Friday, June 29, 2012

You Gotta Be Great

As the final credits rolled on Brave, I was reminded of a line from The Kid, where the Emily Mortimer character practically shouts (if elegant Emily can be imagined shouting) at the despicable Bruce Willis character, "The worst of it is, you could have been GREAT!"

The previews should have warned me, but I wanted to be optimistic.  I went by Steven Greydanus' mildly favorable review.  "This is one tale of parent-child conflict that doesn’t end with the chastened parent admitting that Junior was right all along … far from it."

Brave falls short of the greatness of Pixar’s best achievements. The mother-daughter relationship in the first act is too one-sided ... Merida’s contrition in a key scene is somewhat undercut by the sweeping social experiment that follows, and her efforts to unravel the magical bind she has created aren’t as intuitive as they should be. And darn it, The Bear and the Bow was a better title.
On the other hand, for once the heroine of a Hollywood animated film has both her parents, and both matter and are ultimately entirely sympathetic. Brave places welcome emphasis both on the harmony of the family and also responsibilities toward and harmony with the larger community. Among Hollywood animated films, it may be the most positive affirmation of family since The Incredibles and the best fairy tale since Beauty and the Beast.

Well?  Well???  The best fairy tale since Beauty and the Beast?

Nope.  I nominate Tangled for that honor.  Because, with all its faults, and with all Brave's virtues, Tangled actually manages to straddle the gap between its slapstick, comic-book moments and its tragical, serious moments fairly well.  Tangled feels like it all came out of the same universe.  Brave does not.  You'll laugh yourself silly at one scene, and then be pressed back in your seat in terror at the next; but when the pathos should come rising up—it just doesn't.

Maybe that's because Merida is so ... I have to say it ... unlikable.  Her hair is gorgeous and her spunk is admirable, but her teeny-bopper I-gotta-be-meism is repulsive.

Mr. Davis himself could barely pull it off.

It's not that Merida wants to keep shooting her bow and riding her outsized Shetland Pony while her Very Proper Mother (voiced by—huzzah!—Emma Thompson) wants her to Follow Tradition and marry one of the bumbling sons of the Lords Macguffin, Macintosh, and Dingwall.  It's that Merida wants her freedom so, so wrongly.  When the barely adolescent Juliet is betrothed to Tybalt, she doesn't huff around her parents' house like your typical Disney teenager with a complex prejudiced in the direction of disrespect.  Say what you will about the relative morality of sneaking off and marrying someone else (Juliet's choice) versus sneaking off and [spoiler redacted] (Merida's choice), the fact remains that the ATTITUDE the viewer sees from Juliet (madly in love with cute if reprehensible young man) is more appealing than the ATTITUDE the viewer sees in Merida (mad at her mum).

If I cared more about Merida, then the moments of humor, even the moments of slapstick, would be tinged with the same brush of reality that colors the other moments of the film, the moments of drama and pathos.  The film as a whole would hang together much better than it does.  It would be not just good, but great.

Still, it is good.  It's as well worth seeing as anything this summer is likely to be.  The concern that some critics expressed, that Merida would become a feminist heroine, was misplaced.  She is not a romantic, and the movie is not about romance; and the male characters are by and large comic bumblers and bunglers; but neither is this movie is about women beating men, or men losing, or either sex rejecting its natural instincts.  The battle of the sexes does not appear to be a story that interests Pixar, thank heaven.

The battle between children and parents is another matter.  As several reviewers have noted, this is what Brave is really about.  In this movie, as in every other, the parent in question—here, the mother—has to be at least half wrong.  It is hard to see the concluding montage of the movie, in which Merida retains her characteristics and habits and her mother conforms to them (check out the hair, folks), as anything but an admission on the writers' part that Merida, for all her sauciness, was right all along.  (Here I disagree with Mr. Greydanus.)  The means Merida took to get her way may have been ill-advised; she may have been a wee bit ungrateful initially; but in the end, she was right and mum was wrong.

And, in terms of the plot, mum really was wrong.  Merida is too young to be married, and she's certainly out of the league of the Princes Macguffin, Macintosh, and Dingwall.  Queen Elinor is wrong to be pressuring Merida into marrying any of them, now or at any future date.  The writers know this, and so do we.  Merida will have to win in the end.  But the writers don't want to make it a simple tale of Parents-Wrong-and-Children-Right, so they try to balance Merida's correct-on-substance position by giving her illogical arguments and making her a bit of a twerp.  The only result of this is (as I noted above), the viewer has a harder time sympathizing with Merida.

No matter how awesome her hair.

The whole film would have been much better, in fact, if there had been a Prince Macdonald as well: someone whom Queen Elinor could reasonably have expected Merida to marry; someone with whom an arranged marriage would have been a possibility instead of an utter travesty.  Then, while the viewers might not have agreed with Elinor's choice or with the concept of arranged marriage, at least we would understand the her point of view.  There would be no need to balance Elinor's unreasonableness with Merida's unreasonableness; so Merida could be made more rational and sympathetic as well.  Both characters, by being more likeable, would also become more sympathetic and hence more real to the viewers, and the film might have acquired that greater evenness—and, I might add, that heightened dramatic tension—which it misses so narrowly.

The moral of this critical story—hear ye, hear ye writers!—: One does not strengthen a conflict by weakening one's characters.  One strengthens a conflict by making them stronger.  If one would write a story that lacks the conflict arising from the presence of complete villains, one does not simply inject a conflict by injecting pettiness into one's good heroes and heroinesthey will then cease to be heroic.  But one can inject a conflict by placing their virtues in opposition to each other; and the more heightened those virtues are, the more perilous and dramatic and energetic the conflict will be, and the greater our interest in the story.

One does not simply ... ignore the best internet meme ever.

Put it another way.  If you would write a story with villains, good people are sufficient to combat them.  But if you would write a story that's just about good people—well, you can't.  They must be better than good: They must be great.

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