Pixar, You Have Failed Me
Years and years ago, I remember someone asked me which Margaret Atwood novel or story they should read to figure if she’s “my type of thing”. I told him to read a short story of hers titled “Happy Endings” or The Handmaid’s Tale.
“But you were going on about some other book, weren’t you?” he asked me. “Something about a cat?”
He was talking about Cat’s Eye, which isn’t the most perfect of Atwood’s novels but it’s the first of hers I’d read and as she described the little cruelties that schoolgirls inflict on the new kid in class, I felt like she was putting my life into words. “I’m not sure if you’ll like it as much,” I remember telling the young gent who had asked for recommendations. “It’s probably more of a novel for someone who remembers being a young girl.”
I’m going to re-read Cat’s Eye one of these days and figure out whether that idiotic opinion of mine has anything of value in it. It’s the darndest thing that we think girls and boys need to be told different kinds of stories but whether or not there’s any truth to this, it’s not the most annoying aspect of modern storytelling. That distinction goes to the fact that more often than not, boys get stories told in a way that’s fun and plot-driven, with lessons and morals appearing like messages written in invisible ink, while girls get didactic stories that are hyper-aware of the meaning and messages they carry. I’m not sure if it’s the fear of feminist wrath that has engendered this phenomenon, but it’s out there and it can infect the best of storytellers, particularly those writing for kids. Even Pixar couldn’t escape it.
Brenda Chapman is credited with the story of Brave, which was adapted for the screen by her, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi. Chapman, Andrews and Purcell are also the co-directors. I’d say this was a classic case of too many cooks spoiling the broth if the basic broth wasn’t so bland. Here’s the plot that came out of one head and needed three more to be realised into a screenplay and two more to direct.
Fergus is the head of one of the four most important clans of Scotland. His wife, Elinor, is a wise queen who embodies the saying about there being a woman behind every successful man. Their firstborn is Merida, of the fantastic red hair. Fergus is an indulgent father who doesn’t mind his daughter doing unfeminine things like archery. Elinor, on the other hand, is much more proper and tries to groom Merida into a more conventional lady. When Merida comes of age, tradition demands she pick the firstborn son of one of the three other clans as her husband. The practice is for the girl’s family to invite the other clans. The three suitors take part in sporting contests. The winner gets to marry the girl. Merida doesn’t want to get married and she makes this point by entering the contest, to win her freedom instead of a hand in marriage. She wins. When she’s berated, she takes her horse out into the forest and chances upon a cottage. Inside is a witch who carves only bear-themed sculptures. Merida asks for a spell that will change her mother so that Merida doesn’t have to get married. The witch gives her a magic cake. Merida goes home, gives her mum the cake. Mum is suddenly Mama Bear. Added complication: Years ago, Fergus lost one leg to a grumpy, carnivorous bear and consequently, the human-bear relationship in Merida’s home isn’t precisely cuddly. Merida manages to smuggle her Mama Bear back to the witch’s cottage to reverse the spell but there’s no one in there. The witch has left a message saying if Merida doesn’t change her mother to her human form in two days, Elinor will become a real bear (rather than a human trapped in bear form). Merida and her mum frolic about in the wild for a bit. Then they go home because Merida comes to the conclusion that she needs to mend a tapestry to reverse the spell. Meanwhile, Fergus realises there’s a bear lumbering around his castle and when he finds Elinor’s torn dress, he thinks the bear killed her. Cue in hunting scene. When they trap the bear-that-is-actually-Elinor and are going to kill her, Merida protects her mum. Then, just to add to the merriment, the evil bear that ate Fergus’s leg shows up and Elinor fights him since no human can match the bear’s strength. At the nick of time, mom turns back to human and Merida lives happily ever after, riding into the sunset with her mother and not plagued by suitors.
I can’t rmember the last time I was so bored by a Pixar film.
Brave wasn’t even a lecture. It was a collection of commendments and formulae that were just barely disguised wrapped into a story. Girls shouldn’t have to conform to being elegant. Unconventional girl = Tomboy. A woman doesn’t need a man. Marriages should be for love. Blah blah blah. Usually, Pixar is brilliant at telling a charming story that is simple yet choc-o-bloc with insight, tethered to basic human relationships, peopled by characters that feel relatable. The characters in Brave were flat and stereotypical — the stern mother, the rambunctious father, bratty younger brothers, tomboy daughter, pansy suitor etc. The relationships saw practically no arc. There were no revelations, barely any humour and the twist was as lax as cheap elastic. Before Brave, there was a charming animated short titled La Luna, about a little boy and his father and grandfather. In a few minutes, that packed more cuteness and drama than all of Brave, which seemed as interminable and boring as a lecture in a classroom.
Why the film was called Brave is a source of mystery to me. There are only two bits that could be considered brave: Merida going off into a dark forest and near the end, her trying to protect Mama Bear when Human Daddy is about to kill her. Except she completely fails at the latter (it’s the appearance of another beast, this one definitively masculine, that stops Fergus from killing Elinor) and the former doesn’t seem too brave since the forest didn’t look particularly scary. Especially since Merrida is quite used to spending her time in it and knows her way around, which is why she can be Elinor’s guide when Elinor turns into a bear.
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the story didn’t make sense. Merida’s problem appeared to be that she didn’t want to marry at all; not that she didn’t want to marry out of duty. Yet the resolution, if one can call it that, is the pronouncement that marriages should be the result of love and so suitors should try to win Merida’s heart. The bit about the enchantment was totally half-baked. If the spell was made to change the mother, then it makes no sense that it would also change Elinor’s sons into bear cubs. Plus, if Merida and Elinor know that the key to reversing the spell lies in the tapestry Elinor made (which is in the castle), then what sense does it make for them to be prancing around in the forest during the day? Shouldn’t they head to the castle straight away? Particularly since it’s most likely that Fergus and the other men would be snoring since they’ve been partying all night? Also, the witch tells Merida to listen to a little rhyme. “Don’t forget the words,” says the hag. Except ultimately, Merida doesn’t say the words and doesn’t need to either. Elinor regains her human form because she’s wrapped in the tapestry. The boys aren’t, by the way, but they change too.
I’m assuming Chapman set Brave in Celtic Scotland for a reason other than the opportunity to poke fun at the idea of Scotsmen not wearing anything under their kilts. The bear, particularly the female bear, is a significant figure in Celtic mythology. It’s not a masculine figure but a feminine one, symbolising fertility, abundance, strength and the harvest. The Celtic goddess Artio was often represented as a bear or had a bear as her companion. Artio would shapeshift into Artemis and later Diana. In some senses, Merida and Elinor are two parts of this one character. Merida is the archer and warrior that would be channelled into Artemis while Elinor is the maternal figure of abundance and fertility that was the other aspect of Artio. The Greeks and Romans clearly had trouble wrapping their head around the idea of a woman who is a warrior and a mother, but for the Celts, this wasn’t so weird. I don’t know Celtic mythology very well, so I don’t know whether Elinor and Merida’s story has its root in a particular myth or legend, but it’s such a waste to turn Elinor into a bear and have her trying to eat berries with cutlery and doing other similarly silly antics. There are three instances in which she turns wild and except for the last one (in which she battles an alpha male bear), tapping into the animal side means Elinor losing her sensient quality and turning into snarling beast. I don’t understand why you would pick Celtic Scotland as your background and strip the figure of the bear of its feminine strength and rich symbolism.
The theme of transformation is something that pops up frequently in the Celtic legends I know. Sometimes it’s a punishment (as in Elinor’s case), often it’s protection and at times, it signifies a rebirth with greater understanding of the world around you (also applicable to Elinor). In Brave the transformation creates a situation where the animal world, with its intuition and receptivity to enchantment, is pitted against the world of men, but doesn’t exploit the challenge at all. Elinor as a bear is clumsy, incapable and a liability. It’s only when she’s up against the, er, bad bear that her animal form is useful. The bad bear, incidentally, is a clan leader of yore who got himself a charm that turned him into a bear (for strength) because he was ambitious and power-hungry. Elinor as a bear doesn’t actually kill him but rather, gets him killed by slamming him against a monolith repeatedly till the monolith breaks and falls on him. In case you didn’t get the heavy symbolism, that’s the woman bringing down the patriarchal structure. Except of course, that’s not really what happens. Fergus is still the leader of the clan and at the end, Elinor is far from the seat of power and off prancing around with Merida as opposed to how we saw her in the beginning as the de facto ruler. And of course, she has her hair open (instead of tied up as it was earlier in the film) because how else would you know she’s now both liberal and liberated?
Frustrating doesn’t even begin to cover Brave. If only Pixar had focussed on telling a good story, rather than getting its knickers in a twist about sending the right message with their first film with a girl heroine.