(I can’t believe I didn’t review this movie back when I first saw it in theaters but some people* have been interested in my thoughts on the movie so here they are)
I was prepared to like this movie. Cars 2 had certainly been mediocre. My father’s line is from Scotland so I always have a fondness for stories taking place there and the star is a redhead, my favorite flavor. Yes the trailers made me a little concerned that the movie would be rife with clichés, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with those. Besides, Pixar is pretty good at taking the same ‘ole same ‘ole and turning it on its head.
To really explain how/why this movie bugged me, I”ll have to compare it to one of my favorite movies – How to Train Your Dragon. (and probably a first that Dreamworks outdid Pixar)
The start of each movie could not be more different. Now Brave’s opening is beautiful and awesome and sweet. I do like it but it is quite idyllic, opening on a family picnic outing. Meanwhile, H2TYD has a harsh opening in the midst of a pitched battle. Already we can see that Brave will have a more lighthearted, relaxed tone while H2TYD is more oriented towards conflict with the main character nearly dying a couple of times. Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with either set up. However it does show how one could wonder how “Brave” got its title. (unless “brave” is meant as a term for “warrior” as it was once used for native american fighters)
This is probably the biggest difference. Quite frankly, Merida is a spoiled brat. (I found it especially funny that Confused Matthew found her likable when a majority of his complaints about Simba in part 1 apply equally to her.) What does she complain about? Going to school! (fundamentally, that’s what it is) Don’t get me wrong, I hated school as much as anyone, but nobody is making a movie about my childhood (and nobody should). Contrariwise, what does Hiccup complain about? Nearly getting killed. Nearly DYING.
With this in mind, compare the actions of the two. Merida whines about not being able to do anything and everything she wants while ignoring the wants and needs of others around her. On her “weekend” we see Merida run out of the castle without so much as a polite “excuse me” to the servants and ordinary workers she disturbs on her mad dash. Heck, with the crash of the candelabra, we know she’s actually making more work for those helping out her household, but not a care in her head about it. She does get some pastries for her brothers… about a minute after complaining about how spoiled they are (way to contribute to the problem). Meanwhile, Hiccup is actually putting in effort to help his people. We see that he feels guilt and shame at the extra messes he causes, not by heedless dashes but by the awkwardness inherent to his being. He wants to help out his people and improve their lives. Yes, it does have a bit of that selfish/selflessness motive that teenagers struggle with at that age, but it’s at least a step beyond being entirely wrapped up in self.
This… certainly did not help my acceptance of Brave. The movie uses “fate/destiny” throughout but what are they in this movie, really? Cultural. Expectations. It’s not entirely unfair to call culture forces “fate/destiny” but the terms have been used so much in our collective consciousness as mystical, magical parts of our lives. They are the edicts of the gods. Not just peer pressure. The repeated use of “fate” in this movie instead of “expectations” feels like a sleight of hand effort to make the movie seem deeper than it is. (seriously, watch it again replacing those two terms with just ‘expectations’ or similar and see if it plays as well)
Still, both movies do revolve around this cultural expectation. H2TYD? Hiccup must become a warrior that can defend his village and kill lots of dragons. Brave? Merida has to… get married and lead the people (you know: rule as royalty). One is an actual plot for a movie. The other is an after-school special. Really, what are the consequences for either of them to follow their cultural mandates? Merida: can’t do whatever she wants whenever she wants. Hiccup: dead. That’s what is so disappointing. Usually with Pixar, the stakes are grand and important – or at least, they are relative to the protagonists. Exception? The Cars movies (oh right, their WORST ones).
The Conflict & Solutions
Hiccup is in a bind. His culture is asking something of him which he cannot be, yet this is a culture which failing to fit in, will result in death (because it’s in a constant, total war state). His efforts to fit in are actually a source of the constant disasters that could easily lead to an actual disaster in the conflict that gets several of all of them killed. So really, Hiccup has no choice: he must fit into his society or die. Thus he applies his mind to figuring out solutions to his lack of strength and later applies that same mind to actually learning and revolutionizing his society.
Merida’s marriage… Ok, let’s back up. As Stuart Schneiderman pointed out in a recent blog post, arranged marriages were not quite the boogeyman they have been portrayed for so long in media. Now it can work somewhat if there are outside forces affecting the situation (like Jafar’s evilness and hypnotizing of the king in Aladdin) but that isn’t here. The conflict, doesn’t work within the movie’s own internal logic. No, I’m dead serious. First, because it is made very clear that both parents were in an arranged marriage as well, yet we see throughout the movie a demonstration that they have a fairly happy and decent relationship. Oh yeah, and if they hadn’t married, Merida wouldn’t have been born! (seems to me that if you want to tear down a social institution, you might consider it just a bit more if it was responsible for your existence) Second, it’s not even that arranged! The three prospective suitors are shown and demonstrate a quick skill. Merida gets to pick the contest for the three. Easy enough to see that if she did like one of them (as she seems to at first with the 3rd prospect before the fake-out is revealed), she could choose the contest that he would most likely win. Oh wait, that’s what she DID do (only for herself). Which means that the whole “conflict” of this movie is just a red herring. Of course Merida’s political faux pas in the archery contest could have been excused as youthful exuberance and foolishness if she hadn’t already made herself an unlikable selfish brat in the first place. Then when things go worse she… just goes running off into the woods. She has to have some wisps show her where to go so she can bully a little old lady who’s just minding her own business (literally) into doing something the lady doesn’t want to. Oh, and that nearly gets her mother killed or worse. Even when her mother is acting sick, Merida has to make it all about “me me me”. What’s worse? There was an easy solution to this. To Tom Woods quotes in an article:
As Anna Krueger writes, “The issue of child labor is vexing: there are legitimate issues of intolerable working conditions, but employment of children may provide food that prevents a family from starving. In some instances, also, it may provide girls with an alternative to forced early marriages.”
Yes, the movie might have been more interesting and bearable had Merida actually run out and got a job. Wait, I think that’s what Jasmine was trying to do (another reason why she rocked). The climax and ultimate solution to Brave, however, was Merida becoming humbled and learning to think about someone else for a change.
This is what broke me. I was pretty forgiving of the film until this point.
See, what has made humanity the “top” of planet Earth** is our ability to gather and share information. I spend several hours/years figuring something out or creating a new device, I can pass that on to other people so they can spend less time learning/creating the same thing.
Now H2TYD does this BEAUTIFULLY. There is knowledge among the vikings. They pass it on. Hiccup’s journey is brought on by him realizing he is treading territory nobody else has. Nobody knows anything about the Nightfury, he’s the first to even look at it. Other bits about dragon lore are things that people in a total war situation would not be able to learn, especially as a spy network is impossible to install among that enemy. Even still, Hiccup learns everything he can (he actually seeks it out) and then builds upon it. In the end, it is a combination of the new and old information combined that allow the vikings to triumph at last.
Brave… apparently in that universe you are born with all the knowledge in the world, then lose it as you get older. Merida has to tell her mother that the berries she picks as a bear are poisonous. Even though we saw said mother out on a picnic with her daughter at the beginning of the movie. Let that sink in minute. How did Merida know the berries were bad? Only 2 ways: she tried one once and got sick (at which point she would have been cared for by… her mother! who probably would have found out why her daughter was ill) or she learned it from somebody else. Now who did we see at the beginning of the movie that was responsible for all of Merida’s teaching? Her. Mother. (actually I was going to laugh if it turned out that as a bear, the berries wouldn’t bother her like they would if she was still human) Then you have the chase through the castle which I will give 2 props: 1) it was a bit funny and 2) some things would probably be overlooked in a stressful moment. Still, we never once see the adult males apply a modicum of tactics or coordination that you would expect of the same group of warriors at the end of the movie who do use coordinated attacks. They never try splitting up to corner the “bear” or realize that if it’s trapped on the roof, some should go corner it while the others remain behind in case it runs again. The whole “adults are clueless” trope doesn’t innately bother me, but I do request that some effort is put in explaining why.
The village blacksmith in H2TYD actually seems to like Hiccup and even makes a case for the boy to the kid’s father. The 3 brothers in Brave, had to be bribed to help their sister save their mother’s life.
While Cars 1 & 2 might be objectively worse movies, I would rather sit through any of them any day than sit through this again. Cars(s) were just dumb. Brave was offensive. I’m hoping this is only a one off for Pixar and not a herald of a slump to come.
*2 of them I mean
**Yes it is debatable