Pixar: Not Brave Enough

by thefeargirls

 By Caitlin Clarkson

I am always excited for a new Pixar movie. Their films never fail to move me, usually to tears. The people working at Pixar are clearly dedicated and masterful storytellers who put their all into the stories they want to tell. However, I am a bit uncertain about their newest, Brave. The first non-teaser trailer was just released, and the film looks amazing. The landscapes are beautiful, and I’m incredibly impressed by the fact that they’ve figured out how to animate curly hair. But the bit of story revealed in the trailer is, at best cliché; at worst, utterly uncompelling.

Judging by the trailer, Brave is about a Scottish princess named Merida. Merida wants to go on adventures! Her mother wants her to be more ladylike! Merida runs away to prove she is just as good as a son! I’m assuming that the movie ends with Merida proving herself! And her parents still love her and are proud of her for being a hero and saving the day! Don’t even get me started on how her parents (a heavy-set, goofy man and a petite, strict woman) are straight out of sitcom territory.

One of my favorite things about Pixar is their original storytelling. They give us an exciting look at the secret lives of toys and bugs and rats. They take unremarkable things, like tropical fish and garbage collecting robots, and make them memorable characters. Brave is Pixar’s thirteenth film, and their first with a female lead. Is she something everyday about to be transformed into something special, like a paintbrush, a dog, or a camp counselor?

No. She’s a princess.

We’ve seen movies about princesses. Disney officially has 10 in their princess stables. Some of them, like Belle, Jasmine, Mulan, and Pocahontas, were refusing to be  conventional princesses before Merida was a twinkle in creator Brenda Chapman’s eye. Is there anything more typical, anything more safe for a girl to be than a princess?
Another thing I love about Pixar is the little nods they include towards their own films. Their iconic Luxo lamp pops up frequently, as well as Toy Story’s Pizza Planet truck. A boy in Finding Nemo reads a Mr. Incredible comic book. There are even nods in WALL•E to other films. Their movies all exist in the same world, creating a sense of an entire Pixar universe.
Brave takes place in the past, and is the only film to have a fairy tale feeling to it, effectively separating it from the established Pixar world. Why can’t their first female lead exist in the same universe as all of their other characters? While I’m excited to see a period piece of sorts from Pixar, and to see them attempt a darker and moodier story, this segregation bothers me.

And now for the elephant in the room: the firing of Brenda Chapman. Personally, I was so excited when I heard that Pixar’s first female director would be making its first film with a female lead. As a woman just getting started in what was until recently a male dominated field, I love hearing about other women finding success in industries that they had been shut out of before.

Then in October 2010 it was announced that Chapman, who had been working on Brave for six years, was leaving over “creative differences” and would be replaced by Mark Andrews. This was crushing news, and I can’t help but wonder what the “creative differences” were, and why Chapman was forced to leave her project (which she has stated was inspired by her relationship with her daughter) behind. An article in the Los Angeles Times about Chapman being fired raises a good point:

Chapman’s removal came roughly one year after Disney’s 2009 animated feature “The Princess and the Frog” disappointed at the box office and one month before the premiere of the company’s film “Tangled.” That film, which was originally titled “Rapunzel,” underwent a number of revisions to broaden its appeal beyond a core audience of little girls.

And the article’s author, Nicole Sperling, is correct. Tangled’s main male character was added because of the tired “girls will see movies about boys, but boys won’t see movies about girls” dilemma. But who cares? Female-centric films have been doing more than well lately (see The Help, Bridesmaids, and Sex and the City 2), enough for that old adage to be given a break.

Pixar’s uneasiness over making a film with a female lead is a bit depressing. Excluding the Cars films, their movies are universally loved and are critical darlings. All of them (again, excluding Cars and Cars 2) have Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 91% and up. If anyone should be confident about making a wonderful, loved film with a female lead, it’s Pixar. But instead they got nervous. And instead of crafting a story about a character who happens to be female, they came up with a story where being female is part of the character’s struggle. They felt the need to rehash something film goers have seen before in order to make a female lead more palatable instead of believing in their own story telling skills.
Or maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe my prediction for Brave’s plot is overly cynical. Pixar released a more detailed synopsis in August 2011, which states

   Merida’s actions inadvertently unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, and when she turns to an eccentric old Witch for help, she is granted an ill-fated wish. The ensuing peril forces Merida to discover the meaning of true bravery in order to undo a beastly curse before it’s too late.

That’s not so bad. I’m still hesitant, but hopeful. While I’m still disappointed that they decided to make a princess movie, I’m still hoping for a Pixar-style, engaging story. Even with my concerns, you can bet that I’ll be at the theater, if not on opening day, within the first week of Brave’s release.
As for Pixar and female directors- Pixar has announced the three films that will follow Brave (a Monster’s Inc. prequel, The Untitled Pixar Movie About Dinosaurs, and The Untitled Pixar Movie That Takes You Inside the Mind), letting us know what Pixar is up to until summer 2014. And you know what? Not a woman in sight. Sorry, Brenda Chapman and any other women interested in directing (or hell, even writing) a Pixar film; you’ll just have to wait until 2015.

Nicole Sperling’s LA Times article: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/25/entertainment/la-et-women-animation-sidebar-20110525

Brave Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEHWDA_6e3M