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Hey there, you Brave Hair Bear! Thanks for coming

dir: Brenda Chapman

Redheads, gods love ‘em. They definitely make the world a better place.

Cinema doesn’t like them, though, and with good reason. For some people, nothing brings as much visual pleasure as watching redheads doing whatever it is they’re doing. For others, they provoke pitchforks, torches, fear and jerkiness.

You know what else Pixar and Hollywood in general doesn’t like? Women, apparently. The female of the species, which is hardly deadlier than the male. Of course they (or their characters) can appear in films, but they’re not wanted as the protagonist. No one wants to depict them as having agency or self-determination. They’re usually the love interest, the prize, the acted-upon rather than the actor, which means they’re usually plot devices or props. Pretty pretty props.

Years of criticism (I doubt that was the actual reason) apparently resulted in Pixar deciding “Whoa, we need to make the protagonist of our next flick a girl, or we’ll lose the support of the oestrogen brigade”. Since they were bought out by Disney, did anyone really care that much? Disney’s released dozens of animated movies with female protagonists, and none of that has really enhanced their image, since they’ve been the worst offenders when it comes to negative gender stereotyping for the last century. Pretty princesses roam the corridors of our minds and the bedrooms (and aspirations) of our daughters like pink saccharine zombies thanks to Disney’s monstrous efforts of many a year.

Were people going to stop buying tickets to Pixar movies because of this perceived lack of gender balance? Not bloody likely. No-one would have cared, because no-one should have. This empty kind of pandering doesn’t help anyone, least of all the sisters.

Whatever forced them to do it, I don’t really think it’s helped the sisterhood in any real way. I don’t think any little girl is going to watch Brave and come out of the film convinced that she is as worthy as any male child and should aspire to any job or activity she wants in this life, or convince adults of the merits of pay equality or breaking down gender stereotypes. I mean, Tangled didn’t exactly break down gender barriers, and The Little Mermaid III: Ariel’s Murderous Revenge didn’t convince a girl she could be President one day, so why should Brave be any more important?

To point out the further hypocrisy of this thinking, Pixar allocated a female director to Brave, being Brenda Chapman. Now, I’m not going to claim to have any backroom knowledge not already in the public domain, but this all reeks of pandering by marketing types hoping to tick all the socially conscious boxes.

"It's Pixar's FIRST movie with a girl as the lead! Also, it's the first time we've graciously allowed a WOMAN to DIRECT! We're so enlightened and in touch with everything that just thinking about how ace we are gets us WET!"

Yeah, but then they fired Brenda Chapman. Sister obviously wasn't getting the job done, so they had to replace her with guys, maybe two guys (Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell). They showed her the glass ceiling, and then threw her through it backwards. The statement of support for the sisterhood kinda falls apart right there, and I doubt she’s going to take comfort from the fact that it took two guys to replace one of her.

She had previously co-directed a feature (not with Pixar), and had come up through the ranks, but no more. She’ll never direct at Pixar again, that’s a given, and the fact that she hasn’t said a word about her firing a couple of years after it happened means the non-disclosure agreement tied to her compensation must be adhered to, and be watertight. I guess Disney’s lawyers know how to do them right, just like mamma used to make.

To my eyes, all this pseudo-feminist frontloading to do with Brave is worthless. Anyone claiming a Pixar film should aspire to magically create equality in the political, economic and cultural fields worldwide overestimates the power at Pixar’s disposal. They just make (usually very good) animated movies. That’s all. They have no more moral obligation to quota their movies based on gender, ethnicity or sexuality than anyone else does. Making great animated movies (with great merchandising opportunities) filled with robots, fish, rats, insects, monsters, superheroes and talking cars was their modus operandi until now, so why mess with that?

Because some idiot execs with plenty of ‘notes’ within Disney’s overall structure (Disney bought Pixar for 7 billion dollars several years ago) thought it would ‘help’. And if ever a flick was constructed by committee, it’s this one.

And so it happens to have a girl as the main character. And she’s a princess. And she’s got red hair!

That there is the other main reason why none of this marketing smokescreen really strikes me as credible. It’s not as if Pixar, until this point, deliberately set out to only make animated movies with male characters. It’s not as if that in itself was a comment on society and a woman’s place within it. They struck upon stories that they thought would work like gangbusters, and generally they were right.

Here, pretending that they’re really doing something that matters, they give the invisible masses what they never said they wanted: a female lead character in a folk tale fantasy film that people wouldn’t be overanalysing if it wasn’t for the fact that it was a Pixar film. As if Disney hasn’t been pumping similar stuff out with mechanical regularity since the 1930s onwards.

Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a redheaded princess, who has more hair than character. She prefers bows and arrows to bustles and doilies, and, to match her hair, has a fiery temperament, which is a stunning surprise. Essentially, she’s either a tomboy, or a virtual boy with long hair. Nothing really singles her out as a character beyond her hair, her love of the outdoors and shooting arrows at stuff, and her adversarial relationship with her mother. I wouldn’t title her a cliché or a stereotype, but there really isn’t much else going on. Maybe there doesn't need to be. She is who she is, and her central characteristic is that she doesn't accept the fate that is laid out before her.

Her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) is, naturally, a perpetual scold who disapproves of virtually every single goddamn thing her daughter does. As tiresome as Merida's reflexive opposition is, her mother's OCD-level micromanagement is even more tiresome. We're meant to relate, and we probably do, but that doesn't make it any less stultifying and over-familiar. It's a family sitcom level of relationship complexity in its depiction.

Merida, thankfully, stops complaining and starts taking matters into her own hands. It’s more interesting when she’s doing stuff than when she’s just lamenting her fate and her mother’s strangling grasp. Not only do her actions jeopardise the entire kingdom (naturally, since when women don't 'accept' the fate laid out for them the whole world falls apart), but they jeopardise her relationship with her mother, which is when the story becomes much more interesting. Far more Freudian-ly interesting, but not that interesting, really.

If the film has a point beyond redheads being fiery and having bouncy hair all over the place, it’s that mothers and daughters should listen to each other, and sometimes it takes a catastrophic and transformative event to force them to really listen. Yep, it’s complex stuff. And once that happens, then they can gain a new respect for each other, and see each other as people instead of obstacles. Or, they end up leaving the place strewn with bodies, whichever.
[img_assist|nid=1655|title=Nothing wrong with a little bit or a lot of ambition, girls.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=233]
The point of the shift in the story isn’t so much teaching Merida a valuable lesson that she can’t shoot arrows at all her problems to make them go away, or that she could patch up her relationship with her mum without poisoning her, but that her actions, no matter how well meant, can have devastating consequences, and that there aren’t shortcuts along the path of responsibility. Also, it’s mostly to have lots of sequences of slapstick comedy and action, lots of action, lest the children fall asleep, or their carers start snoring.

What stirring stuff. What’s most disappointing to people, I think, is that Pixar took a bunch of fantasy-fairy tale elements to construct a story, and didn’t really subvert them at all. Scratch that, what’s really happened is that people expect the world from Pixar, and when they don’t scrape the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with their vaunted ambition, people cry blue bloody murder.

It’s a conventional story conventionally told with conventional elements. It’s nice safe family entertainment, and people shouldn’t expect anything any more radical than that. This isn’t Pixar’s fault. They’ve delivered an entertaining enough film, using the latest advances in programming and hardware to deliver a smashing looking flick. And they’ve done it under the auspices of the most risk-averse behemoth on the planet, being the Disney Machine. The narrative that it was crap started out amongst some critics, and that shit takes hold like the ebola virus

Don’t be surprised, shocked or disappointed. Be delighted. It’s a gift, their every animated movie is a gift. Sure, it costs a fortune to see it at the cinema, in 3D no less, but you should be grateful. It’s entertaining stuff, and I found it fairly amusing all the way through. It didn’t make me cry the way most Pixar stuff does, but surely that’s not the sole determinant of quality.

I laughed a fair bit. The antics of the various clans, being the MacDuffs, the Macintoshes and the Dingwalls, made me laugh, as did the trials and tribulations Merida’s little silent brothers are responsible for, and the ultimate resolution to the story felt okay, and it felt earned, somehow. They’ve tried to please too many people all at the same time, and that can detract a bit when it comes to a medium that already has too many cooks sticking their sweaty digits into the broth, but it’s still nice and entertaining, sugar and spice and all things not too spicy.

I’ll tell you who didn’t like it, though, and this probably doesn’t do my review or my argument any favours: the lovely little fiery five-year-old I call my beloved daughter Dawn Matilda did not care for it at all. For months we’d been looking forward to it, were excited about it, and when we got to the cinema early on a frosty Saturday morning, we were both primed and stoked.

She didn’t like it, she got nothing out of it at all, and got more enjoyment, and has talked more about the short at the beginning of the film, called La Luna, which managed to tell a whole multi-generational story wordlessly within a few minutes with an elegance and wit mostly lacking from its cumbersome headliner.

So if Dawn didn’t like it at all, being alternately bored or horrified, why should you take my word for it still being a good film?

Maybe you shouldn’t, dear reader, maybe you shouldn’t

7 times parents shouldn’t really try to eat their kids no matter how tasty they might be out of 10

“I don't want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.” – that’s what we should all aspire to, surely? - Brave