Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Brave Thoughts


I just saw the 9:45 showing of Brave in 2D at 86th and 3rd. I didn't want the animation to be muddied or dark, and I'm very glad I saved the three bucks and forewent seeing it in 3D.

The movie is utterly charming. It's funny, it's madcap, it's sweet, it is absolutely stunningly beautiful. I was actually jarred a few times by the photorealism. The score is lovely- the second song less memorable and moving than the first- but in general it's a movie that fits together beautiful. After all, look at the people who made it.

Because it is a Pixar film, it is extremely easy to find the faults, because they stick up from the surrounding landscape like great stone monoliths. There's a lull in the middle. Some of the mad cap is too mad cappy, some of the gags were obvious and not particularly clever. The humor aimed at small children was the weakest, but the younger members of my audience laughed boisterously through them, so clearly those jokes hit their mark, just like the impeccably rendered arrows Merida lets fly with such abandon and skill. BAM. LIKE A WRITER,YO.

The core of the film is the relationship between Merida, a sixteen year old tomboy who has only ever treated her future title as a distantly looming annoyance, and her mother Queen Eleanor, who is so steeped in tradition she believes in magic. They are both awesome. Their story is fantastic- they love each other deeply, amuse and vex and exasperate each other endlessly, and for all the world cannot get the other to hear what they mean to say, because they're both so busy trying to do that that neither one of them is listening to the other. They war, come to an understanding, and forgive each other. Both grow in the process. I cried like a baby at the end. Like ya do, it's Pixar (full disclosure: I have seen neither of the Cars movies, nor do I... particularly intend to. If you cried during either of them, please tell me so in the comments below).

The parts of the film that confused me were the MacGuffins. Or didn't confuse me, exactly, I just felt they weren't entirely necessary.

Find them after the jump

1: Why was the old witch obsessed with bears? Were the too many unhappy customers a reference to EVERYONE, after war broke out? Did the Fourth brother go to her before or after the war began? It would make sense to go before to get all tricked out with witchery to go beat some heads and conquer a kingdom, but if it turned him into a bear the next day, then he couldn't have been too successful. Was the witch obsessed with bears before she started a war by turning some dude into one? Or is the bear carving obsession a manifestation of guilt? Either way, why the hell would she think it was even kind of vaguely a good idea to use that spell a second time? The whole timeline of that story and the motivation of the witch made me crinkle my nose and go "wait, but". Maybe this just indicated the necessity of a second viewing.

2: The tapestry and the mother's belief in magic. Because there are no throw-away lines in Disney movies, as soon as Queen Eleanor said she believed in magic, I lent that significance, beyond the fact that Merida, too, believed. Merida believed because she had seen it. I assumed that meant Eleanor had, also. When we are shown Eleanor sewing at the tapestry and muttering to herself, I assumed the item was in some way magical, an assumption that seemed well served when Merida sliced the tapestry, separating her mother from her family, Eleanor's subsequent reaction, and again when the witch delivered her not really at all cryptic out- that to reverse the spell, Merida would have to mend what had been torn by pride.

When Merida delivered her speech to the clans, and her mother pantomimed her through the last part of it, that was Eleanor mending the rift her pride had caused. Not caving to her daughter's whims but understanding Merida's feelings and acknowledging them to be right. Merida mended the rift caused by her pride when she begged her mother to come back because she loved her and needed her. The tapestry was purely a signifier that I believe served no purpose whatsoever other than as a plot device to get them to castle/start the chase/prevent Queen Eleanor from being all kinds of naked in the final scene. The tapestry was a foil for the characters, distracting them from what needed to be done, offering Merida a (false) tangible answer to an intangible problem. So clearly the tapestry didn't have anything to do with the witch's warning or the spell at all. I'm still not sure how much of what I saw on screen was meant to purposefully mislead us to believe it did, though.

So, yeah. There was a lull in the middle, they caught fish for too long, and the wacky brothers were far more entertaining in their 15 seconds as bears than they were in the rest of the film. The clan leaders and sons were used just enough to be funny and not dwelt upon too long, which I appreciated. Ultimately, the story was moving and fun, if not as neat or clever as I have come to expect from Pixar. Damn good, but not great. So I'm kind of surprised by the critical backlash online.

I do feel that it was missing something, the same way The Princess and the Frog was missing something (cough the score cough Randy you've done better see also: Faust), that ethereal something that pulled it together to make it not just exceptional but actually great. I think Brave is going up against some problematic mindsets though. Firstly, because Merida is technically a Disney princess, she is being held up against Ariel and Belle, and to a lesser degree Pocahontas, Mulan, Rapunzel, and then the pretty blondes with the soft 40s voices who I adore but who are not toted as the best of role models these days. If you compare and contrast the behavior, decisions, and character of these young women, Merida's doing just fine. She has as many and more foibles and equal or greater strength than most of them. Belle and Ariel are from movies that are considered classics if not masterpieces, however, and though both led their own films, the primary force behind their stories was romantic love. Secondly, because Brave is a Pixar movie, it is being held up against a long series of films that were, one after the other, in some way considered revolutionary or exceptional for their genre. Toy Story was the first of its kind, certainly not buddy-comedy dynamic wise, but in pretty much every other respect. Finding Nemo is goddamn genius. Pixar takes stories that are not really all that ground breaking- disenfranchised nobody overcomes all odds to become celebrated artist (Ratatouille, anyone?)- but tells them in such a fantastically original, creative way that they are utterly transformed and become new again for the audience. Brave didn't have that same level of reinvention and ingenuity behind its story.

Thirdly, so much was made of Brave being Pixar's first movie with a female protagonist that it's difficult to imagine a way in which they could have satisfied the immense but immensely vague expectation that fact seemed to generate. I'm sure there are people out there with ideas of how they could have done this better- I still think there are things about Brave that should have been changed- but it's not like this movie fails to deliver. It is unparalleled in its animation, it is endearing and harrowing and fun. Good work, everyone.

There are a few things out there that have bothered me but in particular, this comment from Richard Lawson (that comes in the middle of an otherwise okay review) doesn't just rub me the wrong way, it pisses me right the hell off:

But still, why is the Pixar movie with the female lead a movie solely about female relationships?

This question... Ugh. Firstly, it is incorrect. We see Merida's relationship with her father very clearly, from extremely early on the film. It remains strong throughout. We see her relationship with her brothers, we see her relationship or lack thereof with her suitors. The movie is not solely about female relationships. There is, in fact, only one female relationship on display, and it happens to be the relationship the story's about. Secondly, I'm sorry, have you found there to be a lack of Pixar movies about male relationships? Because I haven't. Why wasn't there a female character in the original Toy Story who participated in the action? Or did Richard feel that since Dory helped Al Brooks the clown fish find his son in that Father-Son story, Merida should have had a platonic male companion that facilitated her search for her mother?  We have seen male characters as rivals, as buddies, male characters as heroes, male characters as villains, male characters as victims. We have seen female characters as support, as romantic love interests, as platonic friends. Some have even been vital to the action (Jessie! Dory! Eve!). Legitimately strong female characters! Love you, Pixar! None have led the way, however, and none have had significant relationships with other female characters.

Maybe the first Pixar movie with a female lead is about female relationships because they are important and extremely underrepresented in both the Disney and Pixar catalogs?  Maybe because there's a lack of Mother-Daughter stories outside the genre of 'chick flicks' that those stories are normally relegated to? Are magic and adventure not allowed in girl stories unless there's a prince involved? What the hell is the point of this question? I really don't know, but I can tell you what the implication of it is.

The implication of this question is, why wasn't there a male character to help Merida along the way? The answer is, because she didn't fucking need one.

And on a final note, dat hair. Fabulous.


Ashley said...

Amen to this whole review.

Castling said...

Your response to Lawson's review and the well-animated hair aside, Brave is just an awful fucking film. It's schizophrenic, pointless, and totally boring.

I wonder if woman WANT to like this film and are finding ways to defend it. I wonder if the filmmakers were pandering to that possibility. I wonder a lot of things...I'm mostly just totally shocked that anyone over the age of 8 could like this film.

As a post-modern feminist who considers her Mom to be her best friend, who loves bears, and who generally loves Pixar, I have to say that Brave sucked a lot and I'm sad Pixar made such a shitty effort with story and character development in a film that is all about a female relationship.

EruditeChick said...

I agree it was slightly schizophrenic, and that sucks, and I assume came from the changing hands of artistic control during production.

I went in wary, expect to be underwhelmed because of what I had heard from so many people, including good friends whose opinions I respect and frequently agree with. And I didn't love it. It didn't have NEMO magic. But neither have several of Pixar's films, not for me. Ratatouille has good points, but it's by no means a favorite of mine. Bug's Life is also funny and charming, and I watched it a few weekends ago while I was cleaning my apartment, but it isn't magic, for me. Brave isn't Pixar's best work, but I really don't understand the hate. Disappointment and exasperation? Sure. But not the hate. It's not a great movie, but I don't think it's a bad one, either, and I feel like the level of vitriol being leveled against it, especially by the online/blogging community, is disproportionate.

Castling said...

We'll just agree to disagree. Because I think the hate is appropriate--it's a really, really horrible film and Disney/Pixar are better than this (or should be). It's just really lackluster storytelling and I think most critics expected more from that studio.

EruditeChick said...

We certainly shall!

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