This is the second part of my random thoughts on Pixar’s Brave. Please read Part 1 first; it talks more about the art and character of the film. This half will look a little deeper into the story.
Brave vs. Tangled
Story-wise, Brave is much more similar to Disney’s 2011 film Tangled, since the prevailing conflict of each film is a strong-willed princess daughter rebelling against a mean ol’ (step)mother’s rules while being personally conflicted about their relationship. Axe-wielding ruffians, magic, and big hair are tangentially involved in both films.
There are some major differences, though. In Tangled, Rapunzel’s mother figure is a kidnapper, which means that the audience can overlook any disobedience. It’s a clever trick of the writers, but Rapunzel doesn’t know this, so she’s being genuinely defiant to someone who she thinks is loving and trustworthy. When she runs away from home a happy adventure ensues, wonderful things happen to her, and everybody’s life gets better (except for her stepmother’s life, which gets shorter). It’s kind of a problematic message for kids, when you think about it.
However, a lot of Christian reviewers disagreed. The colors and music and story and cuteness were so appealing that it was easy to make excuses for the problems of story… and worse, the moral problems of the characters. There was a lot of arguing between the various pundits who identified with Rapunzel’s character or situation and those who found the plot and theme disturbing.
Ultimately, of course, everyone would agree that rebellion per se is bad, but the complicated situational ethics of the movie confused people who should have known better. Don’t believe me? A lot of the same reviewers who had nothing but glowing praise for the messages of Tangled are deeply uncomfortable with the exact same messages that they see in Brave.
For example, the same reviewer that praised the “sacramental quality” of the magic in Tangled warned of the “strong occult content” in Brave. The magic is sparkly and gold in one, and smoky and blue in the other, but they should be equally antithetical to a Christian observer. I think the real difference is that one magical tool is sunny and flowery, and the other requires the stereotypical newt-and-frog cauldron process.
To be honest, I too walked out of Tangled liking it, and it was only on reflection that I started to realize that I was excusing serious problems because of all the fluffy fun of it. Brave was different in that it made me uncomfortable right away, and it’s easy to see why. A lot of reviewers fell for the aggressively saccharine treatment of Rapunzel’s story, and her manic pixie dream girl perkiness, and the charming love-at-first sight lantern-lit romanticality. It never makes us feel bad because the characters that we like don’t suffer any consequences for anything. Who doesn’t want to live in that world?
Brave’s characters have to deal with consequences. Big ones. There aren’t any loopholes for Merida’s attitude, nothing that will let her off the hook that her actions have hung her on. She is selfish child who wants to shirk her responsibilities as a future queen, and ride and shoot all day. She fights and snarls at her mother, who honestly loves and cares for her. She sullenly buys a cursed pastry from a witch and slyly tricks her mother into eating it. The next thing she knows, her grief-stricken father is hunting down her panicking bear-mother, and Merida can no longer pretend that this disaster isn’t her fault.
Smoky blue magic aside, Merida’s world is far more realistic than Rapunzel’s. Brave makes Tangled look like a Barbie doll commercial. Because of these seemingly harsh realities, most reviewers, especially Christians, seem uncomfortable recommending it for kids, but I think that children should learn that actions have consequences, that selfishness can hurt people, and that your parents will try to protect you.
When all seems lost, Merida repents of her bad attitude, confesses what she has done, and, with only seconds left to say goodbye, tries to tell her mother how much she really loves her. Isn’t this a better role model for young girls than the self-justified and always right Rapunzel, whose most heroic moment in her film is telling the stepmother how much she despises her?
You parents reading this, would you prefer to explain the Biblical concept of magic to your kids while watching a movie where spells and incantations do only good, helpful things, or a film where every enchantment is strange and destructive, associated with creepy blue fire and pagan stone circles? Yes, one of these movies is scarier than the other, but it will result in much more thoughtful family conversations.
Tangled takes place in a magical Victorian/Medieval/Renaissance/Candyland, where even the greediest jewel thieves are handsome and charming hunks. Will you be able to warn your daughters that he’s not a good matrimonial prospect? Disney spent millions of dollars and lots of Glen Keane’s unparalleled artistic ability to convince your daughter otherwise by making him seem noble, nice, and like Rapunzel’s obvious destiny. Besides, when Rapunzel’s parent warned her about him, she was being mean and evil and wrong. Can you compete with that level of emotional manipulation?
The ultimate question we need to ask about these movie is not which has less evil in it, but which movie calls evil good, and which movie calls evil evil. Brave easily wins this contest, but unfortunately, it leaves a lot of evil completely unaddressed, and introduces some serious confusion.
Brave vs. Brenda Chapman
When Brave was announced, it was pitched as Pixar’s first film with a female protagonist, and also their first film with a female director. This generated a lot of press about Brenda Chapman breaking into the Pixar boy’s club, and bringing feminism to the screen, and various speculations about how everything was going to change. Then, when Pixar fired her from the project, articles appeared all over the web about how the glass ceiling had fallen on her, and how the chauvinistic male execs at Pixar had chickened out on their edgy, ground-breaking girl movie.
Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews in late 2010, at roughly the halfway point in actual production, citing the usual “creative differences.” When Brad Bird replaced Jan Pinkava on Ratatouille, we knew enough about his signature style to at least guess at what he might have brought to the table. In this case, Chapman was one of three directors on Prince of Egypt, and in the story department on a number of Disney films, and Andrews has been in the story departments of a number animated films from different studios, so it’s very hard to tell which story concepts came from which director.
We do know that Chapman did want to really push the strong-willed-princess angle, though. In a recent interview she explains her motivation: “Because of marketing, little girls gravitate toward princess products, so my goal was to offer up a different kind of princess — a stronger princess that both mothers and daughters could relate to, so mothers wouldn’t be pulling their hair out when their little girls were trying to dress or act like this princess. Instead they’d be like, ‘Yeah, you go girl!’”
I don’t know how many mothers actually want their daughters to relate to a princess whose only real strengths are defying and nearly killing her mother (and tearing through dresses). In fact, I’d think that most 21st century moms would be very relieved to see their daughters emulating traditional manners and respect for parents, but nevermind.
Reviews jumped on the progressive feminist film angle, but they can’t really agree on what it means. “Holds True to its Feminist Slant,” says the Urban Daily. “A Feminist Triumph!” trumpets Hypable. “A heroine who does not need saving any more than she needs/wants a man!” gushes Ms. Magazine. Indiewire went so far to say that Merida is Pixar’s first lesbian character, and Entertainment Weekly agreed that she was, at the very least, built to appeal to the gay market.
Hardcore feminists, though, are not so sure. Most of them like elements of the film, but don’t feel that the message goes far enough. Time Magazine published an editorial entitled “Why Pixar’s Brave Is a Failure of Female Empowerment.” Jezebel’s reviewer was equally disappointed, asking “maybe they just thought having a female lead was enough?” It’s not surprising that there’s so much confusion on this issue; the film itself is confused. A number of modern gender-equality clichés are trotted out in a world where they don’t even apply.
“A Scottish redhead fights the patriarchy!” Salon’s review cheered, but there is no sign of patriarchy in Brave. King Fergus is every bit as subjugated and submissive to his wife’s will as the castle servants. He doesn’t have a single speech, thought, or fight that isn’t prompted, interrupted, or finished by his wife. This isn’t as painfully obvious as it sounds, because in every case his wife is right, and he, like every man in this movie, is an idiotic, drunken, immature brawler.
There is no male domination in this movie, and no male conventions to break. The only thing that Merida is kicking against is Queen Elinor’s rules. Yes, there’s talk about ancient traditions, but when push comes to shove, it turns out that nobody believes the old legends but Elinor and Merida, and the clan leaders are only too happy to break traditions, as long as they can break some crockery while they’re at it.
The inciting incident happens when Merida is being forced into a marriage to prevent war. She bristles at this, partly because the three suitors are the most imbecilic characters in the film, but mostly because a girl kicking against forced marriage is cinematic shorthand for spirited, ahead-of-her-time girl power. The movie’s themes don’t have anything to do with marriage or betrothal, it was just a convenient thing for mother and daughter to fight over, and something that modern audiences would immediately be indignant about.
Kind of like the old corset lacing scene. If you want to show your main character as a spunky free-thinker being constricted by traditional values, just have her complain about how uncomfortable corsets are. This is a literary cliché that predates film, but Hollywood still uses it a lot, like in Mulan, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pocahontas 2, and the new Alice in Wonderland, just to name the recent Disney films. It’s worth noting that Brave takes place hundreds of years before corsets were invented, but Merida (and only Merida) gets squeezed into one just the same.
It’s also worth noting that, as threatened, the war does actually break out, in the very dining hall of the castle. Elinor is outraged, and she puts a stop to it by dragging her husband, and the other clan leaders, out of the fray by their ears. They get a sound scolding in front of their soldiers, and that’s that. The peace lasts until she leaves the room. Statecraft in this particular Scotland is even more like ordering four-year-olds around than modern international diplomacy.
Unlike the Vikings in Dragon these Scots aren’t fighting for survival or domination or justice or anything. They’re just a childish parcel o’ rogues who love quaffing and quarrelling for fun, and Queen Elinor doesn’t, not for moral reasons, but because it’s hard on the peace and its hard on the furniture. And she’s the boss, which means the movie is about feminism after all.
Elinor is a strong, intelligent, calm and unflappable queen, superior to all the men in her domain. She makes the rules, cracks down on displays of silly masculinity, and her word is law. Feminists like all of this. But then, Merida is a spunky tomboy who wants to follow her heart and be her own woman. She questions authority, eschews traditional femininity, and won’t bow to any rules. Feminists like all this, too.
It’s no wonder that these two characters end up fighting, or that feministic reviewers are fighting over this film. Nobody can agree on what this film means, because its main messages conflict with each other, and there is no over-arching theme to unify things.
Brave vs. Brave
There are two over-arching themes. No, I guess there are three. Ok, four. The film open with a voice over from Princess Merida talking about fate, explaining that “It’s the one thing we search for, or fight to change. Some never find it. But there are some who are led.” The little blue spirits do lead her to her destiny, but is fate predestination? If so, how can you fail to find it? Can you actually change it, or just fight vainly against it?
This is just mythic-sounding gobbledygook. It doesn’t actually set up the story or tell us the rules of this world. How to Train Your Dragon begins with the main character introducing the world in a dry, on-the-nose, even monotone voiceover. It’s not as solemn and vague as Brave’s, but when it ends, you know the names of all the characters, where they live, how the dragons work, and the main theme of the film.
Brave’s theme isn’t even about fate, at all, so making the introduction revolve around it is weak. Merida mentions fate once more, in Act II, when she asks for the witch to use magic to change her fate. Again, we don’t know if “fate” means circumstance, environment, other people, opportunity, destiny, or anything. It doesn’t come up again until the closing voice over: “Some say fate is beyond our command, but I know better. Our destiny is within us. You just have to be brave enough to see it.”
This last line is really, really important, because it’s the only connection that the film has to its title. The film isn’t about cowardice or courage, the moral tests aren’t about bravery, and the only verbal mentions of fear or fearlessness are in relation to the three stooge suitors. The Bear and the Bow is a much more apt title, so I think “Brave” was chosen to be subtly reminiscent of Mel Gibson’s Scottish Oscar-winning blockbuster smash.
So, if the theme isn’t in its title, and it isn’t in the introductory comments, is it the feminism angle? Well, not really. The film is certainly set in a feministic world, where men have ceded control to feminists, but the groundbreaking girl power theme is more present in the marketing than the movie itself. In every interview the creators are focused on this, even when they say they aren’t.
“Because she’s adventurous and athletic and outdoorsy, her gender is not the most important thing about her.” explained producer Katherine Sarafian, but cinema is filled with adventurous, athletic, outdoorsy characters. In order for Merida to be as gutsy and new a character as we’re told, she has to be a girl, and we have buy into the presupposition that girls have never been adventurous, athletic, outdoorsy characters.
We’ve been seeing adventurous female characters since the silent era, and the movie’s themes are equally long in the tooth. This is not a bad thing; there are as few good themes as there are good story elements – and one of the themes is very good. “A true queen will always sacrifice her desires for her people,” Elinor teaches her daughter. The other theme is not so good: “Always be true to yourself and follow your heart,” as taught by Merida. These themes do not go together. They are in total opposition to each other, like many of this film’s elements.
This is why the opinions on this film are so varied. Depending on your interpretation, this movie teaches almost anything. The genre is even variable, since the audience can decide whether they want to be moved by Elinor’s horror at becoming a bear or laugh as she struggles with the embarrassment of suddenly being huge, hairy, and slobbery. The movie plays alternate scenes for pathos and comedy, and it only says “this is good” or “this is bad” about a few, simple, safe things. Nobody is offended when you disapprove of forced marriage, but no comment is made on the witch.
And by not passing judgment on the events of the film, the directors missed out on a lot of opportunity. Opportunities for teaching good lessons and bad. Ideas of feminism, bravery, destiny, witchcraft, family relations could all have been either condemned or upheld by the film. Instead, the story just meanders, and the values system of the movie’s universe changes from scene to scene. Worse, the emotional power of the film is undercut when elements are contradictory.
Now, my readers who believe that films don’t communicate messages, or shouldn’t, might be thinking this is a good thing. What’s wrong with a non-judgmental film that lets the audience decide what lessons they want to leave with? It’s weak. From a story perspective, it’s weak. We never know who or what to root for, what the stakes are, or even what the rules are. Other Pixar films make clear moral judgments (even if it’s just on small things like taking care of your toys), so there’s no confusion, and we can be totally on board with the theme, and the characters, and the world.
I’m hoping that Pixar’s next film will be brave enough to have some consistent principles. It’s the only way for them to get good story back on track.
Check out my sisters’ review: “Can we have a braver princess, please?“.