15 August 2012

Not So Brave: Why Pixar's Latest Falls Short

I have watched a lot of children's movies.  Even before Isaac was born (or old enough to watch movies), Matt and I would go see movies meant for children if we thought they would prove to be a good film overall, not just typical kid fare.  Pixar has always been a company whose movies we look forward to seeing.  Over the years Pixar movies have been strong not just technically, having amazing animation, but also in their storytelling, with well thought out plots and subplots and thoroughly developed major and minor characters.  They have had some misses lately (don't bother with Cars 2), but their reputation is enough to get us to the theater.  For the most part, Pixar gets that kids can handle sophisticated, complicated plots and characters.

Pixar's history of strong character development is one of the reasons we found their latest film, Brave, so disappointing.  Brave has been touted as breaking ground in children's movies because the main character is a princess who doesn't need a prince.  There is no romantic story line and the main plot centers around the princess's relationship with her mother.  It is supposed to provide girls with a new kind of fairytale female role model.  Merida, the princess is question, is physically strong and independent.  She takes care of herself and works through a difficult relationship with a very strong-willed mother.

What I have found so appealing about other Pixar films is that all the characters are fleshed out and you get a sense of their motivation and understand how they fit into the story.  In Brave, that level of character development is missing.  I understood Merida and her mother, the two principle characters, but all of the other characters (and note that they were all men) were relegated to the background or used as comic relief. As a modern, strong-willed woman I was glad to see Pixar breaking the mold of the damsel-in-distress-send-a-prince-to-save-her model.  As the mother of a young boy, I was distressed by the portrayal of men in the movie.

Even in their movies with male main characters, Pixar is not known for portraying women as weak.  In many of their movies the women have been equals of the men.  If the women are not equals, they are at least developed to the point that there is a purpose for them being in the movie.  Pixar has done an excellent job in the past of making their movies universally appealing.  A review that we listened to debated whether it was fair to hold Pixar to higher standards than other filmmakers -- if Brave had been a Disney movie it would be considered one of their better ones, but for Pixar it was sub-par.  And yes, I do think they should be judged based on their past work.  They have raised the bar in children's movies and we should continue to expect a high level of film-making from them, rather than accept lower standards because that is the kind of children's movie everyone else is making. We should also judge other children's films on the same standards and push for better movies with strong characters and sophisticated plot lines.

It was disheartening to watch Brave and get the feeling that the filmmakers had gotten lazy or just didn't put in the time or effort to make us understand the male characters in the movie.  It was is if they were so focused on getting the women right and making a different kind of princess movie that they forgot that good storytelling is about more than the title character.  It is important for girls to have strong role models, in art as in their everyday lives.  But isn't it also important for boys to see strong men and isn't it even as important for boys and girls to see strong male and female role models together?  I cannot think of one male character from Brave that I would want Isaac to emulate.  They were all buffoons (the Clan Chieftans, even the father) or thrown in for comic relief and no other purpose (the brothers).  What message is that sending to boys and girls?  That if a woman is strong she should surround herself with weak men?  That strong men will only be attracted to weak women?  In Brave, Pixar put all of their effort on the two women and the men ended up being nothing more than caricatures of every negative male stereotype.  That is lazy storytelling and Pixar can do, and has done, much better.  And children, boys and girls, deserve better from their movies.

Character development was not my only problem with the movie (the plot just didn't seem well planned and even the main relationship between the mother and daughter wasn't resolved effectively), but it was the main one.  There are many arguments for and against the film, but two good reviews/commentaries can be found on Slate's Spoiler Special podcast from June 21 and the Double X podcast from June 28.  The Slate podcast is just about everything I could say about the movie.  Many think that Brave will end up being a movie that is very popular with girls, with the focus being on the mother/daughter relationship.  And I am glad that maybe makers of children's films will begin to break away from the traditional princess roles.  But I hope that we can also find a model that portrays men and women/ boys and girls as equals rather than sacrificing the strength of one for the other.  Pixar has an established reputation, and is sure to continue to create good films.  But my expectations will be lower for the next one.