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