Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Brave (2012)

In millions of years, when humanity is extinct and alien archaeologists attempt to reconstruct our society through its cultural debris, they'll conclude that we practiced a unique form of government in which every little girl was a princess. The sheer quantity of tiaras and ball gowns littering girl-centric family films will assure them that their thesis is correct. After all, we humans could have no logical reason to saturate our female offspring with depictions of a lifestyle bearing no resemblance to their own, one they could never emulate except in the vaguest terms (by being "fair", and "modest", and most recently "brave"). Princesses, the alien archaeologists will therefore decide. Princesses, all of them.

Pixar. We need to talk. More specifically, we need to talk about Brave (Mark Andrews/Brenda Chapman, 2012). You guys are supposed to be family-film mavericks: the studio that pushes the envelope, that does what no other studio has even thought to do. Your male protagonists include robots, sewer rats and action figures. And yet when, after twenty years, it finally occurs to you that maybe little girls watch your movies too, what do you give them? A princess.

Walt Disney called, he wants his crutch back.

I don't care how fluffy her hair is.
As princesses go, Brave's Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is of the latter-day intrepid-and-independent variety. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) wants her to get married! But she doesn't want to get married! Mother and daughter have a tiff in which Merida rips Elinor's family-portrait tapestry and Elinor throws Merida's bow into the fire. Merida flees to sulk in the Scottish highlands and asks a convenient witch to "change her mum": you'd think that the generally savvy princess would know better than to be so vague with a witch, but I guess they had to get the plot cooking somehow. To everyone's annoyance, the witch turns Queen Elinor into a bear, warning Merida that she must "mend the bond torn by pride" in order to reverse the curse. Bond torn by pride... ripped tapestry... you'd think that Merida and Elinor would clue in, but they don't. Not until we've been subjected to forty-five minutes of mother-and-daughter bonding montages set to the lilting strains of an Enya soundalike. Finally, the tapestry gets repaired, Elinor gets de-beared, and Merida's suitors are sent packing. The requisite happy ending has been achieved and the audience can go home heart-warmed.

Brave's critical reception has been largely ridiculous. Roger Ebert referred to Merida as "a sort of honorary boy" for enjoying archery more than dating, while Adam Markovitz opines that the same qualities mean she's a closeted lesbian. This is amazing to me. Merida is, what... twelve years old? The fact that she's more interested in horseback riding than strapping Scottish lads says nothing about her gender or her sexual orientation. I can't believe I have to type this. "A honorary boy"? Jesus, Ebert, don't carbon-date yourself.

This sort of misguided gossip underscores what makes Brave so disappointing. In the months leading up to its release, the film was anticipated by Pixar devotees as the beginning of a new era of animated sophistication and of stories for new audiences. It may have succeeded on the first count: I don't know a lot about animation, but Brave's braes and banks were sufficiently bonny, and its characters looked human without venturing too deep into the uncanny valley. As for Brave's narrative, though... Pixar is capable of so much more than this. It's like they just couldn't be bothered.

I give Brave a 3/5. If you want the tweenybopper market, Pixar, you'll have to try again, and here's a hint: just because a story is "for girls" doesn't mean that marriage to Prince Charming has to be a plot point (and make no mistake, Prince Charming is as much a factor in Brave as any other "princess movie", simply by dint of his absence). More importantly, the fact that a story is "for girls" doesn't mean it has to star a fucking princess.

The magnificent tartan of Clan MacGuffin.
Scene Stealer: If Merida had chosen a husband after all, this guy had my vote. The hilariously named Young MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd) speaks entirely in a Scottish brogue as incomprehensible to his fellow characters as it is to the audience. Like Star Wars' R2-D2, you can't tell exactly what Young MacGuffin is saying, but you can guess enough of it to amuse yourself. Brave has several comedic irons in the fire, from Merida's toddler-triplet brothers to Elinor's mincingly ladylike "bear walk", but Young MacGuffin is probably the most genuinely funny thing for the adults in the room.

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