Wednesday, June 27, 2012

5 Things Wrong with Brave

Last weekend I was depressed, so I went to see Brave, knowing that nothing cheers me up like a Disney/Pixar film. Until Pocahontas, there wasn’t a Disney film I didn’t love. They are pure magic; even Hitler thought so. And Pixar…wow. Toy Story changed my life, and if we pretend A Bug’s Life didn’t happen and everyone watched Antz instead, Pixar has never disappointed me.

So it was that I rejected other plans, some of which involved watching past presidents fight the undead, to stand in line with 200 ten-year-olds. So it was that I prepared myself with ginger jokes, ready to pretend-criticize the film for romanticizing the Soulless Ones. So it was that I found myself standing in shocked disappointment after the ending credits, confused and sad and more than a little disturbed, with very serious criticisms rattling around in my brain.

Brave is a bad movie, and you should not take your children to see it, for at least five reasons:

1. Scottish accents

This is more of an observation than a criticism, but isn’t it odd the way we use accents in movies? I don’t mean just the absurdity of using a language-X accent to indicate that the character is speaking in language-X. I’m talking about when the entire movie is set in a certain place, but depending on what that place is the characters may or may not have the corresponding accents. Scotland, Ireland, and England always seem to get accents, but pretty much nowhere else does.

Think about it. Did anyone besides Lumier and the feather duster skank have French accents in Beauty and the Beast? Did anyone in Aladdin have any of the accents that can be heard in the Middle East? Hell, Snow White probably should have had a German accent, and with the wide range of accents to be found in The Lion King, it’s odd that not one of them is the Swahili accent (no, not even Rafiki.)

Disney tends to pick and choose their accents. Pixar can’t seem to make up their minds, based on Ratatouille at least, but be honest: was there any chance of making a movie set in Scotland, no matter the time period, without the accents? No, there wasn’t, because some places are just so defined by their accents, we can’t accept not having them in our films, even if it makes the dialog harder to follow and the music really annoying. That’s my real criticism, by the way: the music was terrible.

2. Will-o’-the-wisps

Are not cute land-based jellyfish that lead you to your fate. They are evil beings that lure virgins into the woods to rape and murder them. Well, okay, so there are a variety of myths surrounding these ethereal lights, but the only one that is remotely pleasant involves buried treasure, and even in that one most people die trying to retrieve it.

In real life, will-o’-the-wisps are phosphorescent critters that live in marshes. Travelers would be drawn to the flickering glow thinking they were seeing lanterns. More often than not, they would end up drowned in the bog or lost, thus inspiring the legends. And I’m sorry, but I think the animators at Pixar were well aware of the nefarious nature of these “fairy lights” because those blue globs with their Shining-esque childish giggling were creepy as fuck. Oh, and remember how the horse was (reasonably) terrified of them? What happened to that little clue?

The wisps’ impression was made even worse by the lack of a villain in the story. Without a bad guy around to provide a convenient focal point of evil, I kept expecting the wisps to suddenly reveal their true nature and lead the heroines off a cliff, like they’re damn well supposed to.

Also why are wisps the only magical creatures? I’m no expert on Scottish mythology, but surely there’s something more to work with there. A witch, okay, sure, but no sprites? No fairies? Nothing? For a “land full of magic and danger,” there certainly wasn’t a lot of either one. Although maybe there would have been if the story actually showed us more of the land instead of staying inside of or within a short ride of the castle the entire time. Which brings me to a more important criticism…

3. Brave has nothing to do with bravery

Nothing in this film was more confusing than the title. I can think of no plausible reason why this story deserves the title “Brave” when the heroine doesn’t even go anywhere, especially when the story clearly wanted her to. The witch went on a little trip? Then fucking follow her. Fight demons and overcome challenges in the woods for a few days, and do your mother-daughter bonding there. That’s your odyssey, not this stupid running back and forth between the castle and Stonehenge shit.

The theme of this film is very clear, but it’s not related to bravery at all. Everything in the film is about mother-daughter relations and listening to each other. Why wasn’t it titled “Listen?” Or “Mother Knows Best?” Or “Shut Up and Get Married to Save the Kingdom?”

Because that’s exactly what happens: the mother wants to force her daughter to marry someone she’s never met, the daughter wants to play in the woods instead, the mother gets turned into a bear and realizes that woodsy skills are valuable, and the daughter realizes that she was being ever so silly about the whole marriage-to-a-stranger thing and should settle down for the sake of the kingdom. The only way I can work “brave” into the plot or theme of the film is to restate it as “a princess, who is brave in the face of mortal danger, must learn to also be brave in the marriage bed.” Which brings me to the most important point…

4. Marital rape is not something to compromise on

I wanted to like the story of Brave. I really did. Who hasn’t dreamed of turning their mother into something that can’t speak? Personally I would go with a tea cozy rather than something with claws, but I’ll take what I can get. It was touching to see the mother/bear come around to see the value in her daughter’s passions and to admire her abilities.

But quid pro quo, Clarisse: you have to give a little to get a little. To break the spell, the princess must “mend the bond torn by pride.” That turns out to mean she must literally stitch a tapestry (good princess, do your needlework) that she had cut with a sword when her mother tried to force her to marry some random, ugly dude she had just met. Yeah, that’s right, acting out with some mild violence when facing an arranged marriage is what passes for hotheaded pride in the Pixar universe.

Let me take a moment here to point out that this princess is clearly about 14 years old (we're never told her age in the film, so I'm going with how she looks, and if Pocahontas was 14, this girl is -7.) Oh yes, it was pride that made her act out all childishly, not, you know, the fact that she is legally still a child. It wasn’t that marriage involves a lifetime spent with another person, not to mention bearing their children (sex is how that happens, remember?), and that marrying at 14 would be scary enough without the groom being a complete stranger to you.

When faced with what is effectively child rape, the princess takes issue with it, and that’s a temper tantrum according to Pixar? She needs to learn to accept her fate/responsibility/duty to spend the rest of her life fucking one of the two fat dudes or the dude who looks like Geddy Lee (no offense, Geddy, I love you), both of whom she saw for the first time today and hasn’t even spoken to yet? This whole thing is just a “misunderstanding” between her and her mother? WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE? THIS IS CALLED RAPE, AND IT IS NOT OKAY.

Ok, look, I realize that Brave is set in a different time, and I’m being as dramatic as possible. But Brave is also a kids’ movie. 90% of the audience when I went was under age 10. Kids that age are not able to grasp the subtle nuances of gender politics in ancient Scotland and to make allowances for old-timey injustices when extracting a modern-day moral from a story. It is fucked up to romanticize forcing marriage on a 14-year-old in front of children. Ew. I would sooner raise my kids on A Game of Thrones than let them watch this movie.

5. She did not change her fate and P.S. why did she sew the tapestry on horseback?

The opening and closing voiceovers in Brave are all about fate. Changing your fate, finding your fate, being lead to your fate by rapey, murdery fairies. So we would expect fate to play a major role in the story, no? Except that it doesn’t, not at all.

The first voiceover, heard also in the preview, says something along the lines of “our fate is tied to the land, a land full of magic and danger.” Sounds promising, I suppose, except I’ve already pointed out that there isn’t much in the way of magic (wisps and one in-denial witch do not a magical land make) or danger (There’s one angry bear. One. In all of Scotland.) Fate also doesn’t factor into it. Fate is not a synonym for “geopolitical circumstances that necessitate politically expedient marriages.” Fate is mystical and other-worldly. It comes from god or the Powers that Be or Zoltar, not from your mother.

Aside from that, this marriage fate of hers has nothing to do with the land. Governments are not a part of the land they rule. If they were, they wouldn’t change so often. In fact it’s mentioned several times that this kingdom is not just new, but brand new. Her father is the first-ever king in this kingdom. Odd, then, isn’t it, that they have so many traditions for marrying off their princesses, traditions so old and established that it would literally cause war to break with them, when this is the first time the kingdom has even had a princess to marry off?

Speaking of plot holes, what on earth possessed the princess to repair that tapestry on horseback? If she believed that a bit of mending was all that she needed to do to change her mother back, why would she waste time escaping the room, saddling her horse, and riding out? Why not just stay in the comfy room and fix the tapestry? Her mother would change back, the king would find her, and all would be well. Of course mending the tapestry is a red herring, and as usual the secret spell-breaking ingredient turns out to be princess tears, so it’s for the best that she behaved so irrationally. Which now that you mention it, isn’t it called “bad writing” when characters make senseless decisions in order to fulfill your plot needs?

Look, I’m generally not one to get a bee in my gender-neutral bonnet over this or that thing that could be sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic, etc. [Sig. Other’s Note: Yes, she is.], especially when we’re talking about Disney or Pixar productions, which are just fun, beautiful films. I adore The Lion King, despite its concerning moral stances on hereditary monarchy and eating things that can talk. I don’t care that Pixar didn’t have a female hero* until Brave any more than I care that Disney pretty much only has female heroes still. I don’t think it’s racist for Sebastian to have an island accent, man, nor for hand-removal to be featured prominently in Aladdin. Generally I think everyone should just chill out.

But at some point, a line must be drawn, and I’m choosing to draw it at forcibly marrying minors. And so, Princess Merieda (sp?), I beseech you: would Jasmine put up with this shit? That chick could have married any prince she wanted, and still she had to rock the boat on principle. That’s what a princess role model looks like, ladies and gentlemen.

I’m very happy for all the little ginger kids who can finally look at a Disney princess and say “That’s me” (because for some reason they couldn’t do that with Ariel.) I know what it’s like to feel ignored in that way. When I was growing up, Disney film after Disney film showed beautiful blond princesses, but did any of them have green eyes? Nope, not until Tangled. It was so hard to be a pretty blond with non-blue eyes, let me tell you.

But why is it all about what she looks like? Is that what we want our children to look for first when seeking out similarities between themselves and fictional characters: eye color, hair color, skin color, and sex? I realize that these can be developmentally important identifications for kids to make, but maybe the real reason why we get so hung up on the physical characteristics of our Disney princesses is that there isn’t much else to differentiate them. They all want to better themselves, many want to break free from some societal restraint, but other than that, what can we really say about each one? Belle is a bookworm. Ariel is curious. The black one was highly industrious. The others…who can say?

For all its flaws, Brave did present a princess with a clear personality and values. That was great to see. Unfortunately it was pretty much ruined by the moral that effectively requires her to surrender all of those values and suppress her personality.

Thus ends the charmed life of Pixar films.

S. Misanthrope

*So they say. I say that if you assume that WALL-E is male and EVE is female, you’re the one promoting traditional gender roles.