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MOVIE THOUGHTS: Brave (Part 2) or “How Pixar Broadened the Perspective of a Disney Princess Movie”

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Oh dear. Remember that time I promised two part blog post on Pixar’s Brave, and then left the country half-way through? Yeah. That was embarrassing. Without further ado, let me get this sucker out of the way so that I can get going with my many anxiety-ridden teacher posts (Get excited people. It’s gonna be fun. Or terrible.)

 LENS #2: Brave as a Disney Princess Movie
Do not get me wrong. I love Disney Princess movies as much as the next 23-year old who secretly is convinced that, if she tries hard enough, she too can marry a courageous, singing, dancing, decent man who also just happens to be a prince. However, they also teach their young audience some really problematic habits of thought, which I am convinced manifest in the teenage years.

Like noogies.

Indeed, in comparison to Disney Princess movies, Brave has a remarkably level head and care for the formation that it performs.
1.) Brave vs. Little Mermaid: “How to Depict Teenagers”
If you are reading this blog, you may be under the apprehension that I pay way too much attention to the thought patterns and behavior of teenagers. To that, I say: No Kidding.As such I am constantly annoyed by the media/Disney/Twilight versions of Teenagers. I am convinced that they have encouraged the idea ALL Teenagers are ONLY misunderstood, whiny, little angst buckets. How? By glorifying the whining, the angsting, and the self-righteousness, and cultivating that same self-centeredness in younger and younger children.
Take Ariel of The Little Mermaid fame:
Despite the fact that her frame seems to be that of an anorexic 12-year-old, she is the quintessential 16-year old. She whines. She disobeys her father. She preaches. She throws away her relationship or chances of seeing her family  EVER AGAIN for the chance of being with a guy WITH WHOM SHE HAS NEVER SPOKEN.

Angst bucket…  OK, she is also spirited, adventurous, funny, and exceptionally talented. And has awesome hair. Is that a fair assessment of Angsty – I mean, Ariel?

Now, up to this point, I can point out a whole lot of similarities with  Merida. In fact, aside from the obsessive romantic behavior, Merida is an Ariel knock-off. She even has the gravity defying red hair. (So.Much.Envy.) The big difference comes in how we, as audience, are asked to view the respective princesses in relation to their parents.
With Ariel, the entire plot is set up as a spirited Ariel rebelling against an over-protective father to the point where she makes one teensy HORRIBLE decision, but then her father learns his lesson, saves her, and she gets the happy ending exactly as she wanted it. From the start, we are encouraged to see Triton in one of two ways. At best he is too strict and perpetually scolding her for silly things like being late:

So. Unfair.

At worst he is cruel, destructive of his daughter’s most prized possessions, full of fear, bigoted, and willing to let humans DIE. 

Triton: Is it true you rescued a human from drowning?
Ariel: Daddy, I had to…
Triton: Contact between the human world and the mer world is strictly forbidden. Ariel, you know that! Everyone knows that.
Ariel: He would have died.
Triton: One less human to worry about!
Ariel: You don’t even know him.
Triton: Know him? I don’t have to know him, they’re all the same! Spineless, savage, harpooning fish-eaters, incapable of any feeling of…

Her crucial decision to make a deal with a witch – sacrificing her voice, family, and everything she has known for the sake of a random guy to whom she has never spoken- is depicted as a direct result of Triton being a jerk. In a plot that takes its moral center exclusively from her first-person perspective, it damned near impossible to watch that scene and not think that her father is the villain. Sure, later we get to see him  sacrifice his triton, his kingdom, and his life to save his daughter and her boyfriend (I cry every time.) But even this is depicted as Triton realizing his mistake and acquiescing to the superiority of Ariel’s world view.

So what does this tell us? It tells us that to achieve a happy ending, teenagers should ignore parents’ rules because rules are just regimented bigotry and fear. It tells us that teenaged bad decisions are really their parents’ fault. It tells us that the teenager’s perspective is the only one worth examining. And finally,  it tells us that teenagers are whiny, rebellious, preachy, and impetuous because they are mostly right
HOW IS BRAVE DIFFERENT?
As I mentioned, Merida of the Awesome Hair (as she shall henceforth be known), is very similar to Ariel. Heck, she too follows mystical creatures that lead her to the lair of a witch, with whom she makes make a terrible deal, in which she sacrifices her family and everything she has known, directly after a knock-down-drag-out fight with her main parental figure involving destruction of highly symbolic property. Sound familiar?
Indeed, if Ariel is the quintessential teenager, then Merida is the caricature of teenager.
Merida is spirited and awesome.  She is also anachronistically obnoxious in her teenager-ness. She actually says the words: “You were never there for me!” …
Who’s a little pouty angst bucket?
YOU ARE!
However, the big difference, is the comparison of how Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, have been introduced to us up to this point.
Where as in Little Mermaid, Triton’s fears are bigoted and centered on humans, who pose no real danger to his daughter, in Brave, we have been shown that Elinor’s fears are justified. By showing us countless scenes to which Merida is not party, we know about the very real political dangers to this kingdom. We know that Elinor’s first major action of the movie was to protect her tiny daughter from a giant scary demon bear.  We know about the conversations Elinor has had with her husband about what is best for their kingdom and for Merida. So, when Elinor looks worried or lectures Merida on responsibilities, we know that there is probably a really good reason. 
Secondly, BOTH Merida and her mother are guilty of the property destruction. In Little Mermaid, only Triton is the big destructive statue smashing jerk. In Brave, Queen Elinor throws Merida’s bow and arrows into the fire in frustration only after Merida has cruelly sliced a gash in the tapestry of their family, which we have seen Elinor carefully work over as she attempts to figure out what is best for her daughter and her kingdom. There is no one totally innocent party here.

Finally, when we see Merida run off into the woods, Pixar (Notice how I attribute all things that I like to Pixar and everything that I don’t to Disney? Yeah. I’m fair like that.) does not simply cut away from Elinor and follow the fuming teenager. Instead, we first see Elinor collapse to the floor with the guilt of having lost her temper and destroyed something that her daughter loved. Then, we see Merida fume and blame her mother for everything. 

Throughout the movie, Pixar encourages us to maintain multiple perspectives, in time and in characters. Both Merida and Elinor have merit. Both Elinor and Merida falter and learn. If both Elinor and Merida have failed in some way, we are not given a clear cut idealistic emblem of how to act and how to view the world. Moreover, we are able to better see both the strengths and weaknesses of both characters. We can like Merida and her spirit without taking her as the absolute guide for behavior. We can see the love Elinor has for her family and respect her diplomacy and poise. We can praise teenagers for their spirit and ideals without having to admit defeat to their tendencies of selfishness, impetuosity, and angst.

PIXAR SUCCESS #1!

2.) Brave vs. Tangled: “How to Present Mother-Daughter Relationships”
Let me just say, by the way, that I freaking LOVE Tangled. Nevertheless, I am troubled by the Mother- Daughter relationship.
Ok, I know that Mother Gothel is not actually Rapunzel’s mother. So, I suppose that you could say that the super unhealthy relationship between them doesn’t count. However, when the Evil witch’s main solo is “Mother Knows Best,” I feel pretty justified in reading this relationship as parallel to Elinor and Merida.
First, let’s look at the stated reasons for why Mother Gothel doesn’t want Rapunzel to leave the tower.
In what is essentially a curfew debate, the writers have taken very good reasons for  a young naive girl to be careful – thieves, dangerous people, etc. – and placed them in the context of literally making Rapunzel scared of the dark.  Once Rapunzel is actually out in the world, the only people who are actually as scary as the people Mother Gothel has described are the men that she has hired to kidnap, terrify, and steal from her daughter. This is a typical mother-daughter relationship apparently: fear, manipulation, and ego stroking.
Now let’s look at Brave. Sure, there is tension. OODLES OF TENSION!
Yet, from the very first encounter, the writers seem determined that we not think of this Mother-and-Teenaged-Daughter in a vacuum. Over and over, they cut to flashbacks of Elinor and Merida’s early relationship. Over and over, they give us flashbacks of Elinor obviously loving, protecting, and fostering her daughter.

DAW!!!

Therefore, Pixar again allows and encourages us to maintain a broader perspective. Just as we are not allowed to take Merida’s point of view as dogmatic and infallible, we are not allowed to take her teenaged tension as the only important time period.
By this repeated emphasis on broadened perspective, Pixar is teaching real empathy and compassion.
PIXAR SUCCESS #2!
3. ) Brave vs. Mulan: “How to Present Traditionally Feminine Activities”
Finally, I will turn to a little one of my personal soap-boxes. (I did warn y’all that I have a ludicrous number of opinions.. right?) In the insistence on female equality, there seems to be the question of how feminine equality is to be attained. Unfortunately, somewhere in the debate, I think that general opinion leaned toward the idea the power of women must be made manifest in doing the same stuff as men, only better.
For instance, in Mulan, the critical moment for Mulan’s story arch is her decision to mask her femininity and to literally become a man – a soldier who saves her country to be precise.

Let’s get down to business!
I’ll Make a Man out of You

However, again, think that by this decision, there is the implicit judgment that traditionally feminine virtues are somehow frivolous and inferior. Which, in and of itself, is a type of sexism. If, in order to become equal to or better than the men in the army, she must set aside the weak, silly feminine things like make-up, marriage, etc., then there is the judgment that masculine things are inherently better and something to which women have been denied access.
That bothers me. Ok, sure, at the end she actually saves the country by dressing like a woman and getting her male army buddies to do the same. However, the emphasis here is not on feminine virtues but on the the sight gag of the three men flirting their way into a palace.
Women’s clothes, virtues, and interests are still silly. Alternately, the male virtues, as better manifest by Mulan – virtues like courage, physical strength, combative skill, etc- are  glorified.
So, what of Brave? Merida’s major skill set is definitely traditionally masculine. She shoots. She fights. She rides. She steps up to win her own hand in marriage.

Definitely not the docile type.

And yet none of that bothers me. “Why?” you might ask. It does not bother me because of the ending.
*** Spoilers!***
At the end of the story, there are two critical moments for each of the main characters, Elinor and Merida. Each must acknowledge and embrace the virtues and value of the other. 
(I will focus more on Merida, but would be happy to talk about Elinor’s moments if you are interested.)
1.) Merida makes the semi-self-sacrificial and diplomatic decision to pacify the warring clans, even at the expense of her own freedom. (Granted, Elinor gives her and out, but still.) The essential gesture lies in her unconscious mimicry of the dignity, eloquence, and diplomacy that we have previously seem demonstrated by Elinor.
2.) More importantly, Merida only breaks the spell on her mother by an undeniably feminine action. She sews. In order to “Mend the bod torn by pride” as required by the spell, Merida literally uses the skills taught her by her mother to sew and mend the gash that she cut in the tapestry in the initial fight.

‘Fate be changed, look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride.’

In no uncertain terms, by resolving the story with this sharing of perspective and giving proper respect to typically feminine actions, Pixar again insists on a broader perspective. As a result, the ending shot and beautiful picture of Elinor and Merida’s more adult relationship of mutual respect is genuinely beautiful.

DAWWWWW!

PIXAR SUCCESS #3!
Actually, I think that this might be the most practically helpful-to-teenagers messages I have ever encountered in a movie:
(1) Take a step back.
(2) Remember that the person you are fighting with now has likely spent the better part of the last two decades sacrificing for you, protecting you, fostering your gifts, and generally trying to make your life the best that it can possibly be.
(3) Remember that just as you are hurt by your parents’ actions or your friends’ actions, they have likely been hurt by yours.
(4) Remember that your perspective is not the only one and that your virtues are not the only virtues of merit.
(5) Remember that growing-up is not  asserting your will and freedom over everyone else. It is the process of learning sacrifice, empathy, and perspective.
P.S. I just have to throw in that I freaking love Elinor so much. In every possible beautiful, protective, maternal form that she takes. (I am really not trying to spoil EVERYTHING!) And so I really needed to include a picture.

MOVIE THOUGHTS: Brave (part 1) or “Why Brave is a Sub-Par Pixar Movie”

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Alright, so I went to see Disney- Pixar’s Brave. I am of two minds. In fact, I think there are two ways of looking at this movie. SO I am going to split this post in half, and the halves are still going to be long. Warning: the first post is going to make it sound like I mostly didn’t like this movie. Please wait until he second half to be mad at me. That said, feel free to be mad! 😉 So, without further ado:

LENS #1: Brave as a Pixar movie, which has been invaded by Disney.

 In that case, compared to all the Pixar movies that have gone before (including the CHARMING “La Luna” animated short that preceded it) it was a serious disappointment. While it was undeniably beautiful, it lacked the understated charm and refinement of focus that gives the Pixar canon up to this point such a unified feel.

Actually, the easiest way to assess through this lens is to compare with it other Pixar movies.

1.) Brave vs. Toy Story 2: How to Approach BIG QUESTIONS and IDEAS / Children’s Movies as LITERATURE.

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One of my favorite Professors at UD – actually, Dr. Roper (Happy Coincidence!) – has a beautiful talk on Toy Story 2. He claims (and I totally believe) that it engages the same question as the Iliad. Namely: ought we to live a short, glorious life or to live a long life, without having necessarily fulfilled our greatest and most glorious potential?

Sure, for Achilles, that glory is one of battle which will result in his death, and for Woody that glory is one being truly loved and played with by one child who will eventually out grow him, but the premise stands. Woody’s choice (and Achilles’ for that matter) is ultimately that short and glorious life. However, in the character of Jesse, the cowgirl doll, and the story she tells Woody to persuade him, the creators of Toy Story 2, simply and honestly illustrate an argument for each side of the choice. I promise I won’t include a million videos in my posts, but this one is SO PERFECT.

(I defy you not to tear up a little. It’s OK. Tom Hanks did when he first saw it.)

Contained in this less-than-3-minute-clip, Pixar illustrated both the Joy of the shorter life and the anguish of abandonment and virtual death that we as human beings (and Woody, as a human … Toy?) reasonably fear. On the basis of Jesse’s story, for a time, Woody chooses the longer and less loved existence held behind a pane of glass in a Toy Museum. However, it is with an allusion to this story and Jesse’s love for her child, Emily, that Woody ultimately makes his choice to return to Andy and that short and glorious life. (Much as Achilles does…OK, I am not going to get into that, but he does. Just ask Dr. Roper, Ok?)

Here, Pixar has engaged A HUGE IDEA. Through Toys. Without a single speck of narration. They did so by treating this humble children’s animated movie as a piece of literature.  Not with grandiose or moralistic assertions, but rather by trusting the small, the particular, the human, the STORY to convey and open human experience for consideration better than any treatise could.

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Now, let’s look at Brave. It opens right off the bat with a narration that talks vaguely about (in no particular order) Destiny, Bravery, and Changing Your Fate. So, I kind of expected, as a Pixar movie, that the story would in some way be about any of those things. It was not.

To be fair, it really did try to be. It had the Queen assert that these random floaty blue Wilo-the-Wisp things that lead Merida, the Princess main character, around on her adventures “lead you to your Destiny.” Except that they don’t. Instead, they serve as a pretty thin plot device to makes Merida do stuff so that she doesn’t just sit around whining about how life is unfair. By this account, Destiny is pretty much “any stuff that happens to you or you do.” I mean… I guess maybe it is. But in that case, talking about it is a little pointless.

The story itself is not really about changing fate. In fact, the entire idea of the story, characters, and nuances of design speaking for themselves to convey big ideas – GONE.

Granted, with most children’s movies I don’t expect them to do justice to the notion of Fate. I mean,  really….That is Sophocles/Oedipus/Greek Tragedy level literature and consideration. Kids can’t handle that… right? Except that Pixar has set a precedent of successfully considering in an age-appropriate way EXACTLY that level of question. 

Disappointment #1.

2.) Brave vs. Wall-E: How to Convey the Theme of a Movie

A- flipping-DORABLE

Remember Wall-E? Remember that time Pixar made movie that was maybe 10% dialogue, with that opening 40 MINUTE sequence with NO WORDS, which still was a story about caring for the planet, love, the dangers of laziness and self-absorption,  and the triumph of the Human Spirit (as represented by a crazily human robot)? OH, ALSO, the credit sequence that was about the progression and nature of Art? Remember that? That was AWESOME!

If I could I would totally post a video of the whole movie of Wall-E. It does not need narration because the themes, and art, and ideas, and design, and voices, and characters, and EVERYTHING is so tight and so unified and so Elegant. There is not a single character or scene that does not add to the texture and movement of the story. Therfore, I won’t muddy by my description what they showed so well.

Now, let’s look at Brave.

GORGEOUS. Undeniably gorgeous. As is the entire movie.

The design is beautiful. But it is not elegant. 

Perhaps I should define elegance as I see it: a refinement and unity of purpose and design. (Think Occam’s Razor only prettier!). Brave, though lovely, has no such unity. My big case-in-point is actually a fairly important plot point. Merida is throwing a hissy-fit because she has to marry one of the first-born of the Scottish clans of her kingdom in order to maintain the balance and unity of the kingdom. And NOBODY IS THERE FOR HER! GASP! Anyways, she goes out into the wood and meets a random witch who can give her a magical cupcake that will “Change her Destiny!” (except it doesn’t).

 In this situation, the design and story team has two elegant choices: (1) EVIL Witch, who maliciously attempts to destabilize the kingdom by playing on the whiny whims of a teenager. (2) FUNNY Witch, who is really good-hearted, but wants Merida to learn a lesson. 

OR

 The director (who I am here imagining as a really oblivious Disney exec) could insist that the witch be funny and generally likable, but that the ambiance around her and the underscoring and music, be UBER CREEPY AND SINISTER.

Guess which one they chose? I spent that entire chunk of the movie wondering what I was supposed to think about this woman who causes so many problems, is super funny, but super creepy, and also disappears leaving cryptic instructions for how Merida can fix the situation. So, I suppose that is why the Director (ahemDisneyExecahem) relied so heavily on narration: because that is the only way to understand what they wanted you to know.

Disappointment #2.

3.) Brave vs. The Incredibles: How to Portray Male Characters

I love The Incredibles. I mean, I really LOVE The Incredibles. I will spend the $10 to go see it again when and if is rereleased into theaters in 3D. Even though I hate 3D.

Basically my favorite thing is its portrayal of the family, and specifically the dynamic between Mr. and Mrs. Incredible.

Let’s start with the obvious: both of these characters are strong, brave, and impressive.

I mean COME ON THEY ARE SUPERHEROES.

However, they have different strengths and approaches, both of which are essential. To me, nothing illustrates their complementary strengths so well as one of the last scenes. The bad guy, Syndrome, is attempting to kidnap their baby, Jack, but accidentally drops him from the door of a jet. Instantly, Mrs. Incredible turns to Mr. Incredible and says “THROW ME!” Without hesitating or doubting her for a moment, he picks her up with his super strength, and lobs her bodily at their falling baby. She in turn cradles baby Jack, flexibly becomes a parachute and carries him to safety. Without his strength and trust, and her flexibility and colossal maternal love, they could not have saved jack. There is not a “Secret Ruler” in the house-hold. Neither is subservient. They are partners.

Now, in the first scene of Brave, I had hopes that the Pixar sense of complementary equality would prevail.

See. Aren’t they cute in their matching thrones?

We are introduced to the royal family, with a tiny  (ADORABLE) Merida accidentally leading a huge, scary demon bear back to the site of the family picnic. Instantly, both parents spring into action. The Queen bodily shields Merida, then carries her to safety, trusting her husband to protect them. And he does. He does battle with a HUGE BEAR, successful protecting his wife, daughter and kingdom, sacrificing his leg in the process. These are equal parents who love their daughter, and use their strengths to protect her. AWESOME! Hurray for paternal affection and Bad-Assery!

Yet, as soon as we get to the time period when Merida is of marriageable age, though the King is still loving, something has changed. The King, the ;ords of the other clans, their sons, the general male mass of clans- all are suddenly morons.

Funny-looking? Yes.
Morons? OH EVEN YESSER!

OK, maybe not quite morons. But certainly violent, boastful, crass, incapable of finding solutions to problems, constantly drunk, and well… kind of stupid. I think that the purpose of this male descent into stupid is basically to say by comparison, “Look, how poised, powerful, wise, and wonderful the Queen is!”

Don’t get me wrong. I am all in favor of a wise and wonderful Queen, and a loving and occasionally indulgent King. But I cannot get behind the idea that this dumbing down of one gender does anything positive for the other. It is a strange habit of modern thought that men, specifically fathers, must either be strict and ultimately proven wrong, or be loving only by being over-indulgent.

I cannot speak for all father-daughter relationships, but I can speak about my own. Frustrating though it was, I can generally say that my father’s strictest injunctions and most frustrating rules were his most loving. And not in a “He is doing this really dumb thing because he loves you but is misguided” way. In a “You don’t know it yet, but this is an essential rule to protect you” way.

Pixar knows better. They know how to make whole male characters with flaws without making them caricatures of the lowest common denominator of their gender.

This is a human man, quietly suffering for his attempts to use his strengths for others.

This is the same man when allowed to use that strength.

Mr. Incredible is far from perfect. He is a very human man.He is occasionally vain, easily frustrated, shouts too much, and has a mid-life crisis.  But those flaws are not what define him, they are simply part of a very human personality – one which also includes his heartbreaking love for his wife and children, his courage, his strength, his wry sense of humor, and his persistent efforts to help people whenever he can regardless of how much it will hurt him. And that strength does nothing to diminish the strength and awesomeness of his wife.

Disappointment #3.

So as a Pixar movie, Brave was sub-par. That said tune in for Part 2, because as a Disney Princess movie, Brave rocked by comparison. SURPRISE!!!