Thursday, August 23, 2012

Misneachail (Brave): A Review

Considering how much I wanted to see this film, it did take me quite a while to get around to it. My expectations were met, and in some cases exceeded; so good on you Pixar.

So today I'm going to be examining the Disney-Pixar film, Brave. I will do my best to warn of any spoilers, and try my best to review the film without giving too much away. I plan on discussing the film through a number of different categories, so lets get on with it.


The characters are for the most part decent enough, and stridently at odds with the bulk of Disney parents. Well, that may be taking it a bit too far as this is technically a Pixar film, and there is a more robust selection of parents available. For a Princess story though, the fact that not only are both parents present, but that they are generally developed characters, is unique among Disney fare. Consider how forgettable the Queen's are in say "Sleeping Beauty", or how generally absent Eudora is in "The Princess and the Frog". In the other Princess films, the Queen is absent or dead. Even the supporting cast is used to decent enough effect, and I really wish there was more screen time with some of the characters, especially the Witch... er "Wood Carver". That there is screen time spent to not only develop the characters, but the relationships between the characters, makes this the wonderful film that it is. You actually grow to care for the plight of the characters, and there are some really deep and emotional scenes in the second and especially third act, that get to the heart of why this all matters. So onto the characters themselves.

To put it bluntly, Merida is the sort of Princess that Ariel should have been, had Ariel actually bothered to learn anything during her adventure. Merida is the kind of princess Jasmine could have been, had she been given more agency and not existed for the sole purpose of being the romantic interest. Merida is the Disney Princess who has both agency and actually develops as a character; take note for this alone is worth the price of admission. Yes, there is the "tomboy" issue, but this has more to do with our perceptions and expectations of assigned gender roles that the context the film provides. Merida is presented as a girl, not as a girl wanting to be a boy. She is presented as someone who values her individuality and freedom above all else, and rejects the role and fate her mother already has planned out for her. I stress mother, again because Elinor is the driving force behind the upkeep of societal norms and tradition, something which is made clear by her role throughout the film. Speaking of which...

Elinor is another very well thought out and developed character, if a study in contradictions, sort of. Elinor is in charge, this much is made very clear throughout the film. Elinor is far more concerned with the maintenance of balance (and peace) between the clans, and by proxy the well being of the kingdom. Fergus, on the other hand is more concerned with fighting things that need to be fought, and being a man (but more on him later). The strife between Merida wanting her freedom, and Elinor wanting to uphold tradition drives the plot and also, both her and her daughters development as characters. She is serious and nagging, and a clumsier writer would likely have given into a 'wicked queen" role. But the relationship between the two is far more complex, treated with maturity and shows the love that underlies the surface tensions. More on this later.

So, yeah Fergus is probably one of the weaker points of the film, at least from my perspective. I understand that he acts as the comedic foil to Elinor, but the hen-pecked King is kind of a tired trope. Now the capable ruler who hides behind an oafish facade is well used in Celtic myth, but this is not the sort of impression we get; He is probably the least developed of the main characters, insomuch as he remains very much the same at the end of the film as he did in the beginning. Now, to be fair, a good movie, with good characters does not necessarily mean that every character must be developed, or learn a lesson. Fergus for all intents and purposes is a fully developed character, gently disagreeing with Elinor, but understanding that they are bound by duty to place their daughter in a position she does not necessarily want to be in. When he isn't prat falling or leading merry chases, he is handled well. The opening scenes and climax are the best examples the qualities which exemplify why Fergus is the king, and are handled very well. I suppose overall though, the "men are burly idiots" thing just rubs me the wrong way.

The Triplets
The incarnation of mischief made flesh, they have their own running gags and show up to help Merida out of a few predicaments. Other than that, there isn't much to say; they are cute and funny.

What sort of proper Disney movie doesn't have animal sidekicks? Saigh has far more knowledge about horses than I (so go read her Brave review too), so I'll keep it short. Angus is a more realistic animal companion than we've seen in more recent Disney films; in essence a toned down (less anthropomorphacized) version of Maximus from "Tangled". Brave, sort of dog like, but still a horse.

The Witch
Er ... I mean the woodcarver. She's in the film only briefly, breaks the forth wall (or at least her Crow does), and provides some decent comic relief. I wish there were more scenes with her in it.

He's an evil bear, who took Fergus's leg. He could have been Moby Dick, except he's slightly more complex. He is Fergus's sworn nemesis and reason for his hatred of all things Ursine.


Feminism: Considering a lot of the hype surrounding the film, this is one of the aspects which seem to receive almost unanimous praise: Merida is a strong female character. I've seen a lot of characters be touted as "strong and female", Bella Swan from the Twilight "Saga", Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games Trilogy, Jasmine from "Aladdin", Ariel from "The Little Mermaid", Fa Mulan from "Mulan". All have some degree of agency and strength, but not all female protagonists are created equal. Nor are the environments in which they find themselves. One of the greatest strengths of Brave is that the majority of the story revolves around the tumultuous relationship between Merida and Queen Elinor, and from the vantage point of story telling the film passes the Bechdel/Wallace test, which is no small feat for a Disney "Princess" film. It isn't the most comprehensive means for establishing great female portrayals (after all Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast also pass the test), but it is a start.

What is more to the point is that Merida and Elinor are the main characters, the plot hangs on them. Yes there is the secondary plot point of Fergus's obsession with hunting down Mor'du, but that exists primarily for creating tension in the second and and especially third acts. What's more, the men in the film are basically comic relief, and most of their time is split between yucking it up and pratfalls. There are two specifically telling scenes, one in the last part of the first act, the other just prior to the climax, where Elinor and Merida stop at first a sprawling, and later more serious, fight which is about to erupt between the clans. They speak in a commanding tone, extolling the much needed wisdom they have been groomed to be able to articulate. The function of the Queen/Princess is to act as the scabbard, to the men's sword (please keep your Freudian allusions to yourself, this is a kids film, pervert.) maintaining and directing the aggression to where it will do the most good, as opposed to the most harm.

Certainly, and perhaps specifically the case with Elinor, but the typical "Strong Mom" archetype is clearly visible. Perhaps the comedic "yes dear" routine (albeit it extends beyond Fergus, to the entirety of the clans) is tired and a bit too stereotypical, but considering the intended audience it makes the film, and characters more accessible, as they take on familiar tropes.

As to being a "strong female character", this is often held to be an indicator of empowering or feminist themes, but very often falls totally short. Take for example the only "princess with a body count", Fa Mulan. Mulan is represented as being strong willed, and "kick ass", as she does throughout her self titled film, single-handedly taking out the Huns, and defeating the villain. Even to the point of being offered a position serving the Emperor, basically everything she ever wanted. But does she take it? Nope, she has a man she needs to hook up with and so promptly forgets her hopes and dreams. Mulan also fails as a good example of a martial female character, because she becomes a man to do it. The best song in the entire film (and one of Disney's best of that decade) is "I'll make a man out of you", which is precisely what happens. Mulan learns proves she can hack it with the men, by out manning them. She abandons her femininity to succeed in a patriarchical world, and is even accepted when it is revelaed she is infact a woman. It goes too far though, and when she finally chooses to accept her female side, she abandons what she worked for so she can marry the cute boy. Yes, there is deffinetly agency, but there just seems to be this imbalance with what a female character can do, still be feminine, and yet still be kick ass.

Merida, on the other hand, never really gives up her feminity to succeed, well not really. She does tear her constricting dress so she can more accurately fire her bow, but she never "takes off her dress" either. She bends her conventional roles, but never breaks them; relying on loopholes so to speak. She is martial, without being manly, and so in my view exemplifies a balanced "strong female character".

"Gaelic" Values: This is probably one of the areas that those with younger kids may be more interested, because outside of the film being entertaining, being heavily American, some of the values which could be considered "Gaelic" manage to come through. The most obvious, is the stress which is placed on the idea of duty and personal responsibility. The conclusion of the film, its central theme, is not that someone should be free to marry who they want to. While the promotional material surrounding the film focuses on this theme more than anything else, it is in actuality a Macguffin. The real lesson the film instills that you are responsible for your actions and you have to be prepared to accept and deal with the repercussions.

In the extant tomes and tales the power of words, and the deeds those words reflect is represented over and over again. How often did strife arise, simply because someone was careless with their speech? Take for example, the Tain Bo Culaigne: the cause of the entire war was that one of Medb's messengers made a boast into his cups, insulting the honour of his host and forcing him to reject the offer already made. Words have power, speech leads to action; so be thoughtful of the words you choose, or the actions they engender, because sometimes you can not take them back.

On top of this is the fact that the film refuses to make Elinor a one dimensional antagonist; nor does it reject her opinions and hold them out to be wrong, for all to see. There is nuance in the development of the characters and the perspectives they are arguing for and against. Tradition is so often simply brushed off in modern fiction (and lets be honest, culture in general) as what is done is done because it was done. Shallow, superficial, empty; tradition in these kinds of films remains little more than mimicry for the sake of it. Where Brave differs from this generally modernistic view, is that it shows what the point of the tradition is, why it is done, and how lost the world the characters inhabit is without it. Having said that, there is a challenge, presented by the modern, which confronts tradition and forces it to adapt to a new context. Merida, by the films end, still rejects the idea of being married off like chattel, but she also understands that the marriage itself was ancillary to the reason behind the marriage: duty.

I would have to say that the emphasis of personal responsibility is mirrored by the underlying theme of the film, which is duty. This is a concept which is definitely at odds with the dominant conception of individual freedom, but again the film shines by bridging the two ideals. Elinor being the representative of tradition, is also aware of the responsibility she bears; she has to do what is best, and what is right. What is best may not be what her daughter wants, but what remains at stake is more important than that. Elinor has lived it, understands it, and so becomes the embodiment of duty. Merida, head strong and free willed, begins the film blind to the needs of others and is concerned only with her own desires. With just about every other "Princess" film, the character development basically stops here. Merida, just like her more recent Disney fore bearers, seeks out some means necessary to get what she wants and only afterwards does she realize what her selfishness has cost. She does, however, proceed to do all in her power to make right her mistake and through this experience comes to understand why her mother has spent so much time trying to make her "get it". Elinor too, undergoes her own transformative (no pun intended) experience, and comes to understand her daughter as well. She accepts that what is archaic can be dispensed with, because the reason behind it, duty, is more important than the form it takes.

Spiritual/Religious Bits

This will be short, because there are really only three things which fall under this category, two of which are blatant and at odds with traditional views, and the third is so bang on, but so subtle, that it is invisible unless you are already aware of it.

The Wisps
Will-o'-the wisp, in traditional folklore are generally of a more sinister nature than presented in the film. They're a lot more common in Welsh folklore than strictly speaking, Scottish, and fore the most part are held to be fairy fire, often carried by puca, to lead travelers to misfortune and death (often by drowning). There are however, some tales in which they aid travellers who become lost, so their nature is not strictly speaking all malefic. In the narrative of the film they are said to lead people to their destiny, and in actuality are something a bit more, which I can not really get into without revealing important plot points. They serve a purpose, other than being pretty blue lights though, and so all in all not a bad representation.

The Witch
I mentioned her briefly earlier, but again the term witch, or its associated terms, in Gaelic tradition is all but malefic. Cunning-woman may have been a better term (again not one originating in Scottish lore) but then again the term "witch" has in the popular imagination moved from he sense of dread to female magical worker. She is presented as averse to using magic, and only after being persuaded my Merida, does she create a spell for her. Being the locus of magic in the film, however, she exemplifies the third and final element very well, even using it to comedic effect.

I have spoken about this subject several times, and this is because of its significance in ritual and worldview, but the film really utilizes the idea well. There are basically two liminal areas which are the focus of two central plots, the "Pictish Stones" and the "Witches hut". The Pictish Stones, encompass the broader "standing stone" motifs which liter the Scottish, Welsh, English and Irish countryside (or did before some were relocated), of course those depicted in the film would only date back to the 6th century CE or later, so while they may elicit notions of pre-Christian times, they are in fact post. It does not, however, detract from their function in the film, and are clearly represented as having otherworldly properties (i.e. why Angus hesitates to cross into the circle), and once Merida passes through the stones, she begins to see the Wisps, which in turn lead her to the witches hut. The circle acts as the first of two centres of magic, throughout the film.

The second location is the Witches hut, and plays especially on the symbolism of doorways and thresholds. Merida, as a border crosser, is continually finding herself passing through the same door, only to arrive at unexpected locations. Without giving too much away, the scenes with the Witch are some of my favourite for the banter alone, and to have actually hit upon a concept as central as liminality, given that all but a few would understand the symbolism and how it reflects on something deeper than a sight gag, is certainly appreciated.

I haven't got a copy of the soundtrack, and only having seen the film once can only comment briefly on the music in the film. For the most part it works; the background music is that sort of generic "Celtic" music, coupled with a few pop-ish songs which admirably capture the "Celtic" sound. If there was a single, it would have to be "Touch the Sky", written by Alex Mande and performed by Julie Fowlis. The other would be "Into the open air", both of which are played during the film. The film is not an animated musical, and so the majority of the music is score/overlain; there are two exceptions a song Fergus sings and a flashback of Elinor singing in  Gàidhlig to a young Merida, the song is called "a mhaighdean bhan uasal"(noble fair maiden). There is another song, which was actually featured in one of the trailers and also sung by Julie Fowlis, "tha mo ghaol air aird a'chuain" (my love is on the high seas). It doesn't make it into the film itself, and sadly does not appear on the soundtrack, but is lovely none the less and probably got many folks hopes up that there would be at least some Gàidhlig in the film (well there was, albeit very little), so I suppose a case of take what you can get sort of deal. Overall the music is suitable for the film, is appropriate and adds rather than detracts from the experience.

The animation featured in the film is gorgeous, and very well rendered. The backgrounds are detailed and lush, dripping with atmosphere and crawling with character. they even manage to do a decent job of animating water, which is no small feat. The action sequences and fast paced, but slow enough that it isn't just a mind numbing blur of colour and motion. The modeling of the characters is Pixar's best yet of humans, with the caveat that they are stylized and purposefully cartoony (again, mostly the men). It isn't as evocative as say, "The Secret of Kells", but still does a very good job of incorporating medieval elements into the stylization present throughout the film.

I actually do not have as many criticisms as I thought I would, though I've only watched it once through, if this changes after the DVD release, well I'll mention it somewhere. Again, my major criticism is the use of the majority of the men as clowns. Fergus is a lummox, even though he has a few good lines, he like all the other men basically spend the film running about and making asses of themselves. There are two exceptions, the opening sequence and the climax, which are fantastic, (and the later bordering on actually being "frightening" for children), where we observe Fergus is full out warrior mode, and all slapstick is washed away by the gravity of the situation. I suppose that it could be argued that the capable chieftain/king who plays at being a buffoon to throughoff his enemies is evident in some of the lore, An Dagda being the best example. I'm just not sure that the intent was there, and it was more a case of having these popinjay, muscle flexing men strut about with their "Ayes" and "Grrr's" and "Thems fightin' werds!", and making light of a warrior culture in general: "Scottish people are a contentious lot". I can appreciate a character like Groundskeeper Willie on "The Simpsons", because he is a single parody in a world of parody, but watching dozens of them all at once is a bit off putting.

I would have liked to have had more use of Scottish folklore, and not just some general folktale/legend (which again works int he film) being the crux of the sort of mythic elements present in the movie. Gaelic folklore and myth is so robust and full that there were literally hundreds of different tales or stories which could have been used, and instead we get something that is so generic it could find itself having taken place in any given culture around the world. For a story which takes place in a specific geograhpy, period and culture, it can come across as generically medieval. Drop the accents and kilts and it could as well have been England, Wales, France or Germany. I suppose the film makers wanted to broaden the target audience and so made it more generic, but I honestly think it could have been more Scottish without losing audience members.

The film is a quality film, and one I am sure to watch over and over (and maybe this will change my feelings towards it) when it comes out in November. The plot is simple with some interesting (if predictable) twists. The chacarters for the most part are real enough that you get caught up in their plights and want them to come out okay in the end. They grow and develop, taking on a number of issues like parenting, tradition v. modernity, duty v. freedom. The relationship between Elinor and Merida is one of the best mother-daugther relationships put on screen in a long, long time, and this alone is worth the price of admission. The film has a lot of heart and for a Disney-Pixar film, a lot of depth. Sure it isn't as cinematic as Wall-E (but really what is?), or as emotional as Up (which is itself borderline manic-depressive), but it presents an excellent balance, two amazing female leads, good animation and a lot of heart. If you like animation or things Gaelic ("Celtic even"), this film comes highly recommended.


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