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Home of the Brave: Is Brave a Pixar Princess Movie?

I have to admit, I’m having a hard time getting too excited about Brave. To be honest, the notion of an original Pixar movie should be a breath of fresh air after the incredibly disappointing Cars 2. The studio is, after all, responsible for quite a few modern classics – those rare cinematic treats that the entire family can sit down and enjoy together. However, despite my deep-biding affection for classics like Wall-E, Up, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles or any of the Toy Story films, I can’t seem to be too concerned about the approaching release of the studio’s latest animated effort. I can’t help but feel that – despite the fact it’s their first film that isn’t a sequel in quite some time – we’ve seen this all before.

Is Brave just a Pixar “princess” movie, the spiritual successor to the long line of Disney “princess” movies?

Don’t get me wrong here. I love my classic Disney animated films. Indeed, I think that the studio’s Tangled was one of the best family films of the last year, and it was firmly entrenched within the classic “princess” mold. If you go even further back, I’d argue that Beauty & The Beast is a strong contender for the title of “best Disney animated film” (with The Lion King perhaps the only other real contender). So it isn’t that I don’t like the concept or the formula. It’s just that it feels a bit disappointing for Pixar to find themselves adhering to that tried-and-tested formula.

After all, I think part of what has been appealing about most of the Pixar films to date is the fact that they aren’t necessarily the most conventional of family film narratives. Consider: two toys fight over their place in their owner’s heart; a middle aged husband allows his own thirst for adventure jeopardise his family life; an ageing pensioner flies his house to South America; a garbage robot falls in love; a monster city runs on the power of children’s screams. Only Cars (and maybe A Bug’s Life) really felt like a traditional kiddie film. Compare any of those ideas to the plot for Brave, in which a young princess tries to find her way in a world ruled by men, to prove her own strength and worth.

A mist opportunity?

It sounds a lot like the majority of the Disney canon, and I’m not the only person to pick up on that similarity. Of course, those rejecting any attempt to compare Pixar’s Brave to the bulk of Disney’s back catalog would argue the similarities are only skin-deep:

For one thing, while Merida does appear to be as defiant as Ariel, she seems much less motivated by the dreamy prince than her mermaid counterpart.

In fact, there has been no indication in any of Brave’s trailers thus far that Merida has any romantic interest whatsoever. We see that she’s quite adept with a bow; tracking a bear through a dark forest – we see her emerging as the hero of the story. Not as its defiant damsel.

There has been no hint of a Beast or a dashing prince in this story.

It’s a fair point – and an important one. After all, there’s an argument to be made that Disney “princesses” represent something of a feminist nightmare, the popular depiction of these beautiful young women simply waiting to find Prince Charming and settle down. It has made the tropes and conventions of the story ripe for brutal parody, as in Shrek, for example.

Bear with me…

That said, I do think it’s a rather reductive impression of the Disney “princess” archetype. It would seem like, from the nineties onwards, Disney has made leaps and bounds in how these characters are portrayed. Pocahontas featured a love story, but it did not end with its lead character as a blushing bride to be – she chose not to be defined by her lover. I didn’t especially like Mulan, but it offered us a female lead who had loftier ambitions than marriage to the man of her dreams.

The Princess & The Frog even features a lead female character with her own goals and ambitions that are so much more than settling down with a man. Of course, it does end with romance, but it doesn’t feel like the romance is the end in and of itself – it’s more like when a male action lead hooks up with the female character he’s been dragging along for most of the movie. that said, I don’t doubt that Brave will likely offer a stronger female role model, but I’m not convinced that the possible removal of a love interest makes the story feel any less formulaic.

Take a bow…

The story is, after all, set in a romanticised past of kings and queens, with magic and mysticism. Our lead character, Merida, is the daughter of the local chieftain who sets off to have an adventure. That adventure improves demonstrating her courage, skill and intelligence. She will, from the look of things, be accompanied by a cast of cute animals on her journey.

That’s not to suggest that Brave won’t be great. I’m sincerely hoping that Cars 2 is just a blip on the radar, and the studio can rekindle some of the wonder that they’d delivered relatively consistently beforehand. With directors like Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton branching out into live action, and coming off a film that was designed to be huge cash-in but was actually financially disappointing, this feels like a transitional time for the studio. And delivering a movie based around a formula that was perfected decades ago by their own feels like a consciously safe move.

Sword play…

I think that’s a shame, because I think a lot of what appealed about Pixar was the studio’s ability to take the most unconventional protagonists and make them compelling. There’s every chance that Brave could be the best Pixar movie ever, but I just can’t seem to muster up too much anticipation for it. Perhaps that’s for the best – after all, how many films have been killed by the weight of expectation?

Compare the trailers for Brave with those for Disney’s latest animated effort, Wreck-It Ralph. Ironically, it seems like Wreck-It Ralph has a decidedly “more Pixar” feeling to it. Okay, maybe aside from the explicit use of licensed video game characters, and the decidedly “hip” theme of the trailer’s last minute. (That said, I do love the use of Once in a Lifetime in the trailer.) Wreck-It Ralph is the story of a character in a video game (who seems to be loosely based on the original Donkey Kong) who decides that he doesn’t want to be stuck doing the same thing his whole life and so sets out to figure out his place in the grand scheme of things.

It’s got the same stock moral as Brave seems to have (you’ve got to be yourself, regardless of what society tells you to be), but it seems to approach it from an interesting angle. A classic Donkey Kong pastiche is hardly the most predictable protagonist for a story like this, and he seems like he’d be a more comfortable fit with the unconventional Pixar lead characters like Carl Fredricksen, Marlin, or even Mike and Sully. It feels strange, but I’m actually more looking forward to a Disney animated film than a Pixar one. It feels surreal.

4 Responses

  1. Among other things, Merida is not and does not have a love interest. Not a princess movie.

    • Hi Mike, fair point, and I mention it above, but I don’t see the prince as an essential part of the princess movie – certainly no more or less so than the historical setting, the typically friendly animals or the quest to make her own way in the world. The love interest in Mulan was practically an afterthought. Certainly no more than in male-driven action films where the protagonist hooks up with the leading lady. I’d also argue that the love interest is very much of secondary importance in Pocahontas – in that the story ends with him sodding off back home. I’d certainly argue that Brave feels like a continuation of that line of Disney Princess movies in terms of theme and the elements that we’ve seen.

  2. This might be the return to good Disney films 🙂

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