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.