It’s not every day that you get a feature-length animated film about a spirited princess fighting to find herself in a male dominated medieval Scottish kingdom, or said film with a female director, but Pixar’s 13th film is just that and their 1st with said director. “Brave” is beautiful to get lost in and quickly makes the story of a female hero less about the newness as the familiar, side-stepping the kitschy of a forward moving woman on a male dominated hero’s journey. We find ourselves in a land of fairy tale landscapes and wild animal foes long extinct, to the bright and lush greenery of ancient times where strong male heroes defined and broke the rules to keep traditions and embolden the law of the land. Even as the central character Merida challenges these preconceived boundaries on-screen, co-writer and director Brenda Chapman would inevitably be curtailed by the same real world prescriptions. I suppose this is Merida’s story after all and her adventures breaking away from the cultural norms and expectations of her clan. It is this pursuit of independence and identity of strong womanhood that is the most refreshing and engaging and by example, telling. Pixar’s lovingly realized animation is impeccable, hardly better anywhere. Perhaps you just have to sort of divorce the fact that Brenda Chapman was replaced during production with a male director.
Brenda Chapman might not be a household name just yet but her nomination for an Academy Award for directing Pixar’s animated feature film “Brave” at least suggests someone was paying attention – even as the house that toys built messed the whole thing up. What should have been a fully triumphant moment for female filmmakers in Hollywood and everywhere else for that matter got all hamstringed when the infinitely wise gave the go ahead to replace her for what we now know as “creative differences”. Despite this fact the film itself succeeds as a strong testament to female empowerment and self actualized girl-aspirations, even if only on the screen. It’s hard not to choke on the irony as thick as bruised and contused taffeta. I suppose the important thing is that the story of a brazen and driven tom-girl resisting the charmed fairy tales of indentured womanhood or second fiddle in a male dominated medieval Scottish kingdom will survive – even while Chapman’s place as Pixar has ended.
Pixar’s 13th film continues their tradition of cutting edge animation with a clear, articulate story and engaging pop culture approach-ability something other animation studios and filmmakers have been slowly picking up on. Though some have criticized the film for not taking chances or striving to break newer new ground, it’s a little ridiculous to poke holes in a film for not being the greatest. When did great go wrong? “Brave” makes no effort to be as such and sticks to solid storytelling and a good script with incredible voice talents that instill in their animations an emotional presence that is not always evident in the genre. These days it would seem you have to reinvent the wheel a couple of times a year to please everyone, despite the bloody hell that happens all too often when overzealous visionaries throw caution to the wind and forget the craft of character based narratives. “Brave” succeeds despite the groans of those who seem to consider traditional marriage aspirations a let down, or that resisting the norm only to embrace the merits of familiar through experience is sentimentalism. Somehow wanting one aspect of many possible outcomes of love and marriage is less for being less than different? It’s a shame too as “Brave” is much more than such trivialities. Sure, some might find the road familiar and the outcomes a little predictable but when did fruition and fathered good times in the face of growing cynicism grounds for dismissal as merely OK? Seeing a temperamental female lead in a land of fairies and princesses, kings and queens, dragons and romantic love doesn’t mean the road frequently traveled is one to be trounced on. There’s much more and aptly recognized here, even celebratory to the audience that allows themselves to slip silently into the tide of escapist cinema and relax.
“Brave” tells the story of a different sort of Disney princess, a sort of tom-boy independent girl with her eyes set on her own way of things, about as far off the prince-to-save-me-ever-after story as you might find in the Magic Kingdom. Head strong and fiery, referring to her hair and her disposition, Scottish princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) – which means “one who has achieved a high place of honor – receives an archery bow for her birthday and sets in motion a story of growing up different and coming to terms with traditional adolescence. The fact the Merida’s father (Billy Connolly) loses his leg and therefore a sense of his male prowess, strength and control is subtle and perhaps explains how some reviews miss the clue. Merida’s governing mother Elinor (Emma Thomson) is the real overseer and parent figure, the point of rebellion usually afforded the father, and also the channel by which the laws of the clans have the young princess all but married off one of the top three suitors of the land. They are anything but her idea of match and matrimony, the second part of the foundation of the narrative – that being Merida’s call to adventure and coming into her own sense of identity, place and role in what feels very familiar – that is the man’s world of power and the powerful that dictates who succeeds and who does not. Merida comes to embody this place of tradition and transitional and in revealing the mysticism of the feminine spirit the laws of the land open to the warmth of nurtured possibility.
In an interview with Comic Riff, Brenda Chapman described “Brave” as a “love letter” to her daughter and I can’t think of a better way of embracing a film about growing up and away, about coming into your own and being better for having lived the struggle. This is about knowing yourself in everything you perceive as different and the realization that the heart is as delicate as it is resilient to the wounding of experience – what the soul already knows – that neither masculine nor feminine governs us, rather an understanding and emotionally rich union of the two is at the heart of the universe.
The Academy of Arts & Sciences announced January 10th that Pixar’s 13th film and 1st film to be directed by a female director “Brave” was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film. While “creative differences” were cited as the reason, Brenda Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews (The Incredibles and Ratatouille) and both share the nomination. Personally, and maybe it’s naïve, someone should have fought for her.
- Watch: Inside Disney Pixar, Home of the ‘Brave’ (abcnews.go.com)
- Oscars 2013: Richard Corliss’ Picks – Best Animated Feature (entertainment.time.com)
- Disney Goes Bad (acvoice.com)