Wednesday, July 25, 2012
Is Merida Brave or not?
I finally got around to seeing Brave last week and I have mixed feelings about it. My expectations were high, but not unreasonably so, I don't think. Cars 2 notwithstanding, Pixar has an excellent track record and I loved how they marketed it as a female empowerment story without giving away much of the actual plot at all. That left a lot of room for surprises and I was hoping that Brave would do for girl power what The Incredibles did for superheroes and Ratatouille did for foodies.
There is a lot of girl power in the movie, but before I saw Brave I heard grumbling that it wasn't empowering enough. That it maybe made its female characters look good by making all the male characters look super dumb. I decided to lower my expectations for the movie's contribution to gender equality and just try to watch it as a movie about a girl who didn't want to follow the path her parents had set out for her. Everyone can relate to that on some level, so I hoped that I could enjoy it just for its message around that. Unfortunately, I was disappointed there too.
Brave has a lot of great pieces to play with. At the center of the film is the relationship between Merida and her mom, Elinor. Merida's dad goes along with whatever the Queen says, but it's really Elinor who has plans for Merida to be a traditional princess and follow the proper path towards marrying a noble son. Merida of course bucks against that and comes up with a way to change her fate (she hopes). Her plan involves some supernatural elements that I won't reveal, but look really cool. In fact, the whole movie looks really cool, but that's no surprise to Pixar fans by now.
There's a great story in there somewhere about having the courage (hence the title) to change your destiny. It's just that Brave never finds that story. There's magic, but there are no rules to the magic, so things just happen and don't make a lot of sense. Surely it's not spoiling anything to say that Merida and her mom eventually resolve their conflict, but it's impossible to pin down exactly when they do that. The whole story feels hasty and haphazard.
Since the central story is about Merida and Elinor's relationship, I paid the most attention to that and how the conflict is resolved, but I couldn't figure out where it happens. There's a cute montage showing them getting along after some tense interaction, but no moment where either gets any insight to the other's way of thinking. They have to work together to solve a particular problem and somewhere indefinable along the way, they decide to compromise. One gives a little, which leads the other to give a little, and by the end of the film, they've found their middle ground. It's enough to keep the story moving, but the message is no deeper than a call for compromise. I wanted dramatic revelations where mother and daughter finally understand each other. That never happens.
The title doesn't really work either. Merida gives a speech at the end about having the bravery to change your fate, but that's not actually what happens in the film. She's led to major decisions either by her own stubbornness or supernatural forces. Bravery implies courage in the face of fear, but there's never a moment in which Merida actually seems afraid of her future. She's angry about her mother's plans and refuses to go through with them, but she never resigns herself to that future long enough to let it frighten her. The only thing she ever seems afraid of (destiny-wise) is compromising with her mom. She does learn to do that, so that's brave, but it's the opposite of what her monologue claims. Is she brave because she compromised or because she changed her destiny? The movie shows us that its the former while claiming its the latter. Brave has a lot of cool stuff to work with - and you can enjoy it for those separate things - it just never puts everything together in a way that makes sense.
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Understanding may be the goal, but sometimes compromise is the best you can get.
I agree. It's just that they treated the compromise as if it was a huge victory. Things were definitely better by the end, but it seemed like Merida was still going to have to pick one of those dunder-heads to marry. Is a choice between three idiots really a choice?
Pixar is capable of talking about some very adult themes in their movies; they should have been able to talk clearly and honestly about the difference between understanding and compromise. That would have been an amazing, important story. Instead, they made a fun, but simple fantasy-adventure romp. It's fine for what it is, but doesn't live up to Pixar's potential. I guess that's where my disappointment comes from.
I teach anthropology in California, last semester I asked my students to review this film anthropologically and look at gender roles, none of them really got it. My failure. But you did, good job!
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