Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi, Michael Arndt, Steve Purcell, and Mark Andrews, 2012
#53, 2012 Skandies
First of all: Merida's hair is amazing. I'd seen it on posters and whatnot, but the posters don't convey how the four thousand individually animated corkscrewing curls bounce as the character moves, or the way the light percolates through them to make different strands shine from frame to frame. I didn't think this movie was particularly great, but dang, I could look at that hair all day. Good job, hair crew. Here's a little clip about the hair:
Apparently Brave was Pixar's first movie with a female protagonist (on their 13th go-round? criminy). More radically, it's a movie in which that protagonist has no love interest: Merida's three suitors are all dweebs, and when Merida says that she doesn't want to marry any of them, it's not because she has her eye on a handsome stableboy, but just because she, y'know, doesn't want to marry any of them. In lieu of a romance plot, we get a story about the relationship between Merida and her mother, which falls along the lines you might expect: I know what's best for you! vs. You don't know the real me at all! Magical spells are employed. Danger is faced. Merida's mother has a change of heart about forcing Merida to marry, for no particular reason. Merida learns that in fact she does not wish her mother were dead, which is not really conceding a huge amount of ground. Midway through the movie there is an amusing talking crow, but the crow only appears in the one scene. It was the sort of thing that made me see where crazy studio notes come from, because if I had been a Disney exec looking over this script, I would totally have asked to have it retooled into a buddy picture about Merida and the crow.
It will not shock you to learn that when I went looking to see what had been written about this movie, I found people on Tumblr complaining that everyone in the movie is white. The fact that it's set in medieval Scotland was no excuse, they contended; Disney's previous "princess" movie, Tangled, had had a chameleon in it, and if you can put an African lizard in Olde Tyme northern Europe, then surely you can put an African person up there too. There is something to be said for the argument that historical accuracy is not a paramount concern in these sorts of movies. Look at Merida: she's rebellious, but her rebellion takes the form of wanting her society to adopt the mores of modern Western culture. Not only is this pretty much the least threatening form of rebellion ever, it's anachronistic. As I mentioned in my article about The Borgias and Borgia, I read an article about the two series by an actual Renaissance history professor, and one of the differences she cited was that, in The Borgias, when Lucrezia is about to be married off to some random prince or another, she is horrified and complains that she wants to marry for love, not to cement some political alliance for her father. In Borgia, by contrast, Lucrezia is constantly pestering her father to arrange a marriage for her, reminding him that she is past puberty now and that finding her a husband is his duty as a parent. As Prof. Palmer points out, this doesn't mean that Lucrezia is any more mature than today's adolescents; on the contrary, her urgency is driven primarily by the fact that she's thirteen and horny, plus some idealism about wedded bliss — plus the fact that she's been told her entire life that this is what is in store for her as soon as she is of childbearing age, and ideas so heavily reinforced are not discarded lightly. The Lucrezia of the European series is "obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her," Prof. Palmer writes, so the show "communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn't have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us." To those of us who love history, the fact that the past is so alien is one of the things that's so fascinating about it. But we can't really expect Disney to put forward a story in which arranged marriage goes unquestioned, putting the burden on parents to explain to their confused little girls that, hey, it was a different culture back then.
This being the case, it raises an obvious question: if it doesn't make sense for evil, archaic institutions to go unquestioned in Disney movies, why do so many of them unquestioningly support monarchy? People complain, justifiably, that Tangled and Brave don't reflect the demographics of their audience, and it seems to me that the most egregious example of this is that we're reaching the point that the number of Disney princesses is threatening to surpass the number of actual princesses. "You are a princess! I expect you to act like one!" fumes the queen in Brave — how many people in the audience know the oh so crushing burden of being born to royalty? Only eight percent of the world's population even lives in a monarchy; in the U.S., where Disney and Pixar are based, we actually fought a pretty famous war over the notion that no one should have the right to rule over others on the basis of an accident of birth. And yet Disney is now holding fuckin' coronation ceremonies on American soil. So if we want these movies to reflect their audience, as well we should, we can start by demanding that Disney make its next several million movies about commoners to get its ratio back into line. Commoners can have some pretty amazing hair too.