12 July 2012

Pixar’s ‘Brave’

Grrrrrl Power!

Quite a lot of fanfare attended the release of Brave, “the first Pixar feature with a female protagonist.” And it’s true that, while the studio has done very well with female sidekicks (Dory in Finding Nemo and Jessie in the Toy Story sequels, for example), they’ve never before given us a heroine at center screen. However, what’s gotten less attention is that, in Brave, the Pixar gang are making up for lost time: they give us not one heroine but two.

Even when the filmmakers aren’t gorging on mountain greenery, the images are arresting — and Merida’s hair is so brilliantly animated, it’s practically the movie’s third heroine.

And so we find not only headstrong young Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald, so compelling in No Country for Old Men) but also her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Intelligent and accomplished, but each in her own way, they embark on a journey that follows the formula for a classic buddy picture: at first they clash, then dire circumstances force them together, and they wind up in closeness and understanding. A mother–daughter buddy picture? Revolutionary! And quite satisfying.

A most unlikely buddy picture.

Brave also functions as a sly commentary on the Princess Phenomenon, which began (probably) as a marketing concept but which has overwhelmed all of Disney, Pixar’s parent company, and much of contemporary society, besides. Now every American girl thinks she’s a princess, but long-range consequences be damned! We have toys to sell! Yet Merida’s story underscores the degree to which being a princess means taking on responsibility, and not merely being daddy’s little girl or sitting around and waiting for some prince to rescue you.

Family portrait: Fergus (Billy Connolly) spars with Merida (Kelly McDonald), while Elinor (Emma Thompson) looks on.

So, while it’s not altogether unheard of for a Disney princess to use her wits, it’s striking that Merida saves the day not with her warlike prowess and the gifts from her father, but with her wit and diplomacy — the very tools her mother would use. She’s still striving to get what she wants, but in recognition that there are consequences that affect many, many other people, and that she has a significant role to play within her community. Really, this may be the best bat mitzvah present ever made.

Skilled parenting: The history of Europe would be very different if more monarchs were like Elinor and Fergus.

Queen Elinor even looks a bit like Thompson, and for this audience at any rate that meant that it was easier to cut her a little slack: she’s not Mother Gothel, the witchy stepmother of Tangled, and she’s got her reasons for opposing her daughter’s wishes. You think, “Most of us would be thrilled if Emma Thompson were our mother! Be more patient with her!” Which, eventually, Merida is.*

In its own little way, quite possibly the best bat mitzvah present ever.

The women hold the real power in this picture, and that assessment very much includes the Witch (voiced by Julie Walters) whose magic transforms not only Elinor but also her relationship with Merida. Without exception, every male in the picture is a figure of fun, from blustering King Fergus (voiced by Billy Connolly**) to Merida’s rowdy, buffoonish suitors and her sweet-toothed brothers, a grinning trio of redheaded imps. All of them turn out to have good hearts — Fergus utterly adores his daughter, a tomboy fashioned in his own image — yet all of them are ineffectual, and quite incapable of rescuing even the most helpless princess.

Merida’s brothers: Grinning imps with a sweet tooth.

It’s up to the women to save the day, and it’s worth observing that neither Merida nor Elinor is entirely right or entirely wrong: they have to compromise in order to find happiness. Pixar has provided not merely “a feature with a female protagonist,” but a kind of post-Princess, possibly feminist manifesto about the nature of power and the strength of women. I recommend it highly.

Bull’s eye!

*NOTE: The commentary on Disney’s execrable Brother Bear (2003) may or not be intended, but whereas the earlier picture betrayed the entire Disney philosophy, Brave upholds the belief that we’re at our best when we are truest to ourselves — not when we are bears.

**Of course Billy Connolly plays Merida’s father! The picture is set in Scotland: who else would you cast? But he’s terrific.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown (or a wimple, for that matter).


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The Italian Chick said...

Very well done!!
can't wait to see this movie!