by Jesse Marinoff Reyes:
Pixar Studios/Walt Disney
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, with Steve Purcell
Well, for once I was actually ahead of the curve and instead of seeing an anticipated film months later on cable or Netflix, I actually attended an advance screening for a film—Walt Disney/Pixar’s BRAVE (opening nation-wide Friday). Luckily for me, the wife works at Random House Children’s, who do numerous tie-in books for Disney/Pixar and get invited to screenings for most everything they do. So, with multiple screenings scheduled today, we were able to go—with the five-year old in tow—to see whether Pixar was able to shrug off the critical and popular malaise of last year’s Cars II and regain their traction as the industry leader and pacesetter. No spoilers! But I can report that like Roberto Duran shaking off the stigma of “No Mas” by beating Junior Middleweight champ Davey Moore into a pulp, Pixar has likewise roared back with gusto.
I won’t be terribly surprised if film critics seem irritable or are overly critical with the story (Cars II notwithstanding, many of Pixar’s now-classics were more often than not initially ill-received by the early review critics who never much managed to get a bead on what Pixar was up to until later, usually after they were subjected to subsequent animated entries by Dreamworks or Fox). Yes, the protagonist, Merida (the flame-haired, reluctant princess and 10th Century tomboy, voiced by Kelly Macdonald) doesn’t make the most mature or well-thought out decisions in reacting to her predicament—being married off to the first-born son of one of the clan chiefs under the dominion of her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly)—especially in enlisting the aid of a witch of the forest (Julie Walters, whose scenes are a hoot—and a sendup of the typical “old witch” chiché) to “change her fate” by changing her somewhat intractable but intensely loving mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) who, bound by tradition, insists that Merida marry. Of course, “changing” her mother via a spell was meant to simply get her to change her mind about the marriage, but instead changes her into something else entirely… But all of that doesn’t take away from Merida, Pixar’s first female protagonist (an event in itself), from being a winning and delightfully compelling character. She can also out-shoot you with a bow and arrow!
That aspect certainly had me charmed by the characters and story of BRAVE. Being the father of a little girl makes me all the more cognizant of the portrayal of women in stories and especially, animated films aimed at children, and especially girls. Disney has been somewhat more aware of this themselves considering their role in popularizing and promoting most every girl’s fantasy of fairy tale princesses, and its role in its stereotyping. Two years ago they attempted to boldly break tradition and advance a more, if you will, postmodern view of female fairy tale heroism with 2010’s Tangled (a brilliant reimagining of the story of Rapunzel), guided by Pixar’s John Lasseter (put in charge of Disney creative), but that story relied upon the male “love interest,” Flynn Rider, as a story balance and as a lure to get young boys to pay attention to the film ostensibly “about a girl” (thusly the name change of the film to Tangled over Rapunzel—a move that was met with criticism). As good a film Tangled was—and boys should pay attention to it as it’s as much a “ripping yarn” as it is a love story—it still erred on traditionalism to a degree. BRAVE goes a step further.
Merida is a plucky lass, and faults and all, muddles through—as any child might—her choices to make things right, and it’s not altogether clear whether she will succeed or die trying. Like the best animated stories it has well-crafted characters who are wonderfully portrayed, with riotously funny bits, and as you’d expect from Pixar at this point, animation so beautiful that you’ll marvel at their artistry as if seeing it for the first time (even though you go in expecting to be “wowed”). But like the best Fairy Tales in the classic sense, BRAVE has the darkness and mystery of the Brothers Grimm, and it unflinchingly will make your little one scared out of her wits at times. This is not a bad thing. The real world is dark and murderous, and Fairy Tales prepared the little ones as much for its dark corners as for its wonders.
One other thought that occurs is that this is, at least in pop-cultural terms, something of a moment for Scotland. Without being overly travelogue-ish, or political as regards Scotland’s painful history (see British Colonialism), BRAVE takes pains to be culturally accurate and admiring of this fairy tale version of Scotland. The Scots-accent has been a popular one as regards “stunt” voices for exaggerated and woefully stereotypical characters in television, movies, and advertising for several years now (thanks, but “no thanks” Mike Myers you shoddy Canadian git—at least “Scotty” from Star Trek was a likable and complex character), but with its cast littered with Scots talent (Late Show host Craig Fergusen has an especially funny turn as one of the clan chiefs, “Lord Macintosh,” a tattooed Pictish throwback) I was impressed with the film’s attention to detail and self-awareness (“Lord MacGuffin’s” boy, “Young MacGuffin,” has a brogue so thick that the other Scots have no idea what he’s talking about). Not that it doesn’t make hay with “clannishness” as a somewhat complicated character trait, nor isn’t above more than a few kilt jokes.
I’ll be curious what my favorite Scotsman, colleague, and one of my old pal photographers, Jonnie Miles has to say about it.
JMR:I should think so… Braveheart struck me as a wee heavy handed, even if correct (I’ve only seen it in chunks at various times on television). BRAVE is nominally set in the 10th century, so 300 years prior, when the primary threat would be Vikings (and one’s immediate neighbors) so before the English incursion. Of course, it is Scots-accented English for the purposes of the film (ahh well, American unfamiliarity with Gaelic is a bit of a drawback), but you expect that. …
…The animation is to DIE FOR. It’s magical and lends a sense of wonder to every frame. I remember when Pixar couldn’t “do” hair (that seems like a “so what” sorta thing)., but that’s no longer a problem and everyone from human to forest creature seems as real as stylized characters could possibly be….
…Dargis, of course, whiffed on Queen Elinor’s complicated role as a steward of civilization amidst everyone else’s default to barbarism. She had power over the unruliness by her decorum, her manners, her devotion to the arts (oh that), and that being a steward of tradition maintained the continuity of culture. Plus, she lightened up a bit by the end of it all and enjoyed the simplicity of the natural world (informed no doubt by her “changed” experience). Critics whine incessantly over the lack of comfemale characters, and when they get them they whine about how complex they are….