Full disclosure: I am a big Pixar fan. They had me back in 1995 with the release of the first Toy Story, and their track record since is unparalleled. Pixar movies deliver everything I want in the big screen experience: drama and adventure, humor and whimsy, emotional resonance (plus the obligatory voice cameo by John Ratzenberger, for all you former Cheers fans).
Most of all, it’s about good storytelling. That’s why, for example, if I had to choose one and only one superhero movie to take to a desert island, it wouldn’t be The Avengers–it would be The Incredibles. The latter story has more substance, and bears watching again and again.
As pure entertainment, Pixar’s latest release, Brave, does not disappoint. (I’ve already seen it twice.) It’s rollicking good fun, emotionally compelling, and visually stunning–from the sumptuously rendered Scottish highlands right down to each flaming strand of hair on the heroine’s head.
As a story, though, Brave is neither as innovative nor high-concept as Wall-E or Up; the characters are far more conventional than in Ratatouille. True, inasmuch as the two main characters are powerful women (surrounded by mere parodies of men), this is new territory for Pixar. But the film overall is missing the offbeat but brilliant quirkiness that is so evident in their animated shorts. In that way, Kenneth Turan’s review in the Los Angeles Times may have it right: Brave is somewhat more Disney than Pixar.
The storyline is nearly archetypal. A young princess comes of age. She’s been raised in comparative privilege for just this day, when she is expected to be given in marriage to help reunite a divided kingdom. But Princess Merida is as headstrong as her hair is red. Will she submit to having her future decided for her in this way, as her mother Queen Elinor demands? Or will she insist on being free to make her own decisions?
You only get one guess.
In some ways, Brave skirts the issues by eliminating subtlety. (For contrast, try viewing it alongside 1953’s Roman Holiday, with Audrey Hepburn in an Oscar-winning performance as the young princess.) First, the proposed suitors are obviously, well, unsuitable: one is a bratty narcissist; one is literally incomprehensible; and one is just downright strange. Second, in the shrill conflict between mother and teenaged daughter, both are convinced they are absolutely and unequivocally right. And third, once sorcery enters the picture (I’m avoiding a spoiler here), Merida is at first selfishly and inhumanely insensitive to the physical suffering she has caused her mother.
But all of this, of course, is resolved by the time we reach the Happy Ending, which celebrates the power of a fierce mother love, and the healing magic of true contrition. (Warning: along the way, there are some scenes that may be a bit intense for younger children.)
One particular element of the story deserves mention. A turning point in the narrative comes when Merida realizes that the old legends her mother has told her about the kingdom are true; she begins to see her royal role in a new light. But submitting to an arranged marriage would scuttle the adventure plot, so the screenplay bails her out. Mom, it seems, has also had a change of heart, presumably being won over by her daughter’s resourcefulness. Through a halting speech directed offstage by Elinor, Merida unites the warring clans by improbably convincing everyone then and there to break with tradition and let the kids decide who marries whom. The way to honor the story of the kingdom is to be free to write your own stories, or so the logic seems to go.
For Christians, that idea should prompt further reflection. We live at the intersection of competing narratives. On the one hand, life (particularly in America) is about the independent right to choose our own happiness as individuals. Arranged marriage is a particularly distasteful symbol of an unconscionable imposition on our freedom, of Parents Telling Us What to Do.
On the other hand, we say we believe that we are citizens of God’s kingdom–indeed, his royal heirs. What freedom-limiting responsibility goes with that status? To what extent are we willing to submit our choices to the ongoing story of the kingdom?
What Brave does not seem to fully imagine is a different understanding of freedom–a biblical understanding–that embraces kingdom responsibility. As Christians, we must be able to imagine otherwise, even when enjoying our favorite movies.
(Update, 7/12/12: my daughter-in-law sent me a link to a much longer and more thoughtful essay review of the movie by Lili Loofbourow, who suggests that Pixar is intentionally subverting the typical princess story in numerous ways. What I’ve learned from reading Loofbourow’s review is how differently a film such as Brave may be seen by a woman who is more sensitive than I am to the gender issues the movie redefines.)