Tuesday, July 14, 2015

'Brave' Is Good But Doesn't Aspire to Greatness (Just Great Hair)

This is an article that's a long time coming because, in a large part, I wasn't sure exactly how to feel about Brave. On the one hand, it's the first Pixar movie to feature a female protagonist, the story revolves around a mother-daughter relationship, and it's very fun. On the other hand, the story plays into a lot of frustrating tropes about women and relationships, the protagonist is a princess and part of her story is about marriage, and while it's fun it never reaches the same level of "transcendence" as the other Pixar films.

So, like I said, some mixed feelings. Granted, there was never any question of me straight up not liking it. I do like it. I like it a lot. It was more that I struggled with whether or not to give it my wholehearted stamp of approval. Is this a movie I can recommend without any major caveats? Am I comfortable endorsing this film with the same level of glee I reserve for Lilo and Stitch and The Emperor's New Groove? Yes to the first and no to the second.

Look, there's no question that Brave is a solid movie. It's entertaining, fun, and it has a good message. The plot is at least vaguely original, the characters are well voiced, and it's gorgeous to look at. No one is saying that Brave isn't a good movie. What we're saying is that it's not an amazing movie. It's not blow your pants off good. It's not the kind of good that makes you want to name your kid Merida and ride off into the sunset with a DVD of this film.*

It's good but it's not great, and that grates on me a little. I mean, I'm all for the right of media to be mediocre when it must, but I prefer a mediocrity that stems from the filmmakers' inability to make a better movie. As in, I'm okay if a movie isn't very good as long as it feels like everyone involved worked their freaking butt off.

Brave doesn't really feel like that. Parts of it do, but when we get down to it, Brave falls into a lot of a bad patterns and habits that have frustrated me for years with the major animation studios. Like how they spent so much time and energy animating her hair and clothes, but then barely bothered to make sure her story was emotionally connecting with audiences. They agonized over her face and look and to be honest that's the thing I least care about here. And, in the end, for all that I really enjoy the movie, it is another white Disney princess movie. It's just slightly more empowering that most.

I mean, we get ten Pixar movies about boys before this - male characters who can be toys and animals and bugs and cars and fish and robots and people and everything in between - but the minute we have a girl we have to tell a princess story? The heck?

The story of the movie follows Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a Scottish princess who chafes at the restrictions of her life. She hates living stuffed up in a castle, despises princess lessons and being forced to learn a musical instrument, and longs to be let free to run through the wilderness and be a warrior. Unfortunately for her, while her father, Fergus (Billy Connolly), is totally okay with her running wild, her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), is not. And Elinor generally wins.

The breaking point for their family comes when Merida's parents host a tournament for all the clans, a tournament where the winner will receive Merida's hand in marriage. She's completely against the idea and states very forcefully and often that she doesn't want to get married, but her parents overrule her. After all, their marriage was arranged and it worked out very well for them.

Merida is dismayed by the horrible field of candidates, and eventually decides that, screw this, she'll compete in the tournament too. It's a great moment, as Merida strides down the field and yells, "I'll be shooting for my own hand!" But it causes an immediate rift between mother and daughter.

Unsure how to repair things and utterly convinced that she's in the right, Merida goes off and follows a will-o-wisp into the woods where she finds an old witch. The witch gives her a potion to use on her mother, something that will make her see the world a different way. Merida uses it, because of course she does, and then is absolutely shocked when the potion doesn't make her mother more agreeable, it straight up turns her into a bear.

The rest of the film follows Merida as she has to track down her bear mother, repair their relationship, convince the clans not to kill this bear, escape this other crazy evil bear, and turn her mother back into a human. All in about an hour and a half.

Look, it's neither the most imaginative plot nor is it the most expected. I give it a lot of props for very directly addressing a lot of feminist issues, like the right to self-determination, the revolt against codified female behavior and beauty standards, and the complexity of the relationship between Merida and Elinor. It's main issue, at least as far as I am concerned, is that it never quite gets there. It never reaches the emotional goal you need it to find. It never feels real.

And that's a problem.

It's a problem because these themes and emotions are valid ones and are totally ideas that Disney/Pixar should address in their movies. We know that Pixar is fully capable of making movies that melt your heart and cause you to leak your feelings out of your eyeballs, which is what makes it so frustrating that this movie doesn't. It should! It should make me bawl, goshdarnit!

I recognize that this is a weird complaint to have about a film, but I maintain that it's a valid one. Brave is held up by a lot of people as the start of Pixar's decline (though I would actually say that Cars, which is the absolute worst, fits the bill better), the point at which Pixar started to pay more attention to future licensing and merchandise deals than story. To be fair, I'd argue that almost no film company can claim to be completely clean of this, but Pixar held out for a long time. Most of their films are difficult to categorize and hard to imagine being really big sellers in terms of merch.

Brave, however, came custom drawn for the Princess crowd, a feel-good, popcorn feminist princess movie that moms and daughters could appreciate but that would still help them sell lots of toys. Not to be overly cynical (too late), but the plot point where Merida's three younger brothers turn into baby bears seems to be completely useless to the plot and designed just to sell stuffed animals.

But this is me being a sad fun-hater. My real issue is more what I said before: Brave feels like a movie where more attention was paid to Merida's hair than to her emotional arc. It's not bad, per se, but it's not the movie it ought to be, and I'm not okay with that.

Still - and this is why I mentioned above that I go back and forth on this film a lot - it is a good movie. It has good values. The heart of the film is about a mother and a daughter learning to listen to each other and mend their relationship. It centers on the idea that femininity can be expressed in many different ways, all of them valid. I love that!

I love that Elinor and Merida both learn from each other, and I love that neither of them is completely blameless in what occurs. I love that their relationship is allowed to be the most complex and interesting part of the film and that Merida never does end up getting a love interest. I love a lot of things about this movie. I just...

It's that unfulfilled longing I have for a movie I like to be better than it is. Maybe I just have standards that are too high and I need to get over myself. Maybe I'm going to spend the rest of my life dreaming of films that don't exist. But Brave could have been better than it was. Fewer cheap laughs and shenanigans, more time spent on the emotional complexities of the story. More setup would have made the payoff sweeter. Just, more.

I know it's harsh of me to judge a perfectly good film based on the idea that it could have been better, but I can't help it. I demand excellence because I know it's possible and because, frankly, we all deserve it. We deserve movies about girls that are just as good as the ones about boys. We deserve films that represent the vast complexity and intricacies of female life and aren't just a rather cut and paste discussion of second wave feminist values. We deserve more, and we should demand it.

Because if we don't demand it, if I'm not allowed to still like Brave but want something more, then we're never going to get it.

To be fair, they did do a really good job with the hair.
*This level of devotion is, for the record, how I feel about Pacific Rim. And Chariots of Fire. And very few other films.