It may at first seem strange to say that Brave is a movie with a lot to prove. After all, Pixar remains one of the few Hollywood studios whose name is a hallmark of quality, and it closed out the last decade with the one-two-three punch of Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, a trio of films so sublime and so perfectly formed that in their wake an aura of infallibility seemed to attach itself to the studio. Even if that aura was tarnished by the misstep that was last year's Cars 2--the first Pixar film to be critically ignored and shut out of the Best Animated Film Oscar category since its creation--there's no denying that, going by the numbers, Pixar is the most consistently excellent studio in Hollywood. Of course, another way of putting it is that after Toy Story 3, there was nowhere for Pixar to go but downhill, and there are signs of trouble besides Cars 2's tepid reception--the fact that a studio that once prided itself on the originality of its stories will, by next year, have produced two sequels (Toy Story 3, Cars 2) and one prequel (Monsters University, which depicts the college years of the protagonists of Monsters Inc.) in the space of four years is deeply worrying, suggesting that Pixar is falling in line with Hollywood's other juggernaut animation studio, Dreamworks, and with the general Hollywood tendency to eschew originality in favor of multiple sequels, prequels, and reboots, of which the recent The Amazing Spider-Man, a pleasant but entirely unnecessary effort that mostly recapitulates the beats of a movie that came out only ten years ago, is but the latest example. So Brave, as Pixar's first original story in three years, had a lot riding on it. And when you add to that the fact that the film comes as a reply to the voices--raised most loudly in the wake of Up, which opened with the introduction of a magnetic, adventurous female character only to kill her off after ten minutes, but by no means silent before it--pointing out that for all Pixar's originality and flair, the stories it created were predominantly stories about men, the burden of expectations is more than doubled.
Brave opened in the US a few weeks ago, so by now you will have heard that it has not proven equal to this burden. Though by no means a bad film, it lacks the narrative and thematic complexity that have characterized previous Pixar films. It's a simple story--much simpler and more shopworn than "a robot whose job it is to clean up the polluted Earth falls in love with a more advanced robot and follows her into space" or "a grieving, elderly widower decides to honor his wife by flying their house on the adventure they never got to share"--and very simply, and obviously, told--this is the first Pixar film I can remember, for example, that opens with a voiceover in which the main character explains (unnecessarily, for the most part) her world and her situation to the audience. The worldbuilding in most Pixar films is characterized, and elevated, by its attention to idiosyncratic details--Wall-E doesn't just love Earth culture, he loves Hello, Dolly!; Carl wasn't simply inspired by film serials about adventures and derring-do, he was inspired by a particular explorer who, among other things, likes to fit his dogs with collars that allow them to talk. Brave, on the other hand, seems to run more on clichés. You've got your medieval Scottish castle, with a king, a queen, princes and princesses, visiting nobles, servants, warriors--all very well done, but in a very familiar way that the film never bothers to shade in or make its own. The wacky, imaginative detail we've grown accustomed to seems here to have been replaced by funny accents and ethnic stereotypes. (I'm quite curious to see what the reaction to Brave in the UK will be, since for all that it is a very funny film, most of the humor boils down to "look how Scottish these people are!") The result is a world that, for all the obvious effort put into bringing it into vivid, gorgeous life, feels thin, and that thinness extends to the film's plot, which proceeds in rather obvious, clomping beats that seem to squander its running time. There just isn't that much that happens here (especially in comparison with the nimble, fast-moving plots of previous Pixar films), and what happens is, again, obvious and familiar.
The real problem with this sense of familiarity, however, isn't the way it seems to indict Pixar's ability to craft original stories, but in the way it seems to indict Pixar's ability to write stories about women. Far more than its thin world or plot, or its reliance on clichés, what troubles me about Brave is that when, after fifteen years of being synonymous with originality and unbridled imagination, the folks at Pixar finally set out to write a story about a girl, what they came up with is essentially a Disney Princess Movie. Quite literally, at the most basic level--our heroine, Merida, is the first-born daughter of the high king--but also in terms of the story it chooses to tell. Like Belle and Jasmine, Merida's story kicks off because she is being pressured into marriage, but actually craves a life of adventure. And like Mulan, she rejects the feminine pursuits she's been encouraged to master in favor of martial ones--archery, horseback riding, mountain climbing, and the general joy in her physical accomplishments. The film seems to owe a particular debt to Beauty and the Beast, and its climax, in which a transformed character is restored to humanity by Merida's declaration of love, feels almost like a direct quote.
On one level, this is very disappointing. Boys, it seems, can in Pixar's conception lead any sort of story. They can be the caretakers of a small child's imagination, or the architect of a plan to protect their home from invasion, or a doting, over-protective father. They can learn how to be a chef, or go into space, or travel to South America in a flying house. But when asked to tell a story about a girl, the first thing Pixar plumped for is a princess who is told she can't do things because she's a girl. That this turns out not to be true is a heartening message, but it was already a heartening message in 1991, and the fact that we're still concentrating on climbing that hurdle more than twenty years later is dispiriting. Because the fact is that by going back to this well, by bringing up terms like princess, marriage, and the conflict between "masculine" and "feminine" pursuits, what Pixar is saying is that a boy's story can be about anything--adventure, grief, parenthood, longing for companionship, learning to be the best at what you love--but a girl's story is always and forever about being a girl. How much more encouraging would it have been, how much more positive a message would it have sent, if Pixar's first story about a girl were no different from their stories about boys except for the gender of its protagonist?
All that said, there is another way of looking at Brave, and that is that it is trying to examine, and in many ways dismantle, the conventions of the princess movie. For one thing, there's no love interest. One of the main points to be laid against Disney Princesses is that for all that their stories may revolve around self-actualization, they invariably end with romance and marriage. Belle sings about wanting more than a provincial life, but what this ends up meaning is marriage to a rich man. Jasmine isn't even the heroine of her story, and though she protests that she isn't "a prize to be won," narratively that is her role. Even Mulan ends her story not as a general but as a girl receiving a suitor. In Brave, Merida says that she doesn't want to get married, and the film takes her at her word. The three suitors who come to her father's castle to vie for her hand remain minor characters, played mostly for laughs. Instead, the central love story in Brave is between Merida and her mother, Elinor. It's Elinor who pressures Merida to be feminine and ladylike, and Elinor who arranges the contest for Merida's hand, which drives a wedge between mother and daughter. Merida's rebellion leads her to buy a potion that will change Elinor's mind about marrying her daughter off, but instead it transforms Elinor into a bear. In order to reverse the spell Merida must heal her relationship with her mother. Especially when one considers how little space mothers, and the relationship between mothers and daughters, take up in movies, and how particularly in movies about girls--be they Princess Movies, movies about Strong Female Characters, or some cross between the two--mothers are sidelined, either dead or just not very important, this emphasis is refreshing and laudable.
Even more intriguing, however, is the ambivalence with which Brave treats both Elinor's insistence on ladylike decorum, and Merida's preference for martial pursuits. The film showcases the latter, and Merida's joy in them and in her physicality, in its early scenes, and after her transformation Elinor learns to appreciate her daughter's accomplishments in this realm, and even develop a few of her own. But Brave remains skeptical of the value of these accomplishments, especially when it contrasts them with the way Elinor uses her power. Elinor draws her power from femininity--she's the sort of woman who, by behaving like lady, gets to insist that the men around her behave like gentlemen, and as the film opens she's using that power to try to make peace between fractious clans, and needs Merida to follow her lead and use her femininity in order to accomplish this by marrying one of the clans' heirs, a plan to which Merida is resistant. Merida's first attempt to avoid marriage involves showcasing her martial abilities. She chooses archery as the field in which her three suitors will compete for her hand, then beats them all at it. It's a badass moment, but Merida's (and our) triumph are soon punctured by Elinor, who points out that by humiliating her father's guests, Merida is risking war. In one of the film's climactic scenes, we see that Merida has learned this lesson. With the lords she enraged on the brink of fighting, she steps in (in a direct echo of an earlier scene in which Elinor had calmed a rambunctious mob by walking into it while female) and talks them all down, echoing her mother's words about the importance of cooperation and peace.
Brave ends with a reversal of roles--Elinor the bear saves the day through force of arms, by fighting off the demon bear Mordu (another transformed human) who has been terrorizing the kingdom, while Merida saves it through feminine skills, by sewing together the tapestry depicting her family which she had previously slashed, a condition of lifting the spell. So on the surface it seems that we've reached a sort of equilibrium, with both martial and domestic pursuits treated as equally important and potentially life-saving. But this conclusion feels less important, and less central to the film's message, than Merida's choice to adopt her mother's point of view and her methods--to the extent that she very nearly agrees to marry one of her suitors before Elinor stops her--in the earlier scene. Ultimately, Brave comes down on Elinor's side. It may buck the tradition of Disney Princess Movies by not giving Merida a love interest and by ending with her still single, but this is quite obviously a temporary state. Merida and Elinor's compromise is that Merida can choose who she wants to marry and when. She doesn't get to choose not to marry, however, nor does she get to choose to run off and live a life of adventure, or to inherit her father's throne on her own. Merida's fate--which the film and the character are so concerned with--is to become Elinor. One day she will marry a prince or chieftain, become queen, and like her mother, use her influence on her husband and his lords to bring peace and cooperation to their land.
This isn't entirely a bad message, of course. In this era of Strong Female Characters, it's worth saying that being warlike isn't a good thing just because a woman does it, and that being a peacemaker might be better (though I can't help but wish that peacemaking and femininity were not so frequently linked, as they are in Brave). Being a wife, a mother, and a force for peace and civility are all things of value, and this is a point worth making. But one does wonder whether a medieval patriarchy is the best setting in which to show off that value. The fact is, the kind of feminine power that Elinor ascribes to--the angel in the house, the font of decorum and civility, the woman who, by behaving like a lady, forces the men around her to behave like gentlemen--is a pernicious lie, one that remained ubiquitous well into the last century and still has significant power today, and which feminism has worked hard to root out. Elinor may be a diplomat and a leader, but she is those things only because of who her husband is, and she maintains her power only on the sufferance of her husband and his vassals. All it takes is one sufficiently powerful man who won't play the game--or who won't play it with her, since her power derives not simply from being a lady but from being a lady attached to a particular man--to take all her power away. For all their tendency to fall into the valorization of strength of arms, stories about women warriors gained popularity because they offered a corrective to the complementarian fantasy of this sort of feminine power, this strength through weakness, reminding women that power that is your own is better than power that is contingent on the goodwill of men--goodwill that often doesn't exist.
Brave tries to reconcile these two ideas of female power, but the only way it can do this is to posit a fantasy world in which all men are rambunctious but harmless children, who would never lift a hand against a woman and can always be whipped into gentlemanly shape by a stern word and a disappointed expression. That's a dangerous message to send to young girls (and to young boys too), especially coupled as it is with the film's deprecation of martial strength. For all the interesting things Brave tries to do with the Princess Movie template--it is, for one thing, a movie that treats being a princess as a job and castigates its heroine for shirking it--it can't get away from the inherent patriarchal assumptions at that template's core. Or rather, it won't--a lot of the film's problems could have been avoided if its setting were not so famously associated with rampant misogyny, or if its conception of princessing as a job were extended to its obvious conclusion of making Merida the heir to her father's throne, combining his strength of arms with Elinor's desire for peace. The result is a movie that, for all its best efforts to complicate this story, still assumes that a story about a girl is a story about being a girl. What we need, however, are stories about girls and women who can do or be anything, not in spite or because of their gender but regardless of it. This, it seems, is too much even for Pixar's unbridled imagination.