What I’m Watching: Brave

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I walked into the theater wanting to adore the movie Brave.  I’m a huge fan of animation–I cut my teeth on Bugs Bunny cartoons and am in a squee of delight over the promise of Finding Nemo in 3D.  It’s been a lifelong thing, always loved animation, always will.  And so when I saw the previews for Pixar’s Brave–it’s a strong female lead!  It’s celtic!  It’s all about finding your own path!–I was like, I am on this.  

The fact that she’s got unruly red hair certainly didn’t hurt my pre-formed opinions to like and/or not like.  I’m a simple creature, really.

An actual unretouched photo of me and my morning hair.

On a hot summer night, I couldn’t think of anything I would rather do that I would tell you about here, than sit in the air-conditioned comfort of a movie theater with the boyfriend whilst traipsing around 10th-century Scotland with the headstrong Princess Merida and her trusty Clydesdale, Angus.  You go, Merida, I wanted to say.  Show your parents how it’s done, I had at the ready.

But those words never came.  Instead I thought…meh.

One of the things I enjoy about youth or young adult stories is how simply they’re laid out, and as I am in the middle of A Game of Thrones I am hungry for the contrast of a simply-told story.  You may think, “Duh, of course they’re simple, they’re for kids,” but I’m pretty much always struck by the power of the social messaging in the stories.  And they’re usually not bad messages to be lost in for a hundred minutes or so; Finding Nemo, for example, explores the problems inherent in being protective of your kids vs. learning to let go while not taking for granted the benefits of parental love.  One of the interesting things about the Harry Potter series is that as Harry ages (as will, one could assume, his readership along with him), his stories become more complex.  The first book is a charming story about a forlorn little boy lost in a world that doesn’t like him, who finds out he’s fantastically special.  Who doesn’t want to relate to that?  And who doesn’t want to be nice to the shy, quiet kid (who may secretly be a powerful magician) as a result?  However, by the end of the series Harry’s witnessed the rise of a police state, has experienced traumatic loss and torture, and has come to understand the danger of letting fear dominate the decision-making process.  These are profound social messages, far more nuanced and adult than “Listen to your parents” or “You can both love your kiddo and give him some freedom.  Even if he’s got a itty bitty fin.”

So, back to Brave.  The trailer shows a movie that is both epic and sweeping…

…and ends with the question, “If you had the chance to change your fate, would you?”

OK.  So.  Big picture question here, and one that merits some consideration.  Would you change your fate?  Would you take the necessary steps?  Or would you acquiesce to what tradition and gender roles and society demands?  The implication is that Merida would, and she would do so boldly.

(Though one could argue that by following the will-o-the-wisp into the woods that leads her to the bear that creates the opening action sequence, and again following it to the witch’s hovel and the climactic final fight scene, Merida isn’t changing her fate at all and is simply living up to the destiny chosen for her by supernatural forces.  But who wants to nitpick about that?  *ahem* *waiting* And I digress.)

~~~Spoiler alert~~~

The thing is, Merida does take steps to change her situation, but she only does so because she screws up, big-time.  While there can be plenty of life-lessons learned from a mistake (trust me, I know, and I don’t say that facetiously at all), the story and script are relatively weak and I don’t believe in her growth.  This is the main thrust of the movie and there’s no real social message here.  I mean, it doesn’t take a tremendous internal effort to not want your mother–who you selfishly and ill-advisedly magicked into a bear–to get killed before you have a chance to change her back.  That’s not bravery, that’s not groundbreaking, that’s human decency.  Righting your own mistakes doesn’t make you brave, it makes you responsible, though I suppose calling the movie Responsible doesn’t quite have the same zazz, does it?

There really isn’t much that’s new about Brave, and it borrows heavily from Beauty and the Beast.  Rewrite Belle’s song about how there “must be more than this provincial life,” add a bodhran and a penny whistle and you’ve got a theme song for Merida.  Redemption through acceptance of the beast (in this case, Merida’s telling bear-mama that she loves her) saves the day.  The witch Merida gets the spell from who jumpstarts all her problems looks suspiciously like the witch in the brilliant anime feature, Spirited Away.  She also channels the big eye-little eye, humped back, hooked nose body type of the enchantress (scroll almost to the bottom of the linked page to find the enchantress) who cast the spell on the Beast, and if you insist on poking further within the Disney/Pixar family you’ll find she bears more than a passing resemblance to Grandmother Fa from Mulan.  Like Belle and Mulan, Merida has a forelock of hair that won’t stay off her face (though Merida’s hair is a character unto itself).  And Belle also has a Clydesdale, named Philippe.

Merida doesn’t get married at the end, so it’s a fairly big step to permit a happy ending Disney-style without a wedding, I’ll grant you that.  But the men in Brave were irresponsibly, almost criminally one-dimensional; all they wanted to do was drink and fight, and at the end I thought, well, theoretically she would, eventually, marry, as people tend to do…and yet the men in this movie were all idiots while the women–primarily Merida and her mother–were competent and able to process rational thought.  Ultimately, the problem was not that she didn’t want to marry yet but rather, who could she possibly find to marry in that crew?

The movie wasn’t wholly bad.  The animation was flawless, breathtaking, and while the people were somewhat cartoony, the animals were appropriately adorable-yet-terrifying (as necessary).  And all joking aside, Merida’s hair really is a sight to behold.

Her hair is massive, with a mind of its own.

It was admittedly fun to watch Merida gallop around the countryside on her horse, climbing rocks and shooting bullseyes with a bow and arrow at a full gallop.  I couldn’t help but wonder how profoundly her archery skills would inspire little girls to pick up a bow and arrow, especially in conjunction with the facility Katniss has with a bow in The Hunger Games.  There are worse side effects that can come about after a movie.  While her archery was thrilling, though, it didn’t serve much purpose other than so say, “Look!  Look!  She can shoot a bow and arrow!  Better than the boys, even!”  Which, you know.  Yay.  But so what?

On a personal level, I get the desire to break from tradition and do what your heart tells you rather than what’s simply expected thanks to a proscribed social tenet you had no hand in writing.  I get the desire to want to marry for love rather than for duty, particularly in a 10th-century, divorce-free environment.  What I don’t get is why the writers of Brave weren’t brave at all and followed formulaic movie structure, borrowing old storylines instead of writing new ones, in a movie that’s promoted as one that’s all about breaking the rules.

Final review: Meh with a side of love-yer-hair.

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