Sunday, 28 April 2013
Given my well-known dislike of Scotland and curly-haired redheads, it's hardly surprising I haven't bothered catching up with Brave before now. Indeed, for the last five or six months, it's been the only Pixar film I'd not seen (excluding sequels). I'm glad I've finally gotten around to watching it, but I don't think in twenty years time people will be talking about it as one of Pixar's greatest efforts. Even Pixar's lesser offerings - say, for example, Cars - are entirely solid examples of 21st century film-making, and Brave belongs in the same category: it doesn't put much of a foot wrong, but these days that's not really enough, even if the world simply cannot have too many films featuring Kelly MacDonald.
In fact, perhaps the harshest thing I can think to say about the film is that it isn't as interesting as the reaction it sparked. When details of the project first came out, it was noted that it was a missed opportunity for Pixar to base their first film involving a female protagonist around the story of an unhappy princess. Where, it was asked, was the kind of imagination that created a world populated by talking cars, a rat with the desire to cook his own food, or the most astonishing impressive feat animation has perhaps ever managed; a heart-breaking assemblage of boxes and wires?
It's an interesting point, but I think it's missing the real issue. Cars is about the nature of friendship, Ratatouille deals with how we chase our dreams, and Wall-E is... well, that seemed to be a case of starting with a character and building a film out of him, though given the character in question I don't see a problem with that.
Brave, in contrast, is about traditional gender roles. And if a film is going to focus on that, replacing human characters with sentient vehicles or talking toys actually weakens the point, because unlike many of Pixar's other films, the aim is not to make a point about a universal concept (we all rely on our friends, we all have ambitions others would laugh at us for, we all suffer jealously when confronted by new people our friends seem to like more than us), but to argue against something that shouldn't exist at all.
This is particularly true because the film makes the point that in the society in which Merida lives is one where her expected role is actually vital in keeping the peace. To recognise her entirely reasonable desire to live the life she chooses does not mean ignoring the fact that at worst, her rebellion could lead to a civil war. In the film as is, this makes Merida's mother more than just an obvious antagonist (however well meaning). Were the film to exist in some clearly fantastical realm (as oppose to one that is almost our own, just with more people turning into bears than you might expect), you run into the problem of creating a world in which you want to talk about gender stereotypes in which you also suggest there might be a point to them. That is, to say the least, problematic.
None of this is offered as a justification for Pixar's choice. It's just that any problem that exists stems not from the choice of setting, but from the choice of theme. The former follows pretty logically from the latter. And whilst the question "Why did Pixar choose it's first female-led film to explore gender issues" is an interesting one, I think it's less damning than "What, a princess, really?" might suggest.
Indeed, the obvious problem with the film's focus lies elsewhere. If you're going to put together a film about the difficulties faced by women in a patriarchal society, I think you rather undercut that by focusing on a girl who's unquestionably much, much better off than almost any man could dream of. How do you think the men rowing their immensely fat chieftains across to the castle would respond to the idea that the child of the king might feel a bit limited in her choices? You think the man who's stood so long at his post he's fallen asleep (allowing the king's sons to play a mean practical joke upon him) would feel terrible when he learned the richest wife-to-be in the entire realm might not get hitched to someone of her choosing? What about the guys almost eaten by a giant demon bear because the king didn't choose his picnic ground a bit more carefully?
This is not to suggest we should be unsympathetic to Merida's position. It's just worth noting that choosing a time period in which class distinction led to such deplorable and gigantic differences in life experience, choosing to focus on the absolute most luckiest girl in the kingdom and asking us to feel bad because her second greatest of all possible options would be better were she a man doesn't really strike me as particularly compelling.