|Tim Curry and John Lone in The Shadow|
I’ve grown weary of Pixar for many years now. I believed that at one time they were a great studio capable of telling unique stories not normally attempted in feature animation. Their last great film for me was “The Incredibles”, a grown up mature story that could universally appeal to all ages. Like the Iron Giant, that film never pandered to its audience with arbitrary characters designed to appeal only to kids. It actually feels like a real movie. The Incredibles was the peak of greatness in how much depth they could achieve in their stories. And ever since…well…it’s been pretty much downhill. Not only have I found most of Pixar’s stories to be very frustrating… in some cases I find them to be emotionally manipulative on the audience. I’ve seen the same formula thrown in over and over again…create an emotionally compelling protagonist in the first act, and then throw them into a hackneyed subpar story in the second and third act with little to nothing to say about who the protagonist is and everything to do with shoving home the filmmakers intended “message” to its audience.
I’m going to site an example of this with the film “UP”, a movie that was highly acclaimed and loved by critics and audiences…which I believe is based primarily on the first 10 minutes of the film. The first 10 minutes of the movie documents Carl’s relationship with his lover Ellie, from their first meeting to her abortion and then to her untimely death. All in an emotional tearful heart-tugging experience. And then the actual film begins. I felt no connection with his wife having anything to do with the rest of the movie in what pretty much amounts to a lackluster adventure story. Sure, you could say their might be symbolic references of his wife influencing Carl, but she is never mentioned once. It’s as though the creators of the film couldn’t get this adventure story with this old man and this kid to work right, so they created an elaborate backstory that has nothing to do with the rest of the movie in order for the audience to empathize with Carl. I think it’s a cheat, and emotionally manipulative, forcing the audience to empathize with the main character when the plot of the rest of the film couldn’t do it for them. The same thing happens in WALL-E with a wonderful, silent first 20 minutes of character introduction, and then the actual film begins about a bunch of fat people on a space ship none of us could really give a shit about in an effort for the filmmakers to slam home a green peace message about ecology. The same thing happens in Ratatoulle, where Remy starts out lovable enough only to be bashed on the head with the message that he can’t steal. And now we have Brave.
Brave is Pixar’s first film to feature a female protagonist (it only took them 13 films to get there), and it’s just as shallow and manipulative in its storytelling as all the films they’ve done going back to Cars. It’s frustrating and amateur in it’s approach to tell a story about a girl becoming a woman. The trailers first off are misleading, leading you to think this is a story of a girl’s journey of self discovery to find out who she is outside of her controlling mother. Instead the movie is about Merida’s relationship with her mother. Merida has a curse put on her mother with the help of a witch, turning her into a bear. Merida regrets what she’s done, and she spends the rest of the movie having to patch up her relationship with her mom who is now a bear or the curse will become permanent. That’s it. That’s all this movie is. It’s yet another animated story about a teenager who can’t get along with one of her parents and is forced into a contrived situation in order to teach her a lesson. How very female empowering. Instead of her mother telling Merida what to do, now it’s the filmmakers.
One of things about the concept of the mother/daughter relationship is that there are aspects to this that don’t make much sense. For one thing, even though Merida is a teenager, I thought she would be a little more mature concerning the way she’s introduced. She talks about wanting freedom and independence in the beginning, but the moment she runs away from her mother after their fight, her first thought is to get revenge on mom by putting a curse on her? She seems a lot more childish than her age suggests, and a part of this issue is that the film takes place in ancient Scotland, where women her age at that time would have a lot more maturity than that. If anything, the fight would have been the catalyst and the excuse she needed to leave for good. A girl her age at that time would do that. Why would she ever consider coming back to the castle? Also, I’m a little shocked that Merida didn’t ask more questions about the cursed pie the witch gives her that turns her mother into a bear. The witch doesn’t tell Merida what will happen when her mother eats the pie, all she says is something along the lines of “after your mother eats this pie, it will change your destiny.” Well that obscure message could mean any number of things. The pie could be poison and wind up killing her mother, changing Merida’s destiny THAT way. The pie is given to her by a witch she doesn’t know. By not asking questions, she already is putting her mother in serious danger. That negligence made me unsympathetic towards Merida, and I think any teenager with half a brain would be worried if they’re doing something that could potentially kill off their parents.
There’s no sense of Merida ever really achieving any amount of independence. She makes a dramatic monologue speech near the end of the film about finding your own path in life, and yet this moment never feels earned. What would Merida know about finding her own path when she’s had to spend the whole movie hanging out with mom? We see her mother (as a bear) who approves of Merida’s speech, but we don’t really know where this change in her came from. Why does Merida think she even needs her mother’s approval to go out and discover her own destiny? Again, this is a movie that starts out so well and engaging, but once you realize where the story is going, the whole outing falls flat, with a message you could drive home with a sledgehammer. Merida cuts a line between her mother and herself in a family tapestry, and later hears the words that in order to break the curse she needs to “mend the bond” between her and her mother. So her half backed solution to all this is to sew the tapestry and that will break the curse. You hear that? The answer is sewing. Any teenager her age could read into the message better than she did. In any case, the moment the twist happened with the curse, I just groaned and rolled my eyes, only to realize not to soon after what I was in for for the next hour.
In another attempt to make the female empowerment message stronger in the film, the answer was also to apparently make all the men in the film into testosterone bulking idiots. Really? You can’t show any slightest depiction of men and women as equals? Miyazaki can do it, Pixar, why can’t you? The film just seems to contradict its own message with Merida telling us she wants to find her own destiny, when in reality she’s competing with all the male testosterone in the room.
There are certain elements of this film that could have been wonderful if they were only expanded upon. The most interesting moment I thought was the storyline with the prince who got stuck with the permanent curse of being a bear. How it played out in the film was very cool, and I thought it would have been wonderful to have a whole storyline centered around this character as a part of Merida’s journey. But it stands in this film, that storyline peters out without any real connection to the driving story. Merida doesn’t seem to learn anything really in discovering the cursed prince.
To elaborate on what I said earlier, after the fight with her mother, Merida should have just run away with the intention of leaving for good instead of going back to the castle. And why shouldn’t she? She knows how to hunt and make shelter for herself. She’s almost a grown woman who can make her own choices. She should just leave. The biggest problem with this film is that Merida WANTS to be free, but instead she sabotages herself and forces herself into a situation where she’s tied to her mother. I’m not the biggest fan of The Little Mermaid, but after Ariel fights with her dad, she basically says “fuck him”, and runs off. She’s naive as a teenager would be in making that choice, but I think we all admire her for having the courage to follow her own ambitions, and she willfully accepts the consequences of her actions. Merida has a much bigger advantage than Ariel in that she can actually live out in the woods and take care of herself. This mother/daughter story in Brave might have worked better if Merida were 11 or 12 years old and got into a fight with her mother, the plot would have serviced her better at that age. But like I said, Merida in the film is practically a grown woman. She should have been given the freedom to go out in the world and find out who she is, not be stuck learning how to get along with her mother.
There are other problems I had where the film didn’t abide by its own set of rules. One of them involved Merida’s triplet brothers eating the same pie that turned their mother into a bear, now turning them into bear cubs. Merida’s mother’s transformation was grounded in a set of rules with which there was a curse and that Merida had to tie the bond between her and her mother before the second sunrise or her mother will remain a bear permanently. So what are the rules regarding the triplets transformation? The answer: There are none. It’s done arbitrarily for comedic purposes, only what this does is it takes the believability away from the curse on the mother, considering we know nothing bad is going to happen to the triplets. Another problem with the curse, I got no sense of impending doom with the ticking clock of the story, the second sunrise that would make the mother’s transformation permanent. I will admit that when I first heard the witch explaining the curse, I got mixed up and thought she said the second sunset the mother’s curse would be permanent. It got me confused considering the final battle took place at night, I thought ‘what have they got to worry about, they still have another 16 hours to resolve everything. Okay, it was my bad. BUT…it made me think they should have made this a little clearer instead of just telling us, by at least having the witch show a visual of a sunrise. Having a visual would hit the point home harder of the impending stakes involved.
In the end, parents would be better off introducing their children to Miyazaki than this, from a filmmaker who actually knows how to make animated films that speak to young girls. I don’t really know what happened regarding the story with this film, because Brenda Chapman was ousted as director and replaced with Mark Andrews, and a rewrite of the story was called for. I don’t know the behind the scenes details for this, but I don’t know if Mark was the right choice to direct. In the end, I found this film to be amateur and less than compelling, and reinforces my feelings that Pixar creates compelling characters only to shove them in a subpar story with a preachy message attached. In a field of animated features dominated by boy content, Pixar didn’t do anything extraordinary to change the game for girls.
On a final note, just a quick word about the short attached called La Luna. What was the point of it? Why did anything that happened in the short really matter? It played like somebodies idea of a cute Cal Arts short, and yet with nothing of value to say. Terribly disappointing.
It’s Monday again, so I figure it’s time for another Villain Watch. Again, I have to keep my posts somewhat short because I’ve been pretty busy, but I just had to say a few words about The Wicked Witch of the West as one of the great movie villains. She may seem like a more obvious villain to write about but I came across something about her performance by Margaret Hamilton that I just loved.
I watched an old YouTube video of an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood where he actually had Margaret Hamilton as a guest. Margaret was concerned about the effect her performance in the Wizard of Oz had on children, as many of us grew up frightened of her character. She explained about the idea of acting, and how actors dress up and play pretend like children do. But it was her description of the witches personality that I loved and she described it in a way so children could understand. She doesn’t think of herself as an evil character, Margaret said. She said she always thought of the witch as a person who always did a lot of things that gave her joy. Anything she did, she did because it made her happy. But in reality she was pretty unhappy because she never really got what she wanted (that being the ruby slippers and all the power that came with them). There was something kind of sweet and yet truthful about those comments. Certainly the best actors who approach their villains never think of them as being evil (why would they? They simply think what they’re doing is the right thing to do.) It’s such a simple explanation for such a dastardly character, but it works, and at the heart of it I think it’s why we all love her. The greatest actors can find ways to bring empathy to even the nastiest of characters. Even if they always appear evil on the outside, it’s finding that thing to like about the character that makes more accessible to play.
The great thing about the witch too is that she’s just an animator’s dream come true. She comes up with these wonderful expressions and poses. It’s the same kind of heightened stage play I mentioned with Silas Barnaby in March of the Wooden Soldiers. I never quite understood it when Wicked became popular, because to me it’s just too lighthearted a backstory. Who really needs an explanation for why Witch of the West is the way she is. She just is. Margaret stated it beautifully what her character was all about.
I haven’t watched the Wizard of Oz in awhile, but I may pop it in again after watching Margaret’s interview just to see the witch from her viewpoint. I watched another great interview with Margaret where she talked about the phone call she got from her agent about being in The Wizard of Oz. She said she loved the stories of Frank L. Baum and was excited to be in it. “What part do they want me to play” she asked. The agent said, “well, the witch.” Margaret got a stunned expression. “The witch?!”, she said. And the agent said, “well yeah, what else?”
I’ve been busy doing some storyboard work this week, so I have to keep my post short for now, but this is a great movie worth checking out. I see its available on Netflix, and that disc comes with a documentary “Thou Shalt Not”, which is all about precode Hollywood films. I’ll probably rent the disc just to watch that documentary.
|I hate to sound like John K, but what exactly are each of these characters feeling?|
I’ve reposted here what I wrote at Cartoon Brew, but here’s what I thought in a nutshell. At the end there’s an additional paragraph I didn’t post on CB, where I made a few additional comments:
I saw Madagascar 3, not being a fan of the first Madagascar film, but I thought I’d see this one and try to give the series another shot. After watching it, I think the reason I find myself not relating to these films is that I feel that humor is not grounded in any sort of logic or rules. All four main characters act with the same manic energy, and after watching them for 80 minutes I still feel like I don’t really know anything about them.
I know that we’re talking about a cartoon and that this is the world of Madagascar, but we all know that even the wildest, most manic Tex Avery cartoons, he sets up ground rules in each of his cartoons. Here in this film, a lot of the gags feel arbitrary and don’t do enough to tell us anything or promote character development. I didn’t understand the villain at all. Why was she so driven to break her jurisdiction to capture these animals? The fact that she’s psycho and has animal heads on the wall of her office doesn’t tell me enough. Is she an animal control officer or a poacher? And if her job means putting heads of animals on the wall of her office, who on earth thought it was a good idea to put her in charge in the first place? Why isn’t animal cruelty after her? The whole film she chases after the animals without any motivation or reason.
I’d also like to know, what was the deal with the circus? If they’re a traveling circus with no money, why does their next show look like Cirque du Soleil on ecstasy? It’s like the film kept breaking its own rules without any valid reason.
The only character I kinda liked and felt I could identify with was the seal, Stephano. In his first scenes when Vitaly was throwing knives at him to shut him up, I liked that for as little as he was, he wasn’t going to let someone as big as Vitaly intimidate him. It was kind of an endearing quality to give him. I also liked that they were willing to poke a little fun at the big animation cliche of the main character losing his friends in the big drama scene. But the circus animals reasons for getting upset were just stupid. Alex’s group just saved their careers. Who cares if they lied about being circus animals? And they had a good reason for lying, considering they were being hunted, and they wouldn’t take them in unless they said they were circus animals. Whose fault is that?
I kinda wonder what went on in the story meetings for this film. It seems like they dived in with several million ideas at once, without any singular voice to keep the whole thing grounded and give the film some sort of direction. Most critics describe the film as being schizophrenic, and in many ways they’re not far off. I just want to see an all out animated comedy done right for a change. In the very best classic comedies, the gags are always driven by character. Just look at anything by Keaton, Chaplin, Charlie Chase, Laurel and Hardy, or even modern day examples like Ren and Stimpy. And because they’re driven by character, these comedies actually have something to say about them, and something to say about real life. I don’t relate to the characters in Madagascar because I don’t know anyone like them in real life. At least, not anyone who didn’t have something motivating their manic behavior.
Overall, I thought it was better than the first Madagascar, but that’s not really saying much. Implausible scenarios should make sense in their own way. Otherwise it’s too much mania without the sincerity.