"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: Brave

A new Pixar movie is always exciting, except when it's Cars 2, and especially when it's the year after Cars 2. After all the slightly annoying and visually assaulting previews for animated movies, there's a little breath of amazement that you're actually sitting there about to see this movie, and then comes the short, which takes your breath away and plunges you into that whimsical, wide-eyed mood, and then the movie starts.

Some reviewers seem to have found that things turned a bit sour at that point, when Brave actually started. I disagree. In fact, I wish I hadn't read any reviews before I saw it, because I found myself, at the beginning, feeling a bit doubtful, not wanting to give myself over entirely to the film. Which was silly of me, because Brave is a fairy tale movie - not the critical, edgy kind, but the sincere, enchanting kind - and the only way to approach it is with sincerity and a readiness to be enchanted.

Eventually, I got over myself and my doubts, and I really enjoyed the movie. First off, it's just....gorgeous I guess is the right word. You may have heard people talking about Princess Merida's hair, and how many computer programs it took to make it look so good. Whatever you have heard, it's nothing compared to actually seeing it onscreen. It's incredible. I'm not even going to try to describe it, because you just have to go see it for yourself.

Aside from the hair, the thing that impressed me most was the animation of the animals. Merida's horse, Angus, appears to be the most amazing horse in the world. Forget Shadowfax. This horse embodies the beauty of motion. He's just spectacular. There's a sequence at the beginning of the movie where Merida rides around the Scottish countryside, shooting arrows and climbing cliffs, which is utterly and wonderfully exhilarating - and not just because of the stirring soundtrack (which by the way is great).

But then things turn a little darker, and Merida gets off her horse and must fend for herself on her own two feet. Thanks to my recent year of fairy tale research, I can sum up the story as an interesting variation on the animal bridegroom tale type. Normally, a princess marries a prince who is under a spell that turns him into an animal (a pig, a polar bear, etc.), and she must break the spell by undergoing some trials and proving her love for him. Brave puts a good twist on this tale by making it about a princess and her mother instead of a wife and her husband. Not to give too much away, but there's a transformation, a spell to break, and a mutual love to prove, but it's all between mother and daughter.

This of course is not really a departure from the fairy tale genre, since many of them feature tension between mothers and daughters. One review I read actually gave the film flak for falling into this trope and giving the mother a hard time, but I actually appreciated that this film avoids the polarizing and annoying binary of saintly, but usually dead mother and evil, ugly, awful step-mother/witch. Merida's mother is not ugly, nor is she cruel, and Merida herself is not the perfect young lady that most fairy tale heroines are. Both of them are complicated, both have strengths and weaknesses, and both must change in order to achieve a happy ending. Yes, the mother, Queen Elinor, has a particularly tough time of it, but then so does Merida.

One thing that surprised me about the movie is how domestic it was. I've come to expect a significant journey motif from Pixar movies and fantasy movies in general. And when Merida first ventures into the woods, I expected her to continue venturing, but instead she turns right around and heads home. The rest of the movie swings back and forth between woods and castle, between wild and domestic, between magical spells and very human dilemmas. And I think that's a great strength for the movie. It doesn't try for too much, which might disappoint some people looking for another Up or Wall-e. But I applaud Pixar for setting themselves a good story and telling it without reaching for the stars (pun intended).

Now I must address the question of feminism and female role models. Merida is Pixar's first female protagonist, a thing not to be taken lightly. And they went whole-hog on the girly movie route by making it a mother-daughter story. And Merida is an awesome female role model, to be sure. Problem is, she's kind of like a lot of other female role models in the fantasy world - spunky, tomboyish, beset by unattractive suitors, etc. That's all great, but why, I ask, can we not have a girl who is presented by a series of very attractive, perfectly acceptable suitors, and still says no?

In fact, the treatment of masculinity in this movie is just as comment-worthy as that of femininity. Basically, Pixar is telling us that men (or ancient Scottish men) are ugly, stupid, vain, proud, crass, thoughtless, violent hunks of flesh. Merida is a tomboy, but she's not really like her brothers or her father; she's better than them. Or at least she becomes better. One could read this as the story of a young person trying to straddle a very polarized gender divide - between the too prim lady and the too chaotic man - or, more generally, breaking out of categories and, as the film explicitly says, making her own path.

What's interesting is that eventually she takes her mother, but not her father or brothers with her along this new and improved path. Her three triplet brothers undergo a similar transformation as the mother, but I think we would be surprised to find that after their adventure, they had changed any of their mischievous, havoc-wreaking ways. Nor does King Fergus, Merida's father, have any reason to change. He and his comrades do change their minds, but not themselves. So we have a film that, on the one hand, presents stereotypical masculinity and femininity as two extremes, neither desirable, but, on the other hand, shows the women changing and the men staying just the same. I don't really know what to make of it. (Scroll down to see the rest of my tangent about gender in this movie, which I put in a separate post below.)

And so I leave you with a picture of adorable young Merida. Intellectual, recent-graduate-of-a-women's-college analysis aside, this is a good movie. Better than some critics have made out. I kind of can't wait to see it again. I really liked the focus on the mother-daughter relationship in all its complexity, both joy and difficulty; I was, as I hoped, blown away by the animation and the beauty of the visuals; and I like, although with a few reservations, the message of the movie. Another year of Pixar gone by, and a good one. Finally, if you enjoyed Brave, please check out The Secret of Kells, an even more magical adventure set in ancient Ireland with stunning animation and a beautiful soundtrack. If you like ancient Celtic atmospheres and/or animation, these make a lovely pair.

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