Thursday, December 27, 2012

the trouble with Brave

I gave one of my nieces the DVD of Pixar's Brave for Christmas, so I got the chance to watch it for the first time since I saw it in the theater. I think I understand better why it doesn't ever really come together, despite a ton of good things going for it. Thar be spoilers here.

First, I should say that I'm pretty far out of the mainstream when it comes to Pixar. I adore the second Toy Story and respect the first and third a great deal. I think Finding Nemo is lots of fun, and incidentally one of the few Pixar movies that are actually for children. I love the first half of Wall-E and, while I don't much love Ratatouille, I do respect it a lot. But I legitimately hate both The Incredibles and Up!, the latter of which I find a profoundly cynical act of emotional manipulation. In general, I think that Pixar has been oversold; none of Pixar's movies, in my estimation, are as good as Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. So that's the context. It's funny but I suppose just expressing reservations about Pixar can sound contrarian.

For this reason, I was actually less disappointed by the movie than other people; my expectations were lower. And I think it's a truly beautiful movie, with great attention paid to detail and some fine character acting. (I wasn't really charmed by Billy Connolly's thick Scottish brogue, but I get why they went in that direction.) It's a fun movie. But it's also a profoundly small story, one that seems to me more like an episode of a TV show than a full-fledged movie, and for me that's its central problem.

Consider the following trailer, to my mind by far the most effective and engaging:

Now, let me be clear that I know better than to judge a movie by its trailer, or to think that a trailer amounts to a contract. Trailers are a vehicle for exposure and marketing, and it's fine by me for them to be somewhat misleading. And as far as that goes, this one is fine; I don't recognize any shots from this trailer that aren't in the movie. Rather, the trailer represents to me a better use of the movie's setting, characters, and visual aesthetic than we actually get in the movie. It's got a better grasp on the movie's ethos (an admittedly nebulous concept) than the movie itself.

I know some people might find the lilting Gaelic melody a little too on the nose, but I think it works brilliantly here. The movie is a pastiche, a self-conscious nod to a vision of rolling green hills and vaguely Celtic accents. Part of what made the movie intriguing in the first place is the welding of a fantasy landscape with an assumed cultural understanding of Celtic/Gaelic culture, a largely apocryphal notion that nevertheless has great romance to it. In a live action movie, that can often seem cloying or sentimental, but in an animated fantasy like this one, it should fit perfectly. And Pixar really set themselves up for success, filling the movie with gorgeous detail on both the broadest view (those lush landscapes) and the smallest (Merida's remarkable hair, for one). Watching that trailer, I want to spend time in that world.

So why doesn't Pixar show us more of it? It's a profoundly frustrating question. We have a setting and characters introduced that show tremendous promise, and then we spend the entire movie in a few distinct locales. Think about the plot: Merida and her parents squabble about her betrothal at the castle; the suitors come to the castle; Merida bolts from the castle and to the standing stones, which leads her to the witch's cabin; she returns from the witch's cabin to the castle; she and her mother flee the castle to the standing stones and the witch's cabin; they return to the castle; everybody runs from the castle to the standing stones; we end up back at the castle. Not only does all of that back and forth mean that we're filling up time that could be spent elsewhere in the world, it leads to a profound sense of deja vu, or "been there, done that." When Merida and her mother are back at the castle, Elinor still in bear form, I can't help but think "didn't I just watch this?" The interior space of the castle feels so cramped, yet we spend a significant majority of the scenes there. The end result is a movie that feels at once too short and too long: too short because you feel as though you haven't really gone anywhere at the end, too long because its repetition makes you feel impatient.

A good example of how the movie seems smaller than it should is in the morning after Merida and Elinor initially flee from the castle. (Remember, they have only until sunup after the second night or her transformation will be permanent.) Elinor has prepared a meal at a makeshift table for her and Merida's breakfast, one which goes disastrously. The point, I think, is to show how out of place Elinor's domestic values are in the wilderness; it's Merida who ends up providing for them. But while that (perhaps too obvious) point is made, you're still looking at a scene where we spend ten minutes in one spot, which happens to be right next to the witch's cabin. You're out in the wilderness! Explore more. But instead, you've got this inert scene which advances a message without being entertaining. I felt restless constantly during the movie.

Think of the trailer again. We get to see Merida climbing a tall rock spire, we see a figure emerging from the snow and gloom, we see her riding her horse through a fantasy landscape.... All of those elements pop up in the movie, but a discouraging amount of them are found in montage or flashback. There's very little in the way of journeys or quests or challenges to overcome in the movie. I am most certainly not asking for a Hero's Journey storyline, which are bullshit. What I am saying is that I like Merida and I love the world Pixar has built and I want to spend time seeing her making her way through that world, and as part of the actual plot of the movie, not through an early establishing montage. I think you could tell the story of Merida and her mother each learning to compromise over the course of the movie in a story that leads Merida on a grander adventure to reverse Elinor's condition. Instead, through the plot of the movie, she (and we) are stuck, and that lack of freedom to explore is embodied in Merida's mother in bear form. Bear Elinor is a drag on Merida in every sense.

I acknowledge that I am essentially complaining that the movie that we got wasn't the one that I wanted, although I would point out that this is essentially true of any criticism of a movie. But I also think that the story as told doesn't really pay off either. The basic structure is very common: a young person wants to be free and chafes against the control of his or her parents; the parents want the young person to be responsible and fail to recognize the child's individuality. The resolution is compromise, with both sides agreeing to give in a little. That's alright, as far as it goes, although I never quite trust stories that resolve their central conflict with little lost on either side. This movie just doesn't execute that basic plot, unfortunately. For one, success comes in a way that doesn't seem to resolve much of anything. Merida solves a major problem by delivering a speech to the assembled lords, including her father. Rather than having the princess be married off according to the outcome of a competition, the young people will be allowed to fall in love with each other, and that will determine, I guess, the future of the alliance. (It's unclear to me how they would deal with having heirs of all the same sex; after all, we see seven children of the various lords, and six are male.) One of the lords says something to the effect of, "alright, we'll let the children court each other and see who falls in love." In other words, the basic condition of trading political power through romantic pairings endures, just with a different mechanism to bring those pairings together. That doesn't pay off as a real change, which is particularly problematic when the conflict resolution amounts to the old "make a big speech to save the day."

Watching Merida give her speech, meanwhile, heals the rift with Elinor; Elinor realizes as she listens that Merida understands responsibility, I guess. Does that constitute growth on Elinor's part? I'm not so sure. There are times when the movie seems to set up a growing understanding on the part of Elinor of Merida's skills and strengths. When they are in the woods for the morning, Merida feeds her mother by fishing with her bow and arrow. I thought this was a way to demonstrate to Elinor just how impressive a figure Merida is, but it doesn't go anywhere, and there's no indication that Elinor has come to value Merida's physical abilities or independence. I'm asking, in other words, in what way the compromise at the end is a compromise at all. How has Elinor grown to see the importance of recognizing Merida for who she is? In fulfilling the dictates of political gamesmanship, Merida's speech has not demonstrated a new set of values to her mother, only that she can succeed in her mother's existing value system. So it's an open question whether Elinor has grown at all. And it's unclear whether Merida has learned to respect her mother's responsibilities. After all, it takes her mother turning into a bear to make her value her mother at all. Did she change her ways (change her fate, as she says over and over and over again) because she came to understand the value in what her parents think, or merely out of the immediate necessity of physical risk to her mother? If it's the latter, I think that's a failure to tell the story the movie intends to tell.

The biggest difficulty in storytelling, it seems to me, is not in writing a good plot or developing good themes but in the interface between the two. And an essential problem for Brave is that the resolution of the plot problems (some conveniently solved through a rousing speech, some through a battle with a Big Bad) and the resolution of the thematic problems (Merida's independence vs. her mother's desire for her to be responsible) don't fit together. It's great from a standpoint of plot resolution that the other lords are cool with a less-explicit system of political horsetrading, but that does nothing to settle whether a satisfactory "meeting at the middle through recognition of the other viewpoint's legitimacy" has happened. The plot's happy ending can't fix the thematic ambiguity.

Those thematic problems are also political problems. Some people have suggested that the plot's cramped nature is a reflection of how Merida grows: she is a wanderer by nature but must learn to change that in order to meet her responsibilities. The narrow confines of the movie reflect her growing domesticity, the way in which responsibility shrinks her world. If that's the case, well, ick. Not just because I think that reading suggests that Merida is becoming domesticated in a way with lots of noxious gender politics, but also because if that's so, it suggests that the movie privileges one side of the independence-responsibility tension. In fact you could make a strong argument that the movie does that just on the surface, in part by making Merida rather annoying at the beginning. Also, by having Merida slice the tapestry without any outward remorse, then matching that by having Elinor throw the bow into the fire but immediately retrieve it out of guilt, the suggestion is that Elinor is already a more kind, compassionate person. And frankly, I don't agree with that. Responsibility is important, but so is independence, and it's particularly so when we're talking about young women asserting their rights and the bullshit of aristocracy. Merida is correct to resist her fate, even though she also should do more to recognize the importance of her responsibility.

Is Brave feminist? I don't need it to be, to see it as a good movie, although I do need it to be to agree with its politics. Certainly, lots of people longed for a feminist Pixar tale, considering that the film is the first from the studio with a female protagonist and originally had a female director. But I find its relationship to feminism and gender deeply troubling. As I said above, the question of whether marriage is a suitable vehicle for political compromise at all is left ambiguous at the end. And the fact that the young male heirs agree with Merida that the children should be allowed to fall in love as they choose (and seemingly justify her position with their male opinions) undermines the important sense in which Merida's particular lack of agency is a product of her gender. Her condition is not the same as theirs, and the parallel drawn obscures that. In the larger sense, I get that a story built on compromise must have each side give in some. But the notion that Merida should have no say over her own life because of her place in the aristocracy and her gender is unambiguously bullshit, to me, and not a point on which compromise should be represented as a good thing. I said before that the thematic problem is that neither Merida nor her mother seems to have changed in anything but a superficial way. But thanks to the explicitly unequal power dynamics in the story, Merida's problem is more acute. She has a deeper grievance, and I think the movie should reflect that fact. If the movie is ambivalent on her claim to freedom, well, it's not a movie I can respect that much.

This all sounds more harsh than I mean it; there are many lovely elements to the film, and the craft of the visuals and music and acting are all exquisite. The issue is that those great strengths are not deployed to maximum effect; rather they are devoted to a story of troubling politics and incomplete themes. I applaud Pixar for wanting to tell a girl's story, but I am disturbed by what Brave says about what Pixar thinks a girl's story should be.


Anonymous said...

“This all…”

I should say so, what was that, 2500 words about a cartoon?

BWE (Bloggers without editors)

Freddie said...

Yeah, I'm the only person on the Internet who writes long pieces about pop culture.

Anonymous said...

Freddie - "Brave" is a beautiful movie so well worth writing about. I agree with your criticisms of the plot but the visual element of the film makes it memorable, something which you probably agree with me about.

Freddie said...

Totally. Gorgeous, gorgeous movie-- I wanted to spend a little more time in that world, have the chance to explore.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you'd expand a bit on what you mean when you say that Gaelic culture is 'apocryphal'. Do you mean that it is largely known to average US citizens (i.e., those that aren't descended from, and aware of, their Gaelic ancestors) via pop culture? I'm genuinely curious what you mean. Thanks.

Freddie said...

What I meant was that a lot of Americans have this vision of a Gaelic culture that is informed more by myths, pop culture, and advertising than by knowledge of any actual place. It's the conception of rolling green hills and lilting accents and women with bright red hair and freckles. It's not as if these elements aren't actually found in the world, but rather that they come together to form this vague conception that obscures the reality of real places like the real Ireland.

Since I wrote this piece, I've read that Brave is supposed to be literal Scotland, so that blunts the point in this instance.

tongorad said...

Hey Freddie,
What's your thoughts regarding which of your posts are open for comment, and which are not?
For example, your previous post about material vs affective politics was very interesting and discussion-worthy.

Travis Mason-Bushman said...

Yes, the previous post sparked a comment interest in me as well.

Try as I might, I quite simply couldn't get through the pamphlet's miles-long wall of impenetrable theoryese.

Nobody outside the progressive movement is going to read that pamphlet. Many, many people inside the progressive movement aren't going to read that pamphlet. Decry "oversimplification" if you want, but the fact of the matter is that brevity and clarity count. We need to learn to make our arguments attractive and compelling. I'm tired of seeing leftist movements fizzle out in a puff of academic journals.

Paul Sherrard said...

"none of Pixar's movies, in my estimation, are as good as Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin."

Dude, you are totally high.

Freddie said...

Hey guys, I'm going to be taking stock of a few things around here soon, and one thing I'm thinking about is how to be consistent with comments. I'll keep you updated.

Anonymous said...

Hi Freddie,

Have you reviewed any of the other Pixar films in this way? I'd love to read. Even though I very much disagree with you (Incredibles is genius, Up is wonderful, etc.), I love the amount of attention you give to their art, which I think is wholly deserving of such a deep critique. If you haven't already done this, please do!


Sarah Clark said...

Hey! You are not the only person on the internet who goes on for 1000+ words on pop culture. I'm actually attempting to do something similar over at I retweeted this essay, very awesome and I mostly agree! Having lived in the real Scotland for a year, I still think your general point holds re: "apocryphal" gaelic culture. While I don't expect a documentary, the film shows far more Fantasy Scotland than reality (from any century). To bring up a couple other Pixar movies: why do you like Finding Nemo so much? It's probably my favorite Pixar movie and I wonder if it's for similar reasons. On a related note, why do you like Toy Story 2 more than 3? It's a very close call for me but I give the edge to 3, mostly because of the climax at the landfill, and the sweet denoument of Andy passing the torch.

Freddie said...

Thanks for the cite, Sarah, I'll check it out.

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