This started out as a comment on MGK’s Single-Sentence Review of Brave, wherein a short positive statement about the movie spawned a comment thread full of people trying to pin down what exactly it was that bothered them about the movie. One commenter (comatose_chameleon) said:
[C]an you tell me what was the protagonist’s WANT? What was her goal, her objective? [...] The fact that [we couldn't] answer this question was at the root of most of our objections to the film.
I don’t see it, frankly. Merida’s goal was never hard to pin down, though it changed through the movie. She started out with a very generic teen angst “NO! I don’t wanna!” which then changed to “Okay that was a mistake. I need to fix this somehow!”
I think the movie would have been better for me:
- if her initial mistake* had been more understandable, e.g. if the witch had tricked her, rather than simply standing there and blinking confusedly while she tricked herself, and
- if she had expressed the flip side of the overwrought teen melodrama experience, “Oh, woe! I have done something thoughtless and cruel which has consequences I should have foreseen that will ruin my life and the lives of those I love! I want to crawl in a hole and die, because I am clearly dumber than a sack of hammers!”,** and then _overcome_ that. “Well, I’m the only one who can fix this, so I’d better get on that. Self pity later.”
I’m not saying I didn’t like the movie. I did. I think most of my disappointment comes from the fact that, for the first time in… ever, there’s a Pixar movie that’s clearly inferior to its closest stylistic equivalent from Dreamworks.*** I’m referring, of course, to How to Train Your Dragon. I mean, compare the nadir points of both plots. In Dragon, after Toothless is discovered and captured and Stoick sails off with him and all the grownups to their quite probable deaths, Hiccup stands watching them go, knowing in his bones that this is all his fault. Then there’s an exchange with Astrid where she sums up all the ways that everything is screwed and gets Hiccup to face the situation and his actual role in it. Then:
Astrid: What are you going to do about it?
Hiccup: Eh… probably something stupid.
Astrid: Good, but you’ve already done that…
Hiccup: Then… something crazy! *runs off
Astrid: That’s more like it.
…and just like that we know we’re in Act 3. Things have gotten as bad as they can get, our hero has faced the darkness and decided to run back in and try to redeem himself despite the voices in his head telling him he can’t possibly do anything but continue to make things worse. From the outside, nothing has changed, so it’s not clear to an in-universe observer that things will go any better this time. But we know that Hiccup has changed on the inside, and that change is what allows him to succeed in Act 3 where he failed in the first two.
By contrast, the nadir of Brave… well, I’m not sure where the low point actually is. There’s the fakeout right before the inevitable happy ending, there’s the revelation of the ticking clock before the spell becomes permanent, but I think from a structural standpoint it has to be when Merida’s locked in the castle while her father goes charging off to kill her mother. There’s very little emotional content to that scene. Merida just annoyed that she can’t get on about what she wants to do; she might as well be stuck in traffic. I’m not saying there should be an exchange like Hiccup and Astrid’s. That’s not what Merida needs. Hiccup needed to stop trying to be good at the things he thought everybody else wanted him to be good at and start being good at the things that he was actually good at. Merida needed to learn that choosing your own fate doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to those around you. And we’re given no indication that she has. There’s no change in her character, so no real change in the way she approaches problems. She just keeps banging her head against things until eventually it works. It’s like watching a guy throwing darts for an hour, with no change in technique and no noticeable improvement in his accuracy, until eventually, by sheer luck and the Law of Large Numbers, he throws a bulls-eye. Then the music swells, he cries tears of joy, and we roll credits.
It’s not lost on me that I’ve been complaining for more than eight hundred words about a movie that was merely good when I wanted it to be great. Pixar doesn’t work for me, and although we talk about Pixar making movies that are actually good, instead of just good kids’ movies, Brave was not made for me. It’s just that I can’t think of another example of a Pixar movie where the main character is so consistently flawed right through the end of the movie. Even Cars had Lightning McQueen learning an Important Lesson. (I haven’t seen Cars 2, so it’s possible that Mater is the proto-Merida.) It’s frustrating, especially when it’s so easy to see how it could have been done. The Pixar Rules are great, but I propose an addition:
#23: Stories are about character growth. If your main character is the same at the end of the story as they were at the beginning, you either chose the wrong main character or the wrong story.
*: “You’re a witch who’s clearly obsessed with bears, and you got out of the witching business because you had too many unsatisfied customers? Of course you are the solution to my problem! I will give you extremely vague instructions and rush off without asking any clarifying questions even though I’m under no pressure to leave. I am a genius!”
**: It would help that she’d actually be correct in this. I mean, say what you will about sacks of hammers, they very rarely turn anyone into a bear.
***: I suppose reasonable people can disagree about the merits of Antz vs A Bug’s Life, but I vastly prefer the latter.
Categories: Nonfiction Mondays