t brush it off like Cars (even Pixar, with their deep-rooted integrity, have to placate the investors with merchandise money) or embrace it as many already have, simply because A) It’s Pixar, B) It features a strong female lead, and C) It’s beautifully animated, charming at times, funny at others… in other words, it’s Pixar being Pixar. What’s the deal?
(CAUTION: I try and steer clear of spoilers, especially the huge ones, but I understand I might give away details you might want to avoid if you’re entering the theatre cold, including parts of the finale. Be warned.)
Not a Boys’ Club Anymore
Brave is Pixar’s (supposedly) triumphant return to original content after their pair of sequels, Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, which in turn followed WALL-E and Up, the company’s double-feature-creative-zenith that stretched the limits of what’s allowed in family animation and challenged audiences with a level of pathos rarely seen in cinema. You’ve heard most the praise (and have probably given it yourself) for those two films: Wall-E is a daring experiment in storytelling form – though it can’t maintain its experimental bravado across the whole feature, it manages to carry it most of the way – and Up is a work of genius, perfect from head to toe, beautiful, almost chilling in its honesty, but fun and earnest to the end. It ranks with Fantasia, The Illusionist, and most of Miyazaki’s oeuvre.
In light of this, the sequels were a predictable move, a breathing period for Pixar to reorient itself after accomplishing so much in such little time. Cars 2 wanted nothing more than to be mindless, merchandise-building goofiness, and Toy Story 3… Okay. Yes, it’s a fitting, touching end to a saga near and dear to people’s hearts, with a context (Andy’s grown up at the same rate the audience has) that gives it an added emotional wallop, but removed from the event, and viewed within the narrative’s borders, Toy Story 3 lacks the previous film’s richness of character. It spends less time building the toys as characters – reducing some like Jessie and Buzz to shells of their former self – than moving them through the motions of the finale. It’s a good movie, no doubt, but in the same year that brought us Chomet’s The Illusionist, I dread to call it great. The films delivered as promised, but they whetted apetites more than they satisfied: after two fast, ordinary pitches, fans wanted the ol’ Pixar curveball.
And so we reach Brave, and the first trailer for the film comes out. Ears perked up. Hairs stood taut. Was Pixar brewing another masterpiece? We not only have our first female Pixar protagonist in a series of works focused mostly on boys, men, and their occasional women / girl companions, but the trailer also hints at a tone of high fantasy rooted less in safe Disney world magic and mythology than grim, naturalistic Irish folklore. It was intense and enthralling, and I at least had assuring memories of Don Bluth’s Secret of NIMH, another female-led, epic animated movie that took its fantasy seriously and thereby became a classic (If you haven’t seen it yet, do so – it’s gorgeous and enchanting, the first and greatest of Don Bluth’s Golden Age output). Was Pixar making its own innovative take on animated fantasy?
Hopes were high and optimism dug its feet in the ground, even when following trailers suggested Brave might not be such a radical break from tradition. Sure, the startlingly capable and adventurous female hero Merida turned out to be a conventional “princess looking for freedom,” an amalgam of Ariel, Elizabeth Swann, and Mulan. Granted, the high adventure was replaced by standard family squabbling and slapstick, and it might not have helped for The Hunger Games to come out so close to release, establishing another bow-wielding female badass in the pop culture lexicon. But trust Pixar! Of course the adventure would be mixed with character drama. That’s always been Pixar’s way. Even with the unintentional similarities to previous work, be it The Hunger Games or Tangled or How to Train Your Dragon or so on, Pixar would find a way to make it their own. We continued to hope. Trust Pixar. Give them room to do their thing.
Then the film came out.
“You’ve Changed.” “We Both Have.”
Is Brave a different movie? I… guess. But that’s not the problem. It’s actually the film’s conventional parts, the first half-hour of slapstick, character interplay, and generic soap opera conflicts (“You’re an overbearing mother!” “You’re an unthankful daughter!” “I’m the aloof, easily forgiving dad!”) that work. Although predictable, these sequences are carried by Pixar’s usual charm. The characters are painted with broad strokes but they remain lovable. It’s amusing and I enjoyed myself watching it.
Then comes the twist. I won’t spoil it – I’m not sure if any advertising gave it away; I had no idea walking in – but, put simply, Brave takes a sudden, jarring shift in focus, flow, even basic conflict just as the audience is easing into the film’s rhythm. I will say the film boils down to the relationship between Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, the stately matriarch who expects her daughter to have good manners, stay clean, and marry early. Beyond that, my lips are sealed. If there’s a reason to see the film it might be to find out how bizarre it gets, the plot twisting and barreling another direction with each new MacGuffin.
There’s nothing wrong with a twist late in the game: Psycho did it; No Country for Old Men did it; hell, Wall-E consisted of two halves with very different tones and purposes, but the transition between them was handled gracefully and with strong intention. The filmmakers guided us carefully through the changes so we never fell off the rails. Brave does not take these precautions. Once it shifts, all hands fly off the steering wheel and the film is left to its own devices. Characters cease to be autonomous units capable of decision-making – a fatal flaw in a film about changing one’s fate and seizing destiny. The plot falls back on chance and convenient turns of fate, acceptable narrative tools when used sparingly – nothing to build a whole film off of.
Merida, specifically, punches out as the film’s “strong, capable protagonist.” She’s pinballed from one plot point to another with increasing helplessness, unable to react to the new circumstances or express any opinion beyond, “Hopefully something will come to fix all this!” When a solution presents itself, it is achieved by a fateful alignment of events and external forces. I can’t think of any substantial development in the film’s second half spurred by an internal, conscious character choice. That right there? The building block of all screenplays. Without it and you have a bunch of “And then this happened” instead of “Therefore” or “Buts.” A tepid story without momentum.
That’s what Brave turns into. An extraneous character we’ve never met before, with a backstory and motivation disconnected from everything we’ve seen, appears at the height of the story’s tension and introduces a complication which, while technically set up and hinted at (most vaguely, of course), never arises naturally from the characters’ situation. Instead, the characters are twisted to fit the alien conflict thrust upon them . Now we’re focused on the complication’s superficial consequences, the “Oh my God! This happened” rather than “Oh my God! What does this mean for them now?” The film meanders a while, figures out how to pull the disparate plot threads together, and devises a painful deus ex machina to wrap it all up without giving any satisfying answers.
Then comes the two-line exchange quoted above, the cherry-flavored uppercut on top that seals this film’s writing problems. It’s said between Merida and Elinor, after the insanity is through and done with. It’s said in earnest with all the gravity of a moment aimed straight at the heart – and it’s hilarious. Hilarious because the change is not mutual: Elinor changes, albeit not by her own choice and through a great deal of suffering, but Merida doesn’t change at all. She’s at heart the same person she was at the beginning, down to I’d argue the same vices and bad habits. She claims they’re gone – with the standard speech on swallowing her pride and taking back her mistakes – but we can’t see the evidence. Film is about seeing change and transformation visualized on the screen. What Brave shows is Merida getting everything she wanted: the proper comeuppance against the stuffy Elinor, the forgiveness of her family, freedom from a spouse and major obligation… Even her form of revenge, which seems excessive, does more good than bad in the long run.
We never find the high adventure we expected – not even the drama promised early in the film. Pixar tries to accomplish many things with Brave, some which succeed. What they forget is to give the audience a through-line to see the characters develop, struggle, and ultimately change for better or worse, in their own way.
What to Do with the Female Protagonist
Brave’s screenplay problems, I suspect, run deeper than any single element, and may have to do with overextended, over-eager ambitions stripped of the manpower, tools, or time to execute properly. One issue, however, I think bears heavily on the film, on its problems and perception amongst audiences.
This is the condensed comment, more or less, I’ve heard from most people who’ve watched Brave: “Strong female character… Merida is badass… It sends the right message to girls.” Certainly Brave concerns itself with issues of gender roles and expectations, and Merida, in her attitude, defies the common representation of a princess character in folklore and fairy tale. The film knows that much: it wants to present compelling female leads in Merida and Elinor, the latter a more sympathetic mother figure than we’re used to in animation. It’s this dynamic (expectations vs. desires) which fuels the film’s first half-hour – once again, a breezy, enjoyable segment that knows what it wants to do and does it.
But when Brave goes wrong, its gender message goes wrong. The dichotomy – “free woman” vs. “obedient daughter” – disappears and is replaced not by a gray morality, aware of the issue’s complexity, but mere confusion. As I said, it’s Elinor who pays the price for their conflict. Merida causes it, deals with its consequences, and repents, but it’s Elinor who undergoes the biggest change to accomodate Merida. In the end Elinor accepts Merida as a free woman; Merida accepts Elinor as more of a new play buddy than a mother she should respect. I suspect this is because the filmmakers can’t let Merida experience too deep a change. If she does, then she runs the risk of turning “weak,” of sacrificing her independence for servitude. It’s a real risk, and a fine line to walk, but instead of facing it Pixar punishes Elinor the most until she’s changed enough that Merida only needs a slight adjustment to reconcile.
Pixar can’t figure out how to encourage girls to feel proud of themselves as both females and human beings while reminding them to love, respect, and listen to their parents, and it blows itself up building a shoddy bridge over that minefield, instead of learning the layout and casually walking through. If it took more time to probe the nuances of gender, then its film would have reflected a more cohesive, thought-out argument on the subject.
Better yet: why can’t Pixar have made a film with a female protagonist… that didn’t make a big deal of her being female?
I understand Pixar wants to drive home the theme of strong women (and they do) and that is always appreciated in today’s film industry, with all the Michael Bays and Baz Luhrmanns running amuck. I want as much as anyone to see more capable female characters written with a sympathetic eye, and I respect Brave for trying to do so – but drawing attention to the effort, and the controversy of a princess “being brave,” has the unintended consequence of reminding viewers: hey, princesses in fiction usually aren’t brave or strong. Merida remains a great role model on her own, but the lesson from her actions don’t spread out to other depictions of women in art.
Whereas cutting around the question of “Can a princess be a warrior too?” by saying, “Hell yes!” sets a new standard the audience immediately registers: “Wow! This princess kicks ass! Princesses are awesome!” Going back to my current favorite subject, the Alien films…
…particularly James Cameron’s Aliens: Along with having the empowering Ripley once more as hero, Aliens did something else amazing. I don’t think I’ve seen it since outside Cameron’s own Avatar, which just copied what Aliens accomplished thirty years before. We see a squad of space marines consisting of men and women. The film makes no big deal of this. Although the woman character we follow, played by Jenette Goldstein, is depicted as coarse and, by our society’s standards, “masculine,” nobody stops and says, “You’re not very feminine!” Her presence and behavior is accepted as fact. Uncontroversial, unalterable fact.
Which means, following this train of logic, other squads of marines in the Alien universe are similarly integrated, and other squads presumably have a similar mix of men and women, perhaps women of different dispositions from Goldstein, and presumably this has been the state of affairs for a long while.
You probably never thought that in-depth about Aliens before – because Aliens’ approach works by not drawing attention to itself. Brave leaves you no choice but to see and keep seeing until your eyes hurt.
Similarly, using a different topic than gender, Wallace Wells is a great character in Edgar Wright’s adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. He’s gay, as several characters mention and Wallace openly shows, but the film accepts this as just a part of who he is rather than something to be argued or objected to. Best of all, Kieran Culkin portrays Wallace without any stereotypical indicators of homosexuality – no lisp, no flamboyance, no obsessions with shopping, fashion, etc. He’s an ordinary looking, droll, very funny man, a lot more mature and sure of himself than half the people around him.
And as you probably guessed, nobody mentions the absence of these traits – which is probably why you realize it only in passing, after the fact if at all. Women’s rights and homosexuality are serious issues that should be advocated and argued for, openly and directly, but in cinema, the time for direct address may have passed, and now it’s time to cement the perspective of future films and filmgoers by establishing the norm for which these interpretations should be judged. And the best way to do that is by accepting these portrayals as run-of-the-mill, everyday fare – just the way things are.
After that long spiel on gender and social change in film, let’s return to the question in my header: Why is Brave called “Brave?” What about that word summarizes the film’s themes, message, and concerns enough it deserves to represent the movie to the public? Does Merida act brave? I suppose, though only in the broadest sense – there’s no specific examples to list. Was it brave for her to realize her mistakes? Once again, she takes just the smallest step back from her actions. Otherwise she stands unchanged. Her mother, perhaps, might deserve the label, although the film never fully makes this connection in the scenes where it’s most notable, and I don’t consider it too brave to conform to your daughter’s self-image after she punished you so horribly.
Maybe it was a working title from an early version that stuck to the current one, but as is, Pixar fails to paint a unified picture of what it wants to do with Brave, whether because of faulty screenwriting or confused gender politics or some other issue yet unnamed. At any rate, Brave is clearly made with a loving artist’s hand, and a lot of thought went into it as is always true of Pixar productions, but I have to be honest with myself even when watching Pixar: when a film doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, presiding over Brave‘s funeral, “So it goes.”