Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Mothers and Daughters

Pixar's new film, Brave (2012, directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell) is their first with a female protagonist. It's a little disappointing that it's a "princess" movie, but these things cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so I can't blame them for doing something "safe." It's a little bit more disappointing that the movie's original writer/director, Brenda Chapman was removed from the project, but I'll not speculate as to the reasons. In one respect, though, Brave is significantly different from the traditional Disney princess movie: it's about mothers and daughters. Let's face it, Disney has an awful track record when it comes to mothers. Either they get shot by the hunters, chained up, or killed off before the movie even begins. The only significant mother figures in Disney's animated films are the wicked stepmothers, and you know how that ends. Pixar, to their credit, has signficant female characters in movies like The Incredibles (which deals tangentially with mother/daughter relationships) and Finding Nemo (though it fridges its mom character in the first five minutes). But never in the lead. They tend to be smurfettes. Brave, for all its faults, actually deals with "normal" relationships between mothers and daughters in the foreground as the driving engine of its plot, though, obviously, "normal" is a matter of degrees when you're talking about fantasy filmmaking.

Brave's heroine is Merida of clan Dunbrough, who is possessed of a shock of yarn-ish red hair and a yearning to be free to do as she pleases, to do as a boy would do. She's been groomed all her life to be a princess and as a princess, she has obligations. Prime among them is to be wed to the first born son of one of the other major clans. Merida chafes at the fact that she appears to have no say in the matter, and when she gets to choose the contest for her suitors, she chooses archery, knowing full well that she's the best archer in the land. She chooses to shoot for her own hand, though in doing so, she's tipping her clan toward war with the other three major clans who, understandably, feel insulted by this. Merida's mother, Queen Elinor, is livid. She's tried--lord knows, she's tried--to instill in Merida the graces and duties of a Scots princess, but it just never seems to take. Merida and Elinor are at loggerheads over Merida's refusal to be wed. After a nasty confrontation in which Merida defaces her mother's tapestry and Elinor burns Merida's bow, Merida flees into the night. Her horse takes her to a stone circle where the will o' the wisp leads her to the cottage of a witch. Merida implores the witch to cast a spell to change her mother's mind and change her own fate, and the witch, reluctantly, complies. But witchcraft is fickle, and the way it changes Elinor--it transforms her into a bear--is the worst possible result, because Merida's father nurses an old grudge for the demon Bear, Mordu, who took his leg in his youth. Merida must undo the spell before her mother becomes another Mordu for the rest of eternity, and before her father kills her...

There's been a kerfuffle in internetland over Brave, as certain conservative wags have seen Merida's tomboyishness and refusal to wed as a sign that she's a lesbian. This is absurd on its face (and believe me, I would TOTALLY dig it if Merida was queer, because there isn't any queer representation in Disney or Pixar's animated output). This complaint reminds me a bit of Maria New, that scientist who wanted to use a prenatal drug to prevent lesbianism, inculcate a desire to bear children, and prevent women from wanting to enter "male" careers. If Merida's proper role as a woman is as political barter and broodmare, then I submit that Merida's critics have a seriously deranged idea of what women are and should be. Mind you, Brave is certainly not a feminist manifesto, and it indulges in some of contemporary feminism's more troubling canards even as it strives for a kind of populist feminism lite. Prime among those is femmiphobia. There's a vague notion in Brave that traditionally feminine pursuits are somehow frivolous, while masculine pursuits have more value. Merida rebels as much against wearing dresses that display her to men and feminine comportment as she does from her arranged marriage. Queen Elinor is initially a foil against which she rebels, and as such, the movie has a vague demonization of what Elinor finds important, whether it's sewing her tapestry or keeping the oral tradition of her kingdom's legends. I'll admit that this kind of annoyed me for most of the movie, but that's until it turned it all on its head. Late in the movie, it's the "feminine" pursuits that her mother inculcated in her that save the day: the legends become valuable propaganda as Merida defuses the conflict between the clans, and an ability to mend Elinor's tapestry provides the key to undoing the spell. Still, I can't help think that Merida's tomboyishness is calculated to appeal to a male audience. Big studios are boys' clubs, after all, and they don't trust the commercial value of femininity if it doesn't appeal to their own sense of story values. Merida's repudiation of icky girly pursuits seems designed to reassure an audience of boys that Merida is worth watching because she's really a boy under all that hair.

That all said, there's a lot to unpack in this movie, and I don't know which way I want to jump in relationship to Brave's feminism or anti-feminism or ambivalence toward feminist themes entirely. It's a tangle.

In any event, if I'm kind of ambivalent about the gender politics in Brave, I have no legitimate complaints about the craft of the film as animation. I mean, with every new movie, Pixar widens the gulf between their own technical mastery and everyone else. This isn't the first time that I've thought that a Pixar movie was an excuse to show off. They continue to push the envelope of photoreal animation while deftly sidestepping the uncanny valley. They understand the power of caricature and how it feeds into the masking effect provided by hyper-real backgrounds. And even when they indulge in a character that is manifestly not a caricature--Elinor as the bear--they still manage to invest it with character and pathos. It's a pretty amazing high-wire act. At the base level of its visuals, this is gorgeous. And yet, in spite of this, it's not particularly inventive. I'd trade the pretty pictures for a sequence as deranged and exciting as the door chase in Monsters, Inc. or as transcendent as the weightless pas de deux in WALL-E.

There's a troublingly derivative feeling to this movie. Pixar head John Lasseter has never made a secret of his love of Studio Ghibli, and Brave, it seems, desperately wants to be a Miyazaki movie. The will o' the wisps, for instance, recall the forest spirits in Princess Mononoke. The door that changes locales is taken from Howl's Moving Castle. The plot of the movie itself, in which its heroine must save a parent that's been transformed into a beast, is the plot of Spirited Away. There's nothing wrong with drawing on one's influences. Pixar has always done that, and done it well. But Brave seems more of an homage than a movie that's riffing on these things for its own purposes. It plays the notes, sure, but it doesn't provide a variation on the themes.

Brave is by no means a bad movie, or even a bad Pixar movie--the studio's standard of excellence, set most recently by Toy Story 3, is so dauntingly high that most anything that falls short is bound to be an honorable disappointment. I'm crabby about Brave falling short of that mark because, dammit, I wanted to love Merida. On some level, I do love her, I guess, but I wish the story she was in wasn't so compromised by its need to gross a half a billion dollars at the global box office. This strikes me as a "safe" movie, and "safe" movies by definition are not transcendent. There's also a voice in the back of my mind telling me that this movie is "safe" because the boys in charge wouldn't give a female director her head to MAKE it transcendent, but, again, I don't know what their complaints with Brenda Chapman were. For all I know, the change in directors and the addition of screenwriters rescued something that wasn't working. But that voice in my head, paranoid though it may be, persists.

I dunno. Maybe I'm asking too much.

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