As promised, this begins The Pixar Project, where I’m going to review all of the Pixar films in the run-up to the Dec. 25 release of Soul. If you know a friend or relative or Pixar aficionado who’d enjoy this project, please pass it along.
I went through a spell of not seeing Pixar movies, which is very much unlike me but I blame it on law school. I didn’t see the completely lackluster and uninspiring Cars 2 from 2011 , released the summer between my first year of law school and my second, and I didn’t see Brave a year later.
While I don’t regret not seeing Cars 2, I do regret not seeing Brave. What a beautiful palette cleanser after the nonsense that was an unnecessary sequel. There was a flimsy attempt to graft a moral onto a pretty blatant cash grab (moral of the story: “Be yourself, Mater.”) in Cars 2, but it certainly wasn’t grounded in a message that resonated with adults and children alike. Brave, on the other hand, is nearly groaning under the weight of all its messages.
It follows Merida, a princess who’d rather ride horses and practice archery than entertain the numerous male suitors coming for royal matchmaking. Her mother, Elinor, is prim and proper and coaches her up to be the same way. Her father, Fergus, is a mighty warrior king who lost his leg to a powerful bear named Mor’du. The news of her possible betrothal causes her to rebel, and she enlists the help of a witch in the forest to give her a spell to “change her mother.”
The prominent message is not being hidebound by tradition or routine or how-it’s-always-been-done rationale, and this is a meta-theme for the film itself since it’s the first time in 17 years of films at that point that Pixar had given audiences a true female protagonist. There had been numerous memorable female characters, some in very strong supporting roles, but none of the films to this point could be said to focus on a female.
Poignant speeches about fate and destiny bookend the film, and the film is a bit on the nose about how it presents those ideas.
Merida: Some say our destiny is tied to the land, as much a part of us as we are of it. Others say fate is woven together like a cloth, so that once destiny intertwines with many others, it’s the one thing we search for or fight to change. Some never find it. But there are some who are led.
Merida: There are those who say fate is something beyond our command. That destiny is not our own, but I know better. Our fate lives within us, you only have to be brave enough to see it.
The story doesn’t follow its own advice. Instead of actually presenting an innovative story where tradition had been eschewed and individuality allowed to reign supreme, it’s just a telling of what those qualities might look like within a very traditional world. It’s difficult to criticize too harshly because it is a charming and beautifully made film in a new world with interesting (if somewhat flat) characters, fun accents and gorgeous music. Mostly, I felt it benefitted from it’s placement in the film order by following Cars 2; it was a place that maximized a great concept executed only mediocrely well.
But what I like about the film is the give-and-take between mother and daughter. At the beginning of the film, they are clearly at odds with each other. To Merida, her mother’s ways are old and stuffy and devoid of reason. To Elinor, Merida is squandering away the natural course of things that come with being a princess. After the witch’s spell turns Elinor into a bear, the two find themselves bonding in the river hunting for fish. The mother appreciates her daughter’s outdoorsy, “non-princessy” skills. Then the daughter gets to enjoy her mother coming into her own as a bear when she catches fish by herself.
Back in Columbia, Missouri, I was a frequent visitor at Hudson Hawk barber shop, and from the chair, I could see a Mark Twain quote painted onto the wall:
When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.
The movie reminded me of that wall and the universal truth contained in Twain’s humorous statement, which isn’t read to be literally true but an encapsulation of the ignorance of youth. It’s rooted in the assumption that when it comes to disagreements with parents, the problem is on the parents’ side.
The lucky of us see that gap shrink between parent and child shrink as we age. I don’t think it’s so much the aging that magically cures that youthful ignorance (though it certainly helps). It’s that you stop seeing your parents as an institution. They become people you can talk to about what’s happening if your life, not people from whom you have to hide the details. They look more like people, contemporaries even, and the magical happenings and near-miss for Merida and Elinor helped push them in that direction.
The story isn’t a soaring testament to kicking tired tropes to the curb, but it’s a start. It’s a mother-daughter bonding movie that reminds us of just how easy it is to be adversarial with our parents and how both sides gain a lot when each gives a little. There’s just something simple and reaffirming about that sort of coming together.
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