Could have been bolder — Pixar delivers mixed messages with its first female protagonist



Should critics grade on a curve? There are so many things to like about Brave that — were it the product of any other Hollywood film studio — one might be inclined to forgive its shortcomings and sing only its praises. In fact, this supposedly feminist corrective to the typical Disney-fied view of princesses is refreshingly free of girls who long to be with or want to become boys.

But we are talking Pixar here, a company with a mostly unblemished record (if you ignore the corporate rather than creative decision to make Cars 2) of producing smart, clever and emotionally sophisticated family-friendly films. The house that John Lasseter built is so respected that the company’s “22 Rules of Storytelling” has been circulating around the Web as a de facto 10 Commandments of Screenwriting.

Unfortunately, Brave falls short on Rule 3 (don’t mistake theme for story) and Rule 19 (a coincidence that helps the character is cheating), while a good argument could be made for stumbling on No. 7 — the need for a top-notch ending. Or, more simply put, when compared with the rich attention to humor, subtext and story featured in Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Toy Story 3, Brave comes up short.

Still, let’s take a moment to compliment what it does well. As expected, Pixar delivers yet another visually lush setting for its story, filled with masterfully crafted landscapes, characters and creatures. The voice actors are perfectly matched to their roles, the humor is a natural extension of the story (rather than a grab bag of trite pop culture references) and, most importantly, the film’s decision to focus on the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship is both welcome and long overdue (this is Pixar’s first film to feature a female protagonist). In fact, though its first half-hour struggles a bit with pace, the narrative setup holds great promise.

Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is the teen heir to the throne of a clan of oafish Scots. Impulsive, defiant and more than handy with a bow, she lives under the thumb of her disapproving and overbearing mum, Elinor (Emma Thompson), who insists on curbing her daughter’s unladylike behavior. When her father, Fergus (Billy Connolly), arranges an archery competition to find Merida a worthy husband, the headstrong princess decides to win her own hand in marriage. This insult not only brings the kingdom to the brink of war but incites a terrible fight between mother and daughter.

Had directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (Chapman was eventually removed from the project) fully exploited the idea of a princess fighting for her own hand, they might have created a daring and provocative classic. The generational friction between a mother’s expectations and a daughter’s need for emancipation (i.e., the way they drive each other nuts) is filled with rich dramatic and comic possibilities. Unfortunately, the rest of Brave detours into an unexpected adventure that feels disconnected from and unmotivated by the story that preceded it (even if makes thematic sense).

Merida flees into the forest, encounters a witch (Julie Walters) and makes a deal to change her mom in order to change her fate. In essence, the princess wants her mom to stop telling her what to do. She wishes for a life without responsibilities. But as most fairy tales show us, wishes rarely work out as expected, and Merida finds herself more responsible to her mother than ever before. (I’m being coy so as not to spoil the surprise).

While Brave literally and metaphorically addresses how hard it is for people to accept change, it constantly invokes Merida’s desire to choose her own destiny — as shown to her by conveniently placed will-o-wisps (see Rule 19). This would provide a meaty subtext if the filmmakers didn’t present all her choices as stubborn, selfish and immature, creating situations that are filled with dangerous consequence, guilt and regret.

Charitably, the movie delivers mixed messages. Less charitably it enforces the idea that a woman’s hope for independence is all well and fine, but push too hard and nothing good will come of it (in this case, political instability and possibly war). There’s no getting around that Merida must ultimately defer to patriarchal constructs and rules — particularly as they are enforced by her mother.

And lest you argue that that’s the way it was in ancient Scotland, I’d argue this is a fairy tale with witches and sorcery, created by screenwriters who are free to tell whatever tale they’d like. It’s a shame that they opted for the one that enforces a conservative worldview that condescendingly regards a young woman’s struggle for self-determination as impetuous adolescence. Nothing makes this clearer than a scene in which Merida, in order to quell a violent dispute between the clans, becomes a mouthpiece for her mother, who stands in the shadows pantomiming what she should say. God forbid Merida should voice her own thoughts.

In the end, Merida comes off as a slightly more enlightened version of Jasmine, the discontented princess in Aladdin. And though she doesn’t need a handsome young prince to make her whole, she ultimately learns that mother (as a stand-in for father) knows best.

You’ve come a little way, baby.

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