So far, Pixar has had an incredible batting average with their filmic output, releasing hit after hit that appeal to multiple generations. Using a wit and sense of humor that is simultaneously family friendly without condescension, they have brought the computer animated film out of the realm of niche-market and brought it into the realm of the blockbuster. It was no small surprise that kids would find Toy Story or Cars endlessly re-watchable, but its quite a feat to string along the parents, too. Even people without kids, and film nerds who love to hate on everything, have to admit that Pixar have done what few other animation studios could ever accomplish: create an output that is both popular in its time and well after the fact.
My love of Wall-E was, sadly, hard won. I spent a lot of time avoiding Pixar, merely because they seemed marketed towards “kids.” However, after much soul searching, I realized I was exactly their target market, and have now come to love the ones I’ve seen. However, Brave has created in me some doubt. What came across as a Scottish adventure featuring a female lead, became a mother / daughter bonding flick that was better suited as a Disney Channel afternoon film, rather than a theatrical release. By ingraining the characterizations with stereotypes and anachronistic motives – and relying on a very overt metaphor to convey the central thrust of the film – the few adventurous moments came across as if they were tacked on, rather than the backbone of the story.
Brave revolves around three central stereotypes and a cast of ancillary Scots that fulfill more sitcom-inspired relationship dynamics than three dimensional characters rendered by top of the line computers should be able to. Both of the parents appear to be cut from modern American behavioral cloth: the perfectionist, commanding, family leader, Queen Elinor, and her oafish, loud, butt-of-most-jokes husband, King Fergus. The father makes no attempt to understand anything more than what is immediately ahead of him, while the mother is constantly concerned with her daughter’s future. It’s suggested that this is because the daughter will eventually marry an important prince, and thus bring peace to a land that could break out into war at the drop of a hat, but as it turns out it’s very easy to talk the entire kingdom out of this. (In fact, their daughter Merida convinces everyone in Scotland that they don’t need to follow tradition at all, in what amounts to a couple of minutes in the middle of the film, thus leaving the family problems to take up the real story arc being followed.)
Ultimately, the film is about Elinor wanting to control Merida, Merida wanting to control her own life, and her father being just clueless enough that he foolishly thinks they will work this out between themselves without the help of magic. The arguments and fights between mother and daughter are so predictable that when Merida runs away, we feel that we’ve seen this story play out hundreds of times, and when she brings in a witch to help convince Elinor to be more understanding, it seems so incredibly swiped from the Disney trope-of-the-week bin that you have to wonder if this is even a Pixar movie anymore. Perhaps even more ham-fisted than the hodge-podge of plot-predictability is the use of the most literal metaphor I’ve seen in years: Merida’s mother is actually a bear for the majority of her time on screen. Get it? The fact that any girl has not referred to her own mother as being a “bear” since the era that is depicted in this film was probably considered to be one of the references “for the adults.”
What saves the film are the advances in computer animation, something that has always been an element of Pixar’s films. It’s true that the hair & cloth look more like the real deal than either ever have in any computer animated film. The range of the color pallet is fantastic; this is a vivid, compelling film that looks great on the screen. The sound design is some of the best ever realized in a theater, and there is a lot of evidence to point to that illustrates these technical achievements. The short before the feature – La Lune – is probably one of my favorite Pixar films, period. It uses a very simple premis, all of the technical know-how up the studio’s sleeves, and practically nothing else, to create a fantastic gem that is unfortunately overshadowed by the feature that follows it. In many ways, Brave comes off as a film that wanted to show off all the new toys that Pixar has developed, but forgot to call the writers that usually work on their films to punch up the story.
Probably the most disappointing aspect of the movie are the blatant stereotypes: fiery daughters, heavy accents, an intelectual shortfall among the men, and a general amount of oafishness is added to every scene, and every Scottish gag and jab is thrown in time and time again. Pixar has never been afraid of adding a liberal layer of jokes overtop the emotional thrust of their stories, but in Brave the effort seems directed at making the subject of the film the butt of every joke, and the emotional components of the film seem whiney. Pixar has made the claim that this is their first “fairy tale” film, and thus many of the tropes therein are most certainly going to bubble to the surface. But there are only so many negative Braveheart references that any viewer can take before you feel beaten over the head with the Scottishness of everything. Yes, it is set in Scotland. We get it. Stereotypes do exist for a reason, true, but they are not a replacement for good story and characterization.
And the stereotypes are not just limited to Scottish jokes. Men – middle aged, at least – are constantly poked fun of, and it is suggested that this oafishness is merely a male trait that must be put up with. Women fare no better, coming across as short-tempered and demanding, with no ability to see the point of view of others without having to go through an ordeal to learn that lesson first. In many ways, the film suggests that mothers and daughters all follow one path: mom cares for daughter, daughter becomes ungrateful, mom becomes a bear, daughter helps mom overcome this by growing up a little herself, and they both spend their days living out a sort of Gilmore Girls fantasy friendship where they finally see eye-to-eye. In much the same way that Disney films tend to reinforce pop gender stereotypes, Brave presents the same sitcom gender roles that have been present for the last 30 years or so.
This is not to say that Pixar has lost all hope. In spite of its shortcomings, Brave is incredibly well made, and La Lune is entirely worth the price of admission on its own. But as Pixar’s first fairy tale, and their first film with a female lead, I was hoping for something closer to Mulan and less like Freaky Friday. They spend a lot of time setting up that Merida is accomplished with a bow and arrow, and yet aside from some great trick-shots the typical “school’s out” scene, Merida’s marksmanship does not help save the day. Her fiery, impulsive nature gets her intro trouble constantly, and its suggested that tempering her adventurousness is what will guide her in the future. In fact, it becomes clear pretty early that, rather than a fun adventure fairy tale, its actually a pre-teen coming-of-age story.
And there is always a market for a movie like this, undoubtedly. Brave will find an audience, and I’m sure it will even do well in the future. The open mocking of men, “ethnic humor” (as they used to call racial stereotypes in the 80’s), and flashy visuals have always appealed to wide audiences, and there is no question that in this post-modern age of micro-markets the film will eventually find a comfortable resting place in the media landscape that surrounds us. (I’m sure The Disney Channel is already clearing space in their after-school line-up to house Brave for a few months after it’s had a good theater run.) Still, for what was marketed as a good adventure fairy tale with a female lead, we instead I got a 90+ minute TV comedy about how hard it is to be a teenage girl, how inept men are, and how mean mom can be.
Oh: and hair that looks pretty realistic. Ish.