June 26, 2012

Yep. What the internet needs is another blogger writing about Brave, but I'm gonna do it anyway.

There will be spoilers. If you haven't seen it and you don't want spoilers, come back after you've seen it.

First, I have to say that I've been a fan of Celtic mythos in general since I was a wee li'l monkey. I read tales of Cuchullain, the Red Branch. I found Morgan Llewellyn's stories of Fionn MacCumhaill. Amerigan the Bard. I decided around the age of 6 that since my mother would not tell me "what we were," that I was Irish. I liked the sound of Ireland. It just sounded nifty. And I was fascinated with red hair. And islands. It just seemed a fit.

Eventually I branched out into tales from Scotland and Wales, but it was always... well, that's not really about Brave, is it? Right then. The point being, I've a fair background in celtic legends. Now Brave is not exactly a re-telling of any celtic legend I know and I suspect it's not a retelling of any particular one. Instead, it's a coming of age story told Pixar-style, but I think it's also Pixar's coming of age as well.

Pixar, from the beginning, has been grand about making a kid's animated movie that adults also want to see. I think they slipped a little with Cars 2 - not that it was a bad flick, but it was more ... empty? than other Pixar flicks had been. It was a joyous romp through Cars and spy movies, but that's all it was. (Not that this is a bad thing, mind you. Sometimes we just want entertainment and that's fine.)

Brave is a return to deeper thoughts. And whilst it's still a kid's movie, in some very fundamental ways it is not a kid's movie at all. Oh, they can watch it, don't get me wrong, but it may be a bit scary for little-little guys.

The basic plot is simple: oppressed kid fights with parent, says and does things not truly meant, magic changes parent, kid and parent bond as they struggle to get the magic off the parent and eventually triumph, which naturally changes both kid and parent.

It's a coming of age story and I think in many ways it's a coming of age for Pixar as well. It's as if the movie itself is an adolescent, one minute a child, running free, chasing bears, shooting random arrows; and the next it's quite a deep story about relationships and how difficult it can be to love family and want to change them and to be our true selves all at the same time.

I wonder, though, how much of the script was left on the cutting room floor. I would guess at least 30-45 minutes. It seemed to me that every time I would get deeply - at an adult level - into the story and characters, it was as if Pixar suddenly realized, shit, this is a kid's movie. And they'd go back to a chase scene or humour with the triplets or the like. 

A perfect example of missed characterization is one pointed out by Gedeon on his blog. Both mother and daughter during their early fight, hurt something that the other holds precious. The mother throws Mirada's beloved bow into the fire. Mirada cuts the mother's tapestry of the family. Now, the rest of the movie weaves around the tapestry in a really beautiful way and I'm sure many academics are going to have a field day relating all of that. But after Mirada runs out of the room in shock when her mom throws the bow in the fire, we see the mother realize what she's done and pull the bow out. She puts her head in her hands and sobs not just at the fight she's had, but at her own actions as well. It's clear she realizes that she has not just been petty, but unbelievably cruel with that action. Her daughter's rending of the tapestry was largely the overly grand gesture of an adolescent, not actually trying to cut her mother's tapestry. But she took her daughter's most prized possession, the thing that meant most to her as an object and as a representation of all that was important to her - and she deliberately threw it in the fire, as if that didn't matter. 

What the daughter takes from that is that SHE doesn't matter. Nothing she holds dear matters. And quite possibly her mother might as well have thrown her in the fire.

The mother doesn't mean any of that, of course. And we see the mother realizing what she's done and what it meant. As usual, Pixar tells this part of the story beautifully. But as Ged points out, it's then dropped completely from the story. There is no moment (although there is the opportunity at the end) when the mother returns the damaged bow or even gifts her daughter with a new one. Instead, the girl finally repairs, albeit clumsily, the tapestry that she accidentally sliced, and makes amends ... but not the adult. Why did they leave this out? Very un-Pixar-like as they generally pay close attention to such details. Was it cut to keep the film short enough for children? Or was the message intended to be that children should make up to their parents, but parents don't need to make up to the kids? (I doubt that, but it's still a bad omission which could give kids that impression.)

There are other moments that likewise seem like shortcuts and I wonder if this kind of jerky movement from kid's movie to adult's movie back to kid's movie isn't an adolescent growing pain of Pixar's. The story feels caught in that adolescent limbo belonging neither wholly kid nor adult. In some ways I love it more for that, but mostly I just wish it had been longer and actually filled in some of those gaps.

All of that said, I adored the movie for tackling this parent-kid theme in a way I have never really seen before.

As I spoke of the theme earlier, I specifically used gender-neutral language. Kid and parent. I have always been one to ignore gender. A story about a boy playing baseball, in my mind, can just as easily be a girl playing baseball. A story about a girl becoming a dancer could just as easily be about a boy. In my head, anyway. There are biological plot points - Steel Magnolias could not have the exact same plot and kick if the daughter was actually a son - the whole pregnancy and diabetes bit would fall apart. You could come up with a similar plot, however, and still have the same essential story. Stand By Me could possibly have been four girls going to see a dead body and could have still shown how the four were both bonding and drifting apart. Many of the plot points would likely have been different, but the essential story would be the same. The emotional flavour of the movie, however, would have been completely different.

Brave could have been about a boy and father disagreeing, but as with Stand By Me, many plot points would have been different.

I have never, however, seen a movie truly get to the heart of an acrimonious mother-daughter relationship as Brave; not YaYa Sisterhood, not Steel Magnolias or Fried Green Tomatoes. YaYa comes close at times, but it really just scratches the surface.

But this kid's movie delves far deeper in. And that is stunning to me.

Neither mother nor daughter are bad people. The daughter is an adolescent and in her adolescence does something as equally stupid as the mother, although without truly realizing it. I disagree with Ged on this being a weak point in the plot, however, and find it a strong point instead. He compares Merida to Arial from Little Mermaid, and I think he does make some good comparisons there. Arial does the magic to herself and it takes a certain amount of bravery to take that life-changing magic onto your self.

He goes on to say:

Our heroine, the person we've just spent the entire first act getting to know and love, suddenly feels it's perfectly okay to possibly poison her mom. Feeding the pastry to Queen Elinor isn't an act of bravery, it's one of cowardice.

I disagree with the first sentence and agree with the second. And it's my perception of the first sentence which led me to greatly enjoy the movie whereas his interpretation of her act led to his disappointment (I think). Now, neither one of us is wrong in our interpretations. I don't think Ged is wrong or I'm right. This is a story and we all bring our own life experiences to bear on every story we see or read or hear and that's what keeps every writer and actor in business because we all see and interpret them differently according to our experiences.

I saw Merida the adolescent completely trusting in magic. She, if we go fully with this being a celtic tale, has grown up with stories of magic. She has been told that will o'the wisps can lead her to her destiny. They led her to this witch. I saw a child trusting that magic would "fix" everything. Now as an adult and a voracious reader of science fiction and fantasy, I know damn good and well - as do most adults - that this is going to backfire in some fundamental way. But Merida is a child on the cusp of adulthood. She thought she had found an easy answer in the archery tournament and was dismayed that things were more complex than that. She's not ready to accept that there are no easy answers. And look! Here's a trail to her destiny! And a witch! She must feel like she's won the lottery - a quick and easy answer to all of her problems.

The witch attempts to warn her and you can, I think, see on her face that struggle between adult and child thinking. But, the child wins and she rushes home to have her cake and eat it, too. You can see misgivings on her face as her mother becomes ill. And then the child resurfaces and she begins the childish "are we there yet" questions about whether her mother has changed her mind about the betrothal yet. We see it more as she tells bear-mother that "it's not my fault" that it's the witch's fault.

This made the movie far more powerful and realistic to me, rather than making me dislike the main character. Now, that's a fine line, no doubt.

In addition, as I said earlier, there is an intense realism in the relationship between Elinor and Merida. The talking at cross-purposes, the two totally different points-of-view on life, the "what a lady is" rules, and possibly most importantly, the absolute inability to communicate and reach the other is stunningly wrought. The way the relationship builds from the beginning to their time catching fish in the stream rivals, in some ways, the beginning of Up (which I think is honestly the best cinematic story-telling ever). This goes beyond adolescent rebellion. It is a parent who is so rules-bound she cannot see her daughter any more and the scene with Merida in the court dress is the epitome of their relationship. Everything that makes Merida who she is, is hidden and constricted by the rules of ladyhood. It is a child so out-of-sync with her time/society that she cannot continue within its bounds.

What is joyful about Brave is that mother and daughter are able to change and to see each other as separate people. Merida is not simply a lady. She is not simply the queen's progeny. She is not a chess piece. And, by the end, Merida can see that she must balance self with duty, neither giving in completely to selfish "I must be me," nor so stifled with duty that she herself disappears. Likewise, the mother learns to relax and attempt to balance the life of the queen with some of her daughter's favourite activities. And Merida learns some of her mother's as well (the new tapestry combines both aspects).

What makes Brave, in the very ending, come back to a child's movie is that faery tale ending. Everything is fixed in the end. And that's okay. Sometimes it does happen that way. And it is a very Pixar ending.

But that ending also once again brings back the tension of child or adult movie? After getting into deeper adult themes of this familial relationship, it backs out of the difficult story and goes back to being legend, faery tale, happily ever after.

And those of us who have struggled with similar familial relationships (and I sort of suspect this *might* even be specific to mother-daughter relationships) are left a bit cold. Wishing despite the selfishness that there was a magic spell which could change our mothers until they recognized us for who we are (and rather forgetting that Merida also changed...). For us, it can be a very melancholy ending to the movie because that change has not happened and may never happen.

My mother will never stop complaining that I don't dress as she thinks I should. That my life is not the gender-appropriate life she thinks I should have. She laments that I "must" work. She hates my hobbies because they are not "appropriate" to her worldview of how I should be.

Likewise, I find her fear of the world infuriating, her weakness maddening, her constricted views of how people should behave, the roles they should have insane.

I adored the ending to Brave because it gave a closure to the movie that I will never have myself. It felt good.

But I fear it also ripped open old wounds in friends who also shared Merida's essential storyline because at that crucial moment, the movie, Pixar, backed away from adulthood and like an adolescent, retreated back to childhood for a crucial moment and handed us a sweet to make everything all better.

What's the phrase? One step forward and two steps back?

It's a stunning film. Beautifully wrought. The landscape shots at times look like photographs, they're so real, so beautiful. And then it pulls back to a gorgeous animated feature. Tensions between art and photorealism. Tensions between adult and child.

Yes, I think this movie is Pixar's coming of age. And I'm eager to see where they go next.

Posted by Red Monkey at June 26, 2012 10:09 PM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


AMP2 said:

Excellent analysis. How did you become so smart?

June 28, 2012 9:32 AM


Elizabeth Moon said:

My mother was unconventional herself (she studied engineering in the 1930s) but as a divorcee (wages of being unconventional, to public minds) with a girl-child, she tried to get me to fit in. Worse yet, I was not gifted with an engineer mind (practical, logical, organized, rule-bound in many ways) but with a writer mind (leap-logic, chaotic, regards rules as interesting in characters but open to interpretation.) She admired my talent in writing, but--shortly before her death--asked a friend of mine "Do you think she'll ever make a living with that?" She worried that my lack of housekeeping would drive my husband away. She worried that my preference for jeans and the out of doors would be misunderstood--that I needed to be more conventionally "feminine."

It was mutual admiration in some ways, but major mutual lack of understanding. Yet she was a remarkable woman--very intelligent, very talented, who accomplished many amazing things. I admired her; she drove me crazy sometimes.

July 13, 2012 9:36 PM
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