Wednesday, July 04, 2012
I don't know what's been in the water in Hollywood but the first half of this year seems to have been the season of the Warrior (young) Woman: The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, and now Brave. On the heels of the "year of women" on TV (with breakout hits 2 Broke Girls, New Girl, Girls, Whitney, Once Upon A Time, Revenge, Scandal, Don't Trust the B in Apartment 23, and the quickly canned Playboy Club, Pan Am, GCB, etc) I suppose it makes sense to see female heroes figure prominently at the movies too.
It seemed promising that Pixar was FINALLY, after nigh 20 years, going to feature a female lead character. After 2 decades of creativity in male leads (toys, a rat, a fish, a car, a trash compactor, etc) Pixar gave us a female.....fairy tale princess. Oh. Don't get me wrong, as far as princesses go, she's awesome. She bucks tradition, she shoots a bow and arrow, rides a horse, climbs rocks. But come on! Princesses are so easy, Disney animation has been doing princesses for 75 years. We expect novelty from you, Pixar. Granted, I'm sure this is an original story, not a re-purposed, sanitized, fairy tale of central European origin, but princesses and witches (about which more in a moment) and spells and royal suitors. Been there, done that. (The scene with the witch in her cottage/workshop and her wise-cracking raven seems to have been dropped in from a different movie altogether. I don't know exactly what happened here but it seems completely out of step with the rest of the movie and pitched in a completely different tone.)
One thing we see in Brave that we haven't really seen from Pixar since The Incredibles, though, is a touching, loving traditional family. Yes, Merida and Elinor bicker constantly, but there is no question that they all care for each other deeply, and the antagonism between mother and daughter is borne out of frustration of being misunderstood, not genuine dislike. And everyone loves the three little impish brothers.
Once again, a Pixar film threads the needle of marrying tradition or the past to progress or the future (see Wall*E, Ratatouille, Toy Story 3, Cars, etc). Brave affirms respect for cultural tradition as useful means of understanding life/morality/culture while also allowing that it need not dictate your choices/way of life today. A lesson vital to understanding America and in need of retelling to maintain progress. You can't move forward clutching the past, but you become rootless, adrift, if you cut all ties to that which came before. The movie reaffirms the necessity of tradition and progress by making it necessary for Merida to understand why her mother was so intent on tradition and passing down the cultural values (and in doing so, saves her mother's life by re-sewing a tapestry her mother had sewn when she was younger, exactly the sort of thing she wouldn't want to be doing) while Elinor develops her own version of her daughter's courage and fortitude in fighting off Mor'du, the demon bear, to save Merida. They discover they do in fact need, and need to respect, each other. They learn acceptance of loved ones for who they are, not who we want them to be. I thought it was great that Merida owns up to her mistake and takes responsibility for what happened to her mother, she doesn't try to pass the buck onto the witch who didn't tell her how the spell worked.
One thing I wish the writers would've done differently is not have the three suitors be such worthless goofballs (even worse prospects than Princess Jasmine had before Prince Ali Ababwa came around). It's easy for us to see this ragtag bunch and say of course she should reject them. I wonder how we would feel if they were more charming, more impressive guys. I think it would make her choice to reject the tradition feel more substantial, because as written it can seem like she's just rejecting these guys because they suck, when in reality she is supposed to be that she's rejecting the whole idea of getting married off due to long-standing tradition. Then again, rejecting more suitable suitors would only be taken as further evidence in by the "Is Merida Gay?" camp.
I love animation and one thing I appreciate about the animation in this movie is they don't go for the creepy uncanny valley realism that keeps Robert Zemeckis up nights; the characters have big expressive faces and are cartoonish in their features and scale.
They arrive on-screen already looking like toys, and with merchandising profits outstripping box office receipts for kids movies, that's the kind of thing that only helps the bottom line.
If you like you're princesses powerful and fighting and brave and heroic, you really need to see Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Hayao Miyazaki's 1984 animated masterpiece. It really is one of the best animated films ever made.