Brave – Fairy Tales: Judgement & Pain

Thoughts On: Brave (2012)

A princess about to be betrothed attempts to change her fate.

Brave 2

Brave is another example of a Disney or Pixar film that I really enjoy, but can’t help but recognise the faults, or just the lack of substance, in. This has so many rich and lively characters – more than any other Disney or Pixar film that comes to mind. The comedy in this narrative is pin-point-hilarious. The animation looks spectacular. The script is pretty clever. The cast all do a great job. The story is captivating. So… what is it that is at fault in this movie?

With this not only being Pixar’s first princess movie, but their first movie to feature a female protagonist, they seem to have felt that they had to make a pretty specific point or statement with this narrative. This then has the tone of the recent Disney princess films, Tangled and Frozen, which both seem to be revising their approach to a certain kind of narrative. In fact, this has been going on for quite some time; you can feel hints of this in Beauty And The Beast from 1991, but I think this is a very strong film as the revisionist elements work. However, from Tangled to Brave to Frozen, Disney and Pixar have been making a few huge mistakes. Maybe it is because the topic of female archetypes and representatives in film has been questioned more and more so in the past few years, but all of these films refuse to put their protagonists in real pain or – and this is worse – they refuse to judge them.

We hear this idea of “don’t judge me” an awful lot in life, and whilst this can be a valid request in certain contexts, stories and fairy tales should not embed this sentiment into their narrative designs. The reason for this is simple: fairy tales are judgement and they are pain. Furthermore, fairy tales find their meaning, their substance and their worth through exactly this.

This sounds like a pretty dark claim to make, but if we think of everything from Snow White to Alice In Wonderland to Pinocchio, Cinderella, Dumbo all the way up to the likes of Tarzan, The Lion King, and Lilo & Stitch, it is very easy to recognise a pattern in Disney films: the pain and conflict that protagonists face is arbitrary, it is maybe ridiculous, but they nonetheless have to suffer through it. All of the mentioned films have heavy, directly or not, elements of fairy tales within them because of this. What all of these films have in common in then the idea of fate. Why do Cinderella and Snow White live torturous lives? Why are Dumbo, Pinocchio, Tarzan and Lilo born into broken families? Why are Simba and Stitch born with such power and such responsibility? None of these characters ask for their lot in life, but, you can be sure that a select few things happen to them. Not only do all of these characters accept the cards they’re handed in life – they live the life of a scullery maid, they assimilate into a family of gorillas, they deal with their broken families, they attempt to live up to their responsibilities – but, in doing this, they are all slapped down by life for making even the most minor of mistakes. Maybe these characters dream too much, maybe they take an easy route, maybe they indulge themselves, but there are always repercussions.

One of the clearest examples of this is certainly Pinocchio. Pinocchio was brought to life and asked to become a real boy through struggle, through learning what lies are, what evil is as well as how to avoid that malevolence and tell the truth. He learns this after being betrayed by his own nativity – and this eventually lands him on Pleasure Island. This is an archetypal place and seemingly a commentary on story structure. Despite the arbitrary nature of his existence and his conflicts as provided by this narrative, Pinocchio is punished for making understandable mistakes that we have all made; he is not perfect, and the world seems to punish him far too harshly for this. Pleasure Island is this exactly: he’s given all he asked for in its most pure, chaotic and unbridled form. Pinocchio doesn’t want this however; he’s transforming into an ass. And so he must fight against his mistakes – all of which were bestowed upon him by an unsympathetic world. This gets him off of Pleasure Island, but… he’s still got to save his father from the belly of the whale. Life just keeps throwing conflict at him. But, Pinocchio, naive as he is, rises to this challenge, confronting all the imperfection in himself, his father and the world. And only after all of this has he actually learnt his lesson; he has truly stepped into his conflicts – literally with the whale – and he has emerged a different person.

All great fairy tales feature three essential things. Firstly, there is the unfair conflict: it is Cinderella wishing of a better life, Dumbo born with ears that are too big, Simba born as prince. Secondly, there is Pleasure Island. This follows all of the building conflict in a story reaching a point at which the protagonist cracks: it is Cinderella having her new dressed destroyed or losing her glass slipper, Dumbo tripping on his ears after his mother has been taken away, it is Simba being torn away from Timon and Pumbaa’s paradise. An incomplete equilibrium is found by all of these characters at this point, and so they have settled for something easy, or, often, their initial attempts towards good are just slapped down for no good reason. This leads us to our final beat: stepping into the belly of the beast. This is Cinderella, having gone to the ball, putting herself in the position where she can claim the glass slipper, this is Dumbo jumping off of the incredibly high tower, this is Simba confronting Scar. It is only after these incredibly difficult tasks are confronted and successfully navigated that there is a happy ending.

What then defines fairy tales, and their structure, is pain and judgement being used a tools so that the ultimate test can be given to one of the most unlikely candidates. This is an extension of our deepest fears, yet brightest hopes as human beings: we are afraid of being inadequate, of never being able to evolve, of the world throwing too much our way, but, we nonetheless recognise that this struggle, if confronted correctly, is the most rewarding thing about life as meaning is found in this darkness.

Let us now turn back to Tangled, Brave and Frozen. All of these films start with unfair conflict: Rapunzel has magical hair and is stolen as a baby, Merida is a princess that has to conform to tradition, Ana and Elsa are princesses who have their own internal conflicts and lose their parents. After the opening acts that establish this, there should be a Pleasure Island sequence. Whilst you could argue that we do get these, they are very weak. With Tangled, Rapunzel runs into trouble as she journeys to see the lanterns, but she never comes into true conflict or reaches a point in which she is broken down. She initially questions herself when she leaves the tower and ends up almost drowning, but these problems are solved with no real links to her own pleasure seeking; she isn’t judged very well by this narrative for leaving the tower. But, let us stop and ask: why is this so important? No one should be trapped in a tower, they should be allowed to escape and be free to find love and live the fairy tale happy ending. Well… maybe this would be just. But, the fact is, we all know that life doesn’t give us what we deserve – much less, what we want. To see this projected in stories gives them depth as, from struggle and pain, comes meaning in life. Without these dark sequences, or a Pleasure Island scene, Tangled is still a pretty brilliant film – just like Brave and Frozen – but, nonetheless lacks this human touch, reducing it to pretty basic entertainment.

As implied, the same thing happens in Frozen – we will return to Brave after this. Ana, after being neglected for most of her life, is–let’s put it straight–she’s obnoxious and annoying. Never at any point in this narrative is this really challenged. Yes, she has to go on an adventure and faces danger, but none of her conflicts, physical or emotional, actually confront her obnoxious nature and force her to question herself. Maybe this is because the writers think that she is a perfect archetype from the beginning of this narrative, but, I don’t know how they could see that. We could understand a writer not wanting to punish someone like Dumbo, Cinderella or Simba, because they don’t have particularly damning character attributes. Ana does though, so why on earth will the writers not judge her for this? We cannot know, but the fact remains: Ana is never really challenged in a substantial manner in Frozen. The same can be said for Elsa. She has the most conflict in this narrative, but falls into the background; she is clearly in pain, but she plays no real active part beyond singing a rousing song – which should have been a Pleasure Island moment; letting something go must be done with great caution. So, again, just like Tangled, there is no Pleasure IslandĀ in these fairy tales. But, I will repeat with emphasis: I don’t think that this is a terrible film because of this, nor do I think that all films should be dark and contain judgement. What I am instead recognising is the power that Disney films in particular muster when they recognise their classical fairy tale structure – which has been sullied and abandoned in these three recent princess films.

Let us now come to Brave and, as you may have inferred, find the same fault. This film starts with some great ideas, showcasing Merida as understandably annoyed at the fate that has been given to her by life; she doesn’t want to be married off, as I’m sure the vast majority of people wouldn’t. We see the idea that she has some idea of fate lingering over her from the very beginning with the will-o-wisps. These are supposed to be guiding lights that, in various folklore, often lead people to their own damnation – or at least, lead them astray. There is an implication with this after Mor’du emerges from the forest, but it is quite clear that the wisps actually lead her away from him. This is acceptable as wisps sometimes do help people, but the story moves on.

We soon find out that Merida doesn’t like responsibility and wants to be free – a classic teenager inner conflict/motivation. She eventually confronts this by trying to take her fate into her own hands with the arrow competition in which she breaks tradition – this doesn’t go well though. From here, things seem to be building into a substantial story about how to break tradition carefully, cautiously and productively. This continues to build as Merida is lead to the witch and turns her mother into a bear; her selfish act of trying to manipulate her mother and lazily change both her fate and traditional values is revealed as corrupt. However, from here Merida and queen Elinor go into a forest where the queen learns to, basically, accept Merida with the fishing sequence. After this, we have further references to the idea of breaking tradition being a dangerous endeavour with Mor’du attacking Merida. However, this is pretty insubstantial and we have missed the point at which Merida goes to Pleasure Island. She is never really judged for turning her mother into a bear. This in itself is a form of judgement as Merida recognises (very intermittently and quite lightly) that she has made a serious mistake by trying to change her mother, but, there are no real repercussions to this; she is never shown to be the ass that she is.

From here, we emerge into a pretty brilliant final act in which Merida must step into the belly of the beast; she demonstrates that she has learnt a lesson when she reconciles with all the four clans, but nonetheless has to confront them again when they try to kill her mother. This is Pinocchio going into the belly of the wale and emerging victorious. The ending then works so well because Merida proved herself to be the hero who learnt from her mistakes and figures out how to break tradition with her mother and by keeping unity within the clans. However, this is all cheapened by the fact that Merida was never forced to go to Pleasure Island; her conflicts and character arc were pretty shallow and she was never judged or truly confronted in this narrative. Thus, the ending isn’t well-deserved.

We see this paradigm in Tangled and Frozen too. Rapunzel never really confronts her own naivety; there are a lot of songs and a lot of dances and joy – which is perfectly fine – but, there is nothing to take seriously in the second act; it’s all fun and games. When Rapunzel then steps back into the tower and confronts her ‘mother’, everything feels flat and contrived. The same must be said for Frozen. Ana and Elsa run into conflicts, are never really judged, and are given their happy ending. All of these characters, Merida included, learn the lessons that they should learn. However, the way in which they learn them is faulted.

The ultimate expression of this lack of judgement and pain in a fairy tale would then be captured by a story centred around a man who has a lot of psychological issues. For example, imagine we have Pinocchio as a grown up man tortured by his past. We could see him go on an adventure to confront this, or, we could see him to go therapy sessions and sit through three hours of him talking until his problems are all figured out. Whilst it may be somewhat realistic and plausible to suggest that problems can be confronted without much conflict and drama, are these stories really worth telling? Maybe… but not really. No one wants to watch something like a Woody Allen movie in which he just sits in his therapist’s office and moans; we want the comedy, the romance and the mistakes alongside this. Without them, Allen would be unbearable in the therapist chair.

The overwhelming fault that exists in these most recent princess films is then that they put their main characters in a therapist chair for the second act of their stories whilst distracting us with fun, jokes, songs and adventure. There is no Pleasure Island, and thus these films fail to to judge and punish their characters like great fairy tales all do. This leaves the subtext beneath the fun narratives that are Tangled, Brave and Frozen, to be a mulch of half-baked ideas about patriarchy, tradition and freedom. These films then have very little to say that is cohesive and worth listening to – which is just plain unfortunate.

To end, I’ll turn to you. What do you think about the movies and topics we’ve covered today?



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