Posts Tagged ‘Brave’

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave – plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave – I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.

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Warning: spoilers and ranting ahead.

Yesterday, Toby and I braved the half-hour bus trip in to Dundee to see Tangled, being as how the little cinema in St Andrews doesn’t do 3D. It was, undeniably, a very pretty film, and I enjoyed it while it was on. I laughed or felt moved at various points, I appreciated the visual aesthetic – but when it was over, all I could think of was how many aspects of it had been wrong, annoying or outright troublesome, such that now, it retrospect, it mostly makes me angry.

For starters, there’s the songs. Now, not only was I brought up to love vaudeville, musicals and musical comedy, but I also own the Disney Singstar game. I have watched the Buffy musical upwards of fifteen times, and I can sing the entire score to Cats. I am not biased against singing in cinema! But in Tangled, not only are the lyrics deeply mediocre, but the songs themselves come at weird moments in the film; moments where the the music tells us nothing that we can’t already see on screen, or where the lyrics are little more than fluffy dialogue. Watching the opening scene, where Rapunzel sings about the tedium of her daily life while simultaneously enacting the lyrics, I was struck by the sense that I was watching Disney meddle in a Pixar montage. Think of those early moments in The Incredibles where Bob struggles to fit in his cubicle and the ongoing battle he has with his shonky car door; think of Wall-E’s repetitive cube-folding and treasure-salvaging. That balance of silence, poignancy and humour is a Pixar trademark, and so I can’t help thinking that if, instead of listening to a cheerful, whimsical musical number, we had just seen Rapunzel going about the same daily routine in silence – sometimes to a physically comical effect, but mostly not – we would have learned more about her character, and come to love her more deeply, than the song itself permitted.

Even without this suspicion, later songs, such as the two variants on ‘Mother Knows Best’, remain deeply unoriginal, no matter how prettily sung. There is no wordplay, no musical complexity – nothing to make them the kind of song you’d sing at a karaoke night or hum to yourself on the bus – and if you think about golden age Disney films like Pocahontas and The Lion King, both of which won Academy Awards and Golden Globes on the strength of their music, there’s no good reason why this should be so, except that very little effort was put into making them. Even ‘I See the Light’, the big romantic duet – which, in fairness, has been nominated for both those awards – is so utterly reminiscent of Aladdin’s ‘A Whole New World’ that I keep getting them mixed up in my head, the chorus of one bleeding into the memory of the other. Compare the lyrics – particularly the use of ‘crystal clear’ as a key rhyme  – and you’ll see what I mean. (Also, they sing the song while in a boat, at night, on a lake, and have their first kiss prevented by external villainy. Copying The Little Mermaid, much?)

But what irritated me most about the singing? Is the way it was used to rob Rapunzel of competence.

Midway through Tangled, there’s a point where Flynn, sick of babysitting a girl with zero experience of the outside world, tries to scare her into going back home. His does this by taking her to the roughest, toughest bar he knows and telling Rapunzel before they go in that it’s a quiet, normal place, and that if she can’t handle it, she’s not going to be able to deal with going any further. Inside, the bar is full of stereotypical, scar-faced, hulking goon-warriors, most of them dressed like Vikings in leather and horns, weapons akimbo. The plan to get in and out goes awry, however, when the ruffians realise that Flynn is a wanted man and potentially worth a lot of money to them. Everyone starts grabbing him; Rapunzel is forgotten – until she starts yelling at them all to let Flynn go, because he’s taking her to the one place she’s always wanted to see, and don’t any of them have a dream? And because this is a Disney film, the answer to that question is yes, they do: every single meathead in the place wants to be a concert pianist, a mime, an interior decorator or a lover, they all start singing along with Rapunzel, and by the end of ‘I’ve Got a Dream’, everyone is so moved that when the authorities come to arrest Flynn, the ruffians show the pair of them a secret tunnel under the bar, thus allowing them to escape.

It’s a funny scene. I get that. The song was arguably the best in the film. But afterwards, when Flynn changes his attitude and starts to respect Rapunzel as someone worthwhile, it’s not because she’s done something that can actually be called smart or impressive, even though we’re meant to think it is. After all, didn’t she save the day? Yes, she didbut not by being competent. What she did was bring the reality-warping magic of a Disney princess to bear on a situation that, in any other instance, would have resulted in a far worse outcome. Even by the standards of a children’s fantasy world, Rapunzel does something stupid: despite being brought up to believe in the existence of criminals who would hurt her given half a chance, her first and only tactic is to appeal to their better natures with a single, pleading sentence. She does not trick them, thereby proving her smarts. She does not purposefully seek to manipulate their emotions, which would have been a subtler and better way to reach the same outcome, and which she later does to win Maximus to their cause. She does not cause a distraction, thereby allowing Flynn to gain the upper hand. She does not cause the men to underestimate her. Instead, her princessness causes a song to be sung which, despite all available logic, gets them out of trouble. And this means that, even though she then goes on to do something genuinely clever and brave – using her hair to swing them both out of danger – we are still left with a sequence of events where Flynn accepts her as competent, not because of the actual competent thing she did, but because of a ridiculous, stupid and lucky thing over which she had no control.

Early Disney princesses are predominantly passive characters. That changes as time goes by: the girls get stronger, more self-sufficient, and even though all the princess stories still use the same narrative arc – a naive girl yearning to explore the wider world is guided through an adventure by a handsome man, who she marries at the end – you can still see the marks of progress. It might be significant, therefore, that Disney has been wanting to do a Rapunzel movie since the forties. But even though the director of Tangled, Nathan Greno, says that Disney “wanted to make Rapunzel a very smart, strong girl,” what they’ve actually done is created the most passive princess in decades.

Ignoring Snow White, Cinderella and Aurora – who appeared between 1937, 1950 and 1959 respectively, and whose passivity can therefore be blamed on the social mores of past eras – all other Disney princesses have agency. Tiana (The Princess and the Frog, 2009) is a hard-working career woman; Jasmine (Aladdin, 1992) escapes a palace under her own steam and refuses to marry where she does not love; Belle (Beauty and the Beast, 1991) rides out solo to rescue her father, then makes a deal with a monster to see him set free; Ariel (The Little Mermaid, 1989) disobeys her family and gives up everything to learn about a different world.

But Rapunzel is too terrified to leave her tower without Flynn’s help. She prances around like a ninny, alternately revelling in her freedom and then sobbing about what her mother will think without ever demonstrating any notable intelligence. When the wicked Mother Gothel tells her stolen daughter that she’s naive, dreamy and unfocussed, we’re meant to think it spiteful and false, but in reality, Rapunzel’s behaviour doesn’t contradict these labels. There are exactly two points in the story at which she does something useful – rescuing them both with her hair, then talking Maximus into an alliance – but these are not what define Flynn’s belief in her competence, and at neither time does she display any self-awareness beyond her usual wide-eyed cheer. And when, finally, we come to the big finale, it is Flynn’s actions which undo Mother Gothel, denying Rapunzel the catharsis of defeating a woman who was only ever her demon to defeat –  not his. The fact that Flynn’s character is an underdeveloped would-be Aladdin for most of the film only makes it more offensive that he and the horse Maximus dominate the advertising: even the title was changed from Rapunzel’s name to the more ambiguous Tangled in the hopes of attracting male audiences. Which is where I start to blame Pixar, rather than Disney – because Disney, at least, have a track record of creating decent female characters, while Pixar, despite all its success and accolades, not does not.

Uncomfortably, my verdict is that Tangled is representative of the worst failings of both companies. Left to their own devices, Disney can write about women (sort of), adapt fairy-tales and score fun, light-hearted, memorable songs. Left to its own devices, Pixar can create strong original stories, write witty banter and construct emotional scenes that work on different levels for both children and adults. We’ve seen them work successfully together writing stories aimed primarily at boys, whose protagonists are overwhelmingly male and non-human – Cars, Wall-E, UpToy Story 3but Tangled, which was meant to be their debut effort at writing for and about women, fails. Rapunzel is almost entirely absent from the trailers promoting her own movie because she gets no witty lines, no banter, no moments of strength or humour that can be used to sell a film – and what’s worse, if the differences between so many of the trailer clips and the scenes which actually made it into the movie are anything to go by, this has resulted as much from a process of nervous, fearful erosion of the character as much as from forward planning.

The closing joke of Tangled is like a metaphor for these failings. As Flynn narrates the happily ever after, he finally reaches the question of marriage – did he and Rapunzel ever end up hitched? “Well,” he says, “it took a long time and many, many refusals, but eventually, I said yes.” Which is character-appropriate and funny and a great way to end – right up until Rapunzel chimes in to reassure us that actually, he asked her. And even though I understand that this line is meant to be an added joke on Flynn, catching him out in a lie about his feelings, what it ends up affirming is the idea that of course Flynn proposed to Rapunzel, because he’s the man and she’s the woman and that’s how these stories go, and given how passive she’s been throughout, why should that change at the finale? Just letting the joke sit there without comment, or having Rapunzel’s comeback be that she only had to ask Flynn once, is apparently too radical a notion.

Throughout this review, I’ve barely touched on the character of Mother Gothel, the woman who stole the infant Rapunzel and raised her in isolation so that she, and she alone, could use the magic of her hair to stay young forever. And that is because, quite simply, she barely exists. Unlike virtually every other Disney or Pixar villain, we never see her in isolation, plotting her schemes or learning her motivation; we see her alone once, but the point of that scene is only to show us that she knows Rapunzel is gone, and not as a means of developing her character. She is a shell, constantly sniping at her daughter about her ugly looks (what!?) and stupidity in a chirpy, passive-aggressive way, and despite all the possible richness of making her a complex villain, a woman who loves the child she raised but is still unable to let her go, this never eventuates, turning her into yet another example of the film’s failure to either write about or understand women.

And now, looking ahead at what will be their next joint offering – Brave, a film that was meant to be the first instance of a Pixar film with a female director, but which now isn’t – I wonder: will it be more of the same? Or can the studios take a lesson from Tangled, and realise that female characters can be just as interesting, witty, complex and compelling as their male counterparts? If they actually take a risk in this department, rather than fearfully pulling their punches, it will work; if they don’t, they’ll break their own magic forever. Disney managed to write strong women with Atlantis, Mulan and Pocahontas. Now it’s Pixar’s turn.