A Brave Attempt

I was thrilled that Pixar was finally doing a movie with a female protagonist, much less a Pixar take on the princess story.  So, I rushed out opening day to see it with my little 3-year-old cousin, and I cried. So did my uncle and everyone over the age of three. Seriously.

(The 3-year-old didn’t shed a tear, in case you were wondering. She just laughed and asked why things got boring.)

Then I saw it again.

I have to say I was disappointed, and for many of the reasons Steven Greydanus enumerates in his criticism.

Credit Michael DePippo

… Brave falls short of the greatness of Pixar’s best achievements. The mother-daughter relationship in the first act is too one-sided, detracting from a key reference later on to a side of their relationship that hasn’t been established. While Merida is certainly right to reproach herself in her dealings with her mother, the film could be clearer about what it thinks about the arranged betrothal and her method of dealing with it. Merida’s contrition in a key scene is somewhat undercut by the sweeping social experiment that follows, and her efforts to unravel the magical bind she has created aren’t as intuitive as they should be…

However, the little egalitarian in me was screaming for a different reason: instead of, at last, a balanced, strong female character or a balanced, complete family, or even, heck, characters that didn’t fall into popular cliches we got, well, Brave.

Most problematic are the family dynamics. Yes, there were two parents, and the father, King Fergus, is funny (actually, very much so). But he is also, frankly, a clown. Save for the prologue, King Fergus is completely useless for anything but a laugh in every single scene- and it’s not for a lack of opportunity. In the number of pivotal scenes in which he appears, the father has the ability to play mediator and hero, and has the chance to listen, bridge the gap between mother and daughter, unite the family, overcome his own pride, as well as the opportunity to play a key role in the film’s denouement. Instead, Fergus’s best scene is one where he imitates his daughter. 

Fergus’s general flatness coupled with the sheer buffoonery and incompetence of the rest of the male characters (save for the wee triplets, who don’t even talk) allows the film to fall into an old and cliched trope: Men are idiots.

While this silly portrayal does make Merida and Elinor seem more sensible, on the whole it does no favors to the female characters. In comparison to her husband, Elinor seems like a shrew, and is relegated to the role of the “strict parent”: she is the sole disciplinarian and a seemingly arbitrary rule-maker throughout the first half of the film. Merida, on the other hand, is naught but a teenager bumping heads with a mother who just doesn’t get it, and her life would be so much better if she were under her father’s humorous rule. When she needs Fergus to calm the civil war practically starting under the his nose- and needs him in a personal way as well- however, Fergus is of absolutely no help, and irritates the situation further with a wild goose bear chase. Instead, it’s women to the rescue: Merida (with a bit of help from her mother) steps in- all strong and brave and eloquent and understanding. This shallowness robs what could have been a truly magical transformation of its substance, leaving the audience with a flat and flimsy trick.

Frankly, I find this schema Brave sets up insulting both to men and women: I want the men in my life to be strong men. Not because I have some 50-Shades-esque desire for domination, or whatever, but because I know that to be the strongest and best woman I can be, I need to walk and fight with other strong individuals in my life- both male and female. True femininity – much less egalitarianism- can not be reached if my sisters and I have to take care of blithering idiots of husbands and brothers- much less sons.

True, the portrayal in Brave may not be this harsh or blatant (at least upon first viewing), but it’s the thought that counts. It seems as if Hollywood cannot find any way to affirm “girl power” besides taking all the men and replacing them with brainless castrati. I’m just disappointed that Pixar couldn’t escape this fate.

Yes, it is a gorgeous film visually, and I really cannot stress that enough- everything from the shadows on the forest floor to the richness and texture of the tapestries to the breathtaking panoramic views is beautiful.  However, even though it took two directors and over 7 years, I desperately wish it was what it could have been, which was SO much more than the film now showing in theatres. Brave could have been an interesting re-casting of the fairy tale. It could have been a sharp criticism of American culture mistaking independence for rejecting some our dearest relationships- particularly within the family. Brave could have been a phenomenal commentary on tradition and its organic progress and change. The scaffolding for such greatness was there- the plot and themes existing within the film could have supported such weight- and with just a few minor changes (and one character overhaul) Brave easily could have been a Pixar legend.

Instead it reduced itself to triteness and projection. It still pushed emotional buttons- it was a tear-jerker, but it lacked the depth of emotional growth and substantial change, as was found in Finding Nemo, Toy Story 3, Wall-E, even Up. It made me tear up because I’ve been a petulant teenage daughter at times, but because of the flatness of the characters and the emotional momentum that they take from the film, those warm fuzzies were only good for one show.

And so, it was a brave attempt, but at the expense of a false “strength” and a few good laughs, I’m sorry to say that Brave fell short from being the courageous, magical film it could have been.

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2 thoughts on “A Brave Attempt

  1. Ok, so I don’t want to say too much about this until I see the movie, but I do think it is one of Pixar’s great strengths that they do ensemble movies really well–they do a fantastic job of gracefully tying together multiple conflicts and character arcs and really being interested in everyone in the movie, so it’d be a shame if they failed here.

    They also handle family dramas and cultural tropes surrounding them with great aplomb–helicopter parenting, disability in Finding Nemo, mid-life crisis and unmoored fathers in The Incredibles–with biting insight and emotional depth.This is probably why The Incredibles is possibly my favorite Pixar movie–it seems so representative of everything they do best.

    Something I also love about Pixar is that, despite the dearth of women in their movies, being a women is never treated as a character trait. Their movies always offer strong female characters, but none of them are Strong Female Characters, whose main job is to be a woman, and, I don’t know, wear a metal corset into battle or something.

    Jessie and Colette and Mrs. Potato Head and Dory and Mrs. Incredible and Eve and Ellie are cooks and cowgirls and overbearing wives and robotic femme fatales and moms and superheroes. They’re yodeling, traumatized, slap-happy, crazy French, bossy, trigger-happy, spunky, worried–these are real characters, and the scripts always take them seriously as such

    So I can’t say I was thrilled when I saw that the first Pixar Movie to actually star a woman was….a princess who looks really cool with a bow and arrow. Doesn’t Keira Knightley already have a corner on that?

    Anyway, I need to see it and actually form some real opinions.

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