Brave – A Review

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  • #15582


    The short version is that this is one of the more sexist kids films I've seen in a while.  And to rub salt in the wound, it's also a sucker punch.  Want to see why?  Read below!  But I think it's important to point out that this is just my personal point of view and has absolutely nothing to do with history (British or otherwise).  You have been warned.SPOILERSLike many people, I was blown away by the Brave archery trailer.  It gave the impression that the lead was a female warrior character who was resisting against social forces that wanted her to be demure and social rather than brash and physical.  It appeared to tell the story of a girl who had a lot in common with Scáthach or Macha Mong Raud or one of any other legendary Celtic female leads.  I imagined that we were going to see a movie that the first act would be devoted to establishing Merida's martial prowess and her family's attempt to curb it, the second act would introduce a serious threat to the family and possibly the entire clan, and the third act would feature Merida rising up and defeating the threat.  I didn't expect a lot here.  After all, this is a pretty tried and true trope.  But I was looking forward to a film featuring a female lead that didn't fall into the stereotypical female tones of homemaking, love, shopping, etc.  There are plenty of films out there that focus on those aspects, I thought this was going to be something of a groundbreaking film in that it would present to children an image of a female lead who didn't fit into the traditional female roles and that it was ok that she was different.On a more granular level, I also was hoping for it to focus on the impact of being excluded from the group and the injury that causes to young girls.  And here's the kicker, it really wouldn't have been hard to do.  You could have Merida wanting to train with the boys but be excluded by both the boys and the adults, even though she knows that she's a better archer than they are due to her secret training.  And maybe display her resentment at having to train in secret.  This would highlight for the young boys in the audience how damaging it is to exclude the girls who want to play with them and also point out how messed up it is that both the adults in society and the children in society force two castes, one who plays outside, gets dirty, and rough-houses... And the other who is clean, socially proper, and is provided dolls to train them how to nurture.If I have a daughter, I want her to know she can be anything she wants to be and I never want her to feel excluded or left out because of her gender (or anything else, for that matter).  And I was hoping that Pixar was moving in a similar way of thinking.So maybe I was expecting a lot on a social level.  But on a film level, all it really needed to do is tell a story that was not gender specific but rather focused on an excluded lead who ended up saving the day at the end.  You know what I wanted?  I wanted "How To Train Your Dragon" but with a female lead.  That was pretty much it.And then I saw the second trailer and I started to grow concerned. But still there was the theme of changing your fate, so I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.  In Game of Thrones terms, I walked into the theater expecting to watch Catelyn Stark trying to turn Arya into Sansa for 90 minutes only to learn that Arya is bad ass and accept her daughter the way she was.But here's what I got.The first 20 minutes do a decent job setting up a tone that reflected what I was hoping for.  It even introduced the big threat: the bear Mor'Du who bites the king's leg off and escapes.  Now to be fair there was a minor ill-advised musical interlude, but other than that it was doing a good job.  Merida was sympathetic and rebellious and engaging.  Conversely, Queen Elinor was also sympathetic because she was cut from a different cloth from her daughter and was trying to do right by her child by raising her in a way that she thought would be proper and serve her well.  Things were looking good because our two leads were well developed, but also positioned in direct opposition to eachother.  That generally works out well for creating drama.But things started to go south when I began to pay attention to Billy Connolly's King Fergus character.  Here we have a terribly developed character.  His traits were generally "large," "loud," and "stupid."  That's about it.  He seems well meaning, but there wasn't much to him.  Consequently, there wasn't much to the father/daughter relationship.  Hell, I think there was a stronger bond and amusement displayed by Tywin Lannister towards Arya in Game of Thrones than there ever was between Fergus and Merida.  Honestly, Fergus is simply displayed as a stupid, oblivious and violent oaf.  But there was an opportunity early on for Fergus to be a solid character and defend his daughter (who is clearly takes after him in his warrior instincts).  Given this chance, what did he do?  He babbled in a high-pitched fake girl voice and talked about wind rushing through his hair rather than being actually empathetic and talking to Queen Elinor about how he knows how unhappy the arrangement is making Merida but how much the kingdom needs this union.  That would have been a powerful moment.  But no, instead we were treated to a caricature of Merida that essentially reinforced the ridiculousness of a girl being a warrior.  And the kids in the audience heard that message loud and clear because there was a roar of laughter when Billy Connolly delivered the line.  Incidentally, I was surprised that Connolly, who has a couple daughters, signed on to this rubbish.  But that's a talk for another time.The last time I had any hope for this film was during the cross-cut of Elinor and Merida complaining about the other person failing to listen and accept reason.  That's a strong theme, it was well cut and presented, and they could have done something with it.  But that would have been risky, and Pixar isn't taking any risks with this movie... so it was quickly abandoned as Merida and Elinor both have temper tantrums where Merida cuts Elinor's tapestry and Elinor BBQ's Merida's Bow.  Oh and what are the men doing during all of this?  They're downstairs acting like a bunch of deranged children, of course.Merida flips out at the sight of her BBQ'ed bow and runs away.  Elinor feels terrible and retrieves the bow saying "no no no!"  The audience is being told to think "oh look at those emotional impulsive women!"  Awesome.  Anyway, so Merida is on the lamb and ends up encountering a witch.  Why?  Because this is in Great Britain and therefore apparently it needs to be similar to Sword in the Stone.  Remember, Pixar is taking NO RISKS with this film.  Not one.  So of course it needs Madam Mim.And in response to this chance meeting Merida, who is a warrior, decides to use magic (as well as her considerable wealth) to try to fix her problems.  Yes, they managed to work shopping into a film that was set in a period before the rise of our consumer culture.  And they worked really hard to get it in there, too, since there was absolutely no reason why the witch needed to also be running a store and Merida's considerable purchases never appeared again in the film nor had any impact other than to provide a heavy-handed foreshadowing to how her mother was going to "change."  Shopping, check.  If they can get homemaking and love into the film we'll have a "girl movie" trifecta.Alright, so Merida goes home in a huff and poisons her mom.  And... her mom turns into a Bear.  Pixar apparently had recently seen The Emperor's New Groove and wanted to make its own version.  Again.  NO RISKS.Now you probably expect me to complain about Elinor the Bear (we'll call her Bearinor)'s repeated attempts to be lady-like, cover herself up, etc.  But you'd be wrong.  I had no problem with that part of the story.  Bearinor was established as that sort of person and I don't see any detriment to her or the story because of it.  My issue on a feminist level with this film isn't that Elinor/Bearinor is filling a stereotypical gender role, it's the fact that Merida abandons her own personality and reinforces the message of "do your duty, ladies."  Let me be absolutely clear in this.  I have no issues whatsoever with people who want to be homemakers or parents (of either gender), I think it is a valuable and worthwhile pursuit.  I do have issues with people abandoning their hopes and dreams to fit into cultural boxes, though.Ok, back to the movie... So Bearinor and Merida have to escape the castle (because King Fergus hates bears more than Stephen Colbert).  And now we're treated to a chase scene where the men continue to act like idiots (yay awful stereotypes from all directions).  Once they escape, there are a number of incredibly forgettable scenes where Merida tries to find a way to change Bearinor back, teaches her how to act like a bear, and generally feels guilty about life.  In the middle of all of this, the witch leaves her a message that basically says "you need to mend the bond that was broken."Merida decides that she has to get the tapestry and fix it.  Why?  Because the poison only works on crafty ladies who have violent daughters who tear things up?  Because sewing is magic? .... That doesn't make too much sense...  Because We need to get this girl sewing and acting more like a girl!  That's why.Now the smart thing to do would be for her to go in and get it and then come back out.  But she doesn't.  She brings Bearinor with her.  There is NO REASON to do this other that so that Bearinor can witness Merida walk into the room of men (who are still being idiots, apparently they haven't stopped fighting... they haven't even slept) and make them all behave.  Do you see what's happening here?  Merida is becoming a mother and is telling the boys to settle down.  This, of course, causes Bearinor to swell with pride.  And that's understandable given her goals in life.  What isn't understandable is why the music and tone of the film is also inducing the audience to feel the same way.  This isn't Merida, this isn't who she is.  Or at least, it isn't who we were introduced to.  But now that she feels guilty about poisoning her mom, she's decided to become her, apparently.Now in the speech she gives to the men, Merida talks about marrying for love rather than for politics and convinces them to change their ways.  But if you think about that scene, it's completely out of place.  Merida doesn't want to get married and has implied that she might never want to get married.  Furthermore, she has never displayed any ability in public speaking (she's a warrior).  And then you have the theme of the film which is ostensibly about changing your fate, but instead of saying "I don't want to get married and I won the damn competition so I get to say what happens!  Now get out or I'll stick an arrow in your eye"  She said "I want to fall in love!"  Merida's entire speech and the tone of the scene is out of character and out of the theme of the film unless you take into account the sole character trait that Pixar was focused upon.  Her gender.Oh, and for those of you keeping count, that's two out of three for the girl movie trifecta: Shopping and Love.  And actually, this scene has another nasty little subtext contained within it.  So you have grown men acting like children and you have women basically mothering them, right? This happens twice, once with Elinor and once with Merida. The obvious problem with this is that it is demeaning to men, right? I think most people can see that and its been referenced by commenters above. But there is another way this is damaging... it pushes the viewpoint that it is a woman's place to mother men, that it is ok for men to act like children, and that if things get out of hand it's the woman's job to deal with it. It's a common thing in comedy for some reason, and for a while it was VERY common in commercials (such as those awful Radio Shack commercials).Anyway, so Merida and Bearinor sneak in to get the tapestry, things don't go quite right, and there is a chase scene.  During this chase scene, Merida is furiously sewing and trying to fix the tapestry (HOMEMAKING!)  It all ends with a big confrontation with Mor'Du (the evil bear) at some standing stones because this is Scotland in case the audience forgot.  Merida's martial prowess doesn't help her at all and instead Bearinor defeats Mor'Du.  Merida lays the now repaired tapestry on Bearinor and she turns into Elinor again.  The audience yawns.In the final scene we see that the family is back together and unbearified, and Merida and Elinor are looking at a new tapestry that they just completed that features Merida and Bearinor, just to make sure you knew that Merida's sewing wasn't a one-time thing.And then as the camera pans out Merida gives a voice over where she talks about changing her fate.  ...Wait a minute... the film openned up with Merida refusing to be like her mother and refusing to marry, but she was fated to do both according to social norms.  By the end of the film she's doing tapestries and talking about love (and they also got some shopping in there).  What fate did she change again?Now to be fair, it's great that this film didn't end with a wedding.  It's also great that there isn't a love interest.  And if the film was about Elinor/Bearinor, it might have been a much better film.  She's understandable and throughout the film she develops as a character, and actually she is effective and heroic in at least two scenes (including defeating the villain).  If Merida was a minor character and this film was about Elinor/Bearinor, it wouldn't be great, but it wouldn't have been so awful.  The problem is that it's about Merida, who's actually ineffectual and a bit of a damsel despite her bow.  For example... She splits an arrow, but it doesn't change anything. She shoots the bear a couple times and simply annoys it. The only thing she does of consequence with a weapon is she stops her dad from killing Bearinor, but that wasn't really any fancy sword work. It was simply getting her blade in there and her father being unwilling to cut down his own daughter. Other than that, she's generally not too effective as a lead or a warrior. She needs her brothers to help her escape, she needs her mom to save her from the pit, she needs her mom to save her from the bear...  Oh we're certainly repeatedly told that she's bad ass, but what we are shown is that she is a damsel in need of others to save her.  So Disney managed to give us another Princess movie, but this time carefully camouflaged.  But it's not that Merida isn't heroic that drives me nuts about this film.  It's the fact that she should have been and this film had the opportunity to break from the girl coming of age trope.  Here is the issue in a nutshell...If this was a film with a male lead (ie boy coming of age) it would focus upon "triumph through adversity." Things suck at first, but in the end everyone will come to see that he's actually awesome underneath and realize they were wrong. But you take a female lead and put her in the same situation and you get an arc of "compromise and be a peace maker." That has its place in certain films I guess, but when you have a warrior female lead and you're still banging the "women need to do their duty and find a middle ground" drum... well, it raises my hackles a little.How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) is actually an excellent way to explain the storytelling flaws in Brave.  In HTTYD, Hiccup doesn't compromise or change himself to bond with his father or fit into society. In fact, I would wager that most bonding/coming of age stories that feature boys don't involve abandoning your quirks in order to fit in better. They generally go the opposite direction... In the case of HTTYD, you have the outcast (Hiccup) who isn't understood but has some sort of quality that eventually the community and, more importantly, the parent would come to value. There's a big catharsis for the character as well as the audience because we all want to be accepted by the people in our lives, warts and all. And if we can discover that those so-called weaknesses are actually strengths, that's even better.  Or take another example: Napoleon Dynamite.  Do you think that it would have been as successful if Napoleon got a haircut, went shopping at the mall, and then started acting all smooth? We loved the dance scene because Napoleon was being himself and everyone thought it was awesome anyway. They accepted him for who he was.  In fact, he was loved because of it.  That was a triumphant moment. Unfortunately, that's not the tone of Brave.If we moved the tone from Brave to HTTYD, Hiccup would have killed Toothless to appease his father and his father would have accepted that he didn't want to be a warrior and allowed him to become a tinkerer.  Compromise.  But not exactly the sort of thing that is going to have an audience cheering.  People love HTTYD because the story arc involves people valuing Hiccup for Hiccup. We didn't cheer at the end of Brave because (despite how much Elinor loves her) apparently no one values Merida for Merida. She's loved, at most, for what she might become. Not for who she is. And that, ultimately, is why I left with such a bitter taste in my mouth.

  • #18174


    I liked it.  But I went in expecting a silly Disney film, sooo…  :)

  • #18175


    Yeah, and I really was watching it with a critical eye.And I should mention that, like with the podcast and most everything else, it doesn't bother me when people disagree with me.  I just really didn't like it, so I thought I'd complain about it in the General section.  ;)

  • #18176


    good analysis….it saddens me because from what you're saying it's also playing into the stereotype that Scots are a bunch of drunken, loudmouth, swaggering louts who spend all their time fighting one another. when I first saw the ads and such I was skeptical because it seemed a bit one-dimensional, and now I see that my hunch was sound. at best I'll wait for this to come out in Budget. sounds like a $2 movie. saddens me also as I love Billy Connoly — who is Scottish so it's doubly weird.

  • #18177


    I would also accuse this film of misandry as well.  All of the male characters were portrayed as stupid, incompetent, violent, and drunk.  One thing I did like about the movie, however, is that the female lead's mother is actually still alive.  Most fairy tale style movies for girls almost always have a dead mother.  And I will be honest and say that I do not think I have ever seen a movie for girls like this where a mother/daughter relationship was the HEART of the story.  This movie definitely needed some refinement, but I think it could have been saved with just a few changes.  I appreciate that the makers tried to think outside the box a little bit, but they ultimately failed in the execution, because, as you say, they took no risks. 

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