Friday, July 06, 2012

A Brave Review

My, how the times have changed.

Back in the day, the standard animated movie plot went like this: Princess is put into mortal danger/state of suspended animation/the dungeon, is saved by the dashing, manly, heroic Prince; in the process they find love, get married, and live happily ever after.

In recent years, attempts have been made to show stronger female characters who don't necessarily find their total salvation in men (think Pocahontas, The Princess and the Frog, even The Little Mermaid), but most often, in the end, they still find themselves swooning into the secure arms of an emotionally healthy alpha male type who sweeps them away into a lifetime of bliss.

Pixar's newest release, Brave, will have none of that.

Brave tells the story of Merida, a Scottish princess who doesn't exactly want to be a Lady, marry a prince and fulfill royal tradition. Instead, she wants freedom to run through the woods, practice her archery, and let her hair down. Her unwillingness to conform leads to a series of rebellious acts that threaten the peace of the kingdom, and the lives of her mother and brothers. A backstory of her father's feud with a dangerous bear adds to both the humor and tension of the story. Throw in a mysterious witch, forest fairies, and the breathtaking Scottish scenery, and you have the makings of a brilliant fairy tale.

There is much to like about this movie. As the father of two daughters (one with the same curly red hair as Merida) , I appreciate healthy role models portraying women as capable of so much more than existing to make their husbands happy. This is a healthy alternative to the helpless maiden in the castle, sitting around waiting for a true manly man to rescue them. Merida is headstrong, but she knows who she is, and isn't willing to settle for everybody else's expectations. This is the daughter I would love to have - the girl who enjoys the woods, the girl at peace with herself and the world, the girl with her own skills, talents, and the vision to use them. I would be happy if my girls saw in Merida a role model to follow.

On the other hand, when flipping one cultural trope on its head, the makers of Brave fell right into another one. This movie falls into a long line of movies and television shows that prop women up at the expense of men. In Brave, whereas Merida is strong and resilient, and her Queen mother is wise and resourceful, every man is portrayed as an idiot. A buffoon. A mindless mass of muscle. A dimwit. A quivering coward. A drunk. Unable to control themselves without a woman cracking the whip. Yes, her father is kind and generous, and his love for his family is evident, but it's obvious that he's also incapable of leadership without his wife there to set him straight. We have in this movie a healthy message - women are capable of great things in and of themselves. Unfortunately, the reverse message is also there - men are stupid. Strong, but stupid.

And then there's this: there is, in the end, no prince for the princess. Nobody to win her eye even as she saves everybody else. Merida doesn't actually need love to make her complete. Should she find love on her terms, that's fine. But if she doesn't, she still has her horse and her archery and her beloved woodlands. While the marriage of the king and queen is shown in a positive light (although, again, it often seems more of a burden to the queen), any other reference to marriage and love is shown negatively. Just the thought of marriage drives Merida mad; she deserves her freedom, not the pain and misery of being attached to some buffoon of a man. So take that for what it's worth; the old story of "and they lived happily ever after" has been replaced with "and she lived happily ever after." Individualism is the highest good.

If you can get past all that, Brave is an exciting movie, with breath-taking visuals, a rich soundtrack heavy on Scottish themes (Enya, anyone?), some slapstick comedy to keep things light, and just enough terror to keep your heart thumping. The kids all seemed to love it, as did the adults sitting around us. I'd say it's a winner; it's just unfortunate that in the midst of all that beauty Pixar chose to continue the ongoing cultural attack on men. It's hard enough teaching your kids to respect you without the entertainment industry continually undermining you.

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