June 28, 2012

Brave. See it.

Here there be spoilers. This is both my review of Brave as well as a discussion about the movie- while I tried not to get too in depth with the movie, it’s hard to address some of the criticism the movie’s received without discussing the movie. If you want to remain spoiler free, the title of this piece and the paragraph is my opinion.

I saw Brave on Sunday morning with my boys. It was their first movie theater movie- and despite the fact that it was a much more intense movie than advertised, they survived. While it wasn’t quite to their liking- I loved it.

I’ve seen a lot of negative reviews about the movie, which baffle me. Most feel as though they watched a completely different movie than I did, or expected the movie to be about one theme and ignored the rest. Perhaps they don’t understand pantomiming bears. When Brave seemed to get more negative reviews than Cars 2, which was the most conventional, least imaginative movie Pixar has put out- there’s something else at work here.

Brave is, on the surface, the story of Merida. The oldest child of the King, Merida is reaching the age where she should be bethrothed to one of the sons of the three clan heads. Merida is just as you’ve seen in the previews. She’s brave (as the title of the movie suggests), athletic, and not very much of a girly girl. Her idea of a good time isn’t learning etiquette from her mother, but riding through the woods on her trusty steed while shooting at targets. She doesn’t think her mother understands her, though she doesn’t come out and say it. She whines, she groans- she’s a teenager.

Her mother, Elinor seems to be the polar opposite. She’s refined. She always knows how to act, what to say- though there are hints early on that Elinor is much stronger than she seems. She manages to quiet a room filled with angry Scots, without saying a single word.

Despite the fact that the plot includes will o’ the wisps and a witch, this actually feels like Pixar’s most realistic movie to me. It centers around the very real relationship between two very real female characters, and pushes them from being unsure of how to talk to each other openly to having to rely on each other.

As you might expect, the journey forces both of them to reexamine what they felt about the other. Elinor sees her daughter’s strength and stubbornness as more than something getting in the way of the princess she wants her to be, and Merida matures- realizing that simply because her mother is proper doesn’t mean that she can’t understand her. Or that her mother isn’t stronger than Merida believes her to be.

Merida and her family, from Pixar's BRAVE

It’s a remarkable movie for a few reasons. Merida is at times unlikeable. She’s selfish and ungrateful. It’s a hard mirror to look into for any adult- but we were probably a lot more like Merida than any Disney prince/princess. While she is right to want to speak up about the fact that she isn’t ready to be bethrothed, she’s wrong about a good many things.

Which brings me to my second reason. At the center of Brave is a complex relationship between two generations- one that feels a bit more honest and real than seen in most animated films. In most family movies, if there is conflict between a parent and child, the parent is wrong/prejudiced, the child merely misunderstood (see How to Train Your Dragon or The Little Mermaid). And if the child is wrong, it’s usually something minor. Brave actually dares to have conflict where neither party is right, but neither is totally wrong. It actually devolved into a harsh argument that felt real- the kind where it escalates until both sides say something they regret. It’s something you see often in real life, and in a lot of live action movies- but not often in a family film.

Plenty of reviews tried to criticize Brave for not having a story that supported Merida’s- completely overlooking that this movie isn’t just Merida’s coming-of-age story. It’s Elinor’s story too. The two stories fit together to make the whole.

Some people whined about it being TOO female heavy- which is a stupid argument to have. Both women have clear relationships with the four main male characters in the movie (Elinor and Fergus are seemingly as different as night and day, but there’s no doubt that he greatly appreciates her and indeed they both love each other deeply. Merida and her father are close, and understand each other because they have the same interests). Aside from Elinor and Merida, there’s only the maid and the witch as female characters. Everyone else in the movie is a man. Focusing on other relationships for the sake of “diversity” would have been silly – because the story was about Merida and Elinor.

Which bothers me- Toy Story and the sequels are ultimately about the relationship between two male toys and their male owner. Finding Nemo is about a father and a son. Monsters Inc is about two best friends who are guys. Ratatouille is about a rat and his boy. Oh and a son and his father. I don’t think that stopped a single woman from appreciating the stories. You could have adjusted genders in the movies and ultimately it wouldn’t have made much of a difference- because they’re relatable stories. You don’t need to be a woman to understand a coming of age story. Or what it’s like to think that your parents don’t understand you, or see that your children think you’ve forgotten what it feels like to be in their position.

I think that the damage comes from the sentiment that female centered movies are “chick flicks.” That there’s nothing in them for men. Thankfully, I married a man who watched chick flicks with his mom. So he knew that When Harry Met Sally might have been a love story, but it was a story about two real people. To him, movies were just movies. Sure, there might be some ridiculous movies that seem to pander to women (like Sex and the City), but there are movies that try to pander to men, too (see anything with Steven Seagal).

Brave isn’t a chick flick. It’s a story about two female characters. But the problems in their relationship could easily be problems that fathers and sons face- just look at Ratatouille for a Pixar movie about a strained relationship where father and son don’t see eye to eye. Or How to Train Your Dragon for a similar type of relationship strain. Nobody whined about Remy being unlikeable (when really, Remy was a snob)

I don’t want to give the opinion that I think criticisms of Brave are invalid- I completely understand people saying that the movie felt uneven (there were two directors that helmed Brave- Brenda Chapman was removed from the project, but the relationship between Elinor and Merida is undoubtedly as well-written as it is thanks to her). Or pointing out that the marketing campaign of the movie made it seem like it was a much lighter movie. That everything about the marketing focused on Merida, while not showing that the movie was about her mother, too.

But arguments that the movie is too female centric, that Merida isn’t likeable enough or that it didn’t feel like a Pixar movie- those are criticisms based on viewer’s expectations going into the movie, not the movie itself. Is Pixar not allowed to try to explore a darker more realistic story? Or are they supposed to keep making movies about things that all people experience, but in a way that doesn’t usually include human characters?

Finally- I saved the most ridiculous criticism for last. EW’s Adam Markovitz wondered if Merida might be gay. You know, because she’s a tomboy who says she isn’t ready to be married off. He even tried to point out that even Mulan had a love interest (when really, if you watch Mulan, Li Shang isn’t so much her love interest as she’s his- his storyline is about coming to terms with feelings towards a woman who isn’t what Chinese society accepts. She might have been attracted to him, but she knew that by pretending to be a man that wasn’t a possibility- and she was fine with that).

Many people in our society equate gender roles with sexuality. Assuming that a tomboy is a lesbian, or that a boy interested in ballet must be gay is wrong. People have interests. Not all fall in line with traditional gender roles. I babysat a wonderful little boy who loved ballet. His father didn’t want him to go into it because he didn’t want him to be gay- I told him I didn’t think he had a problem, his six year old son was busy telling everyone he was going to marry me.

Merida preferring a bow and arrow to working on needlepoint doesn’t mean she’s a lesbian. It just means she’s an individual. So stop making assumptions, people. Don’t you remember that adage about assumptions?

For what it’s worth, Merida never said she wasn’t interested in getting married ever. She just wasn’t ready to grow up yet. The movie was more about letting people grow up in their time, rather than forcing them into something they aren’t ready for.

So what are your thoughts on Brave – and on the strange reviews it’s been getting?

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