It's the rare thing that can be a giant blockbuster and also disappoint expectations, but Disney/Pixar's "Brave" somehow managed to do both, getting non-stellar reviews and generating a huge ton of money, but not the huge ton of money some people hoped for.
But, before you get too sad, remember -- it's pretty impressive for the most successfully mainstream piece of feminist art since "The Forty-Year Old Virgin."
"Brave" is an incredibly subversive movie, which I think accounts for part of the critical lukewarmitude. It's real, real weird, wrapping a mediation on success and gender inside a Trojan horse of spunky. And, positive or negative I haven't really seen a review that gets at why it's so incredibly strange and, I think, successful.
1) It's not a "typical Pixar movie." All the characters are people, not fish or monsters or robots. People can become animals in this world, but when they do, they don't talk, let alone sing or tell jokes. It also doesn't have the heady fun of most Pixar films -- most of which take as template the action/adventure movie, a high-information, high-twist genre. In a typical Pixar movie, there is a long escape scene, through a series of twists and turns that the audience has learned all about. . . "The Great Escape" or "Mission Impossible" only with a teddy bear villain. We know all the entrances and exits and the rules and the joy is watching our hero navigate this complex and surprising world.
That's not "Brave." There are a couple of escape-ish sequences, but we're given no information about castle entrances and exits, and it's not really the point. The starting genre point of "Brave" isn't action/adventure, it's romance. And, if you're a reviewer who isn't into romance, this may piss you off. BUT IT'S A TOTALLY VALID GENRE AND IT'S FLIPPED IN SUPER-INTERESTING WAYS. [Side-note on genre, one day I will write a short story for The New Yorker in which I use the novels of "The Babysitters' Club" as inspiration in the same way that Diaz, Lethem, and Chabon use comic books. It'll totally get published.]
Yes, "Brave" is a romance, but it's not about romantic love, it's about mother-daughter love. All of the steps it goes through follow the romance structure: Act 1, they hate each other, even though we (the audience) can see they're truly meant to be together but their pride gets in the way. Act 2, through a series of strange coincidences, they are forced to work together and discover their love. Act 3, they must rescue each other and they end up together, wiser and happy.
It's "Pride and Prejudice" for mothers and daughters crossed with "Sleeping Beauty." And it's pretty obvious . . .like the fact that, in order for the curse to be reversed, Merida has to look into her mother Elinor's eyes and say "I love you." Like at the end of every fairy tale ever? Because it's using fairy tale structure? It's not a boring adventure movie, it's a radical romance.
2) It's really really feminist, and not like most movies are "feminist, " but like all those crazy ladies from the '70s who seem so angry now and disappointed in you are "feminist." It's fairly common these days to have a movie in which a young woman resists the strictures of feminine identity and goes around being tough. "GI Jane" came out in 1997. "Mulan" came out in 1998. We're still doing this, of course ("Kill Bill," "Colombiana," "Haywire") but it's not new and it doesn't really challenge much. The value system heap of physical strength, dominance, and competition stays the same -- there's just a chick at the top of it. In this model, traditionally feminine pastimes, like cooking are usually spurned by the lead character and, implicitly or explicitly, mocked by the film. Girl Power = girls acting like boys power.
"Brave" head-fakes in this direction, especially in the trailer, and seems like it's going to be movie about a young woman resisting a path of subservience in favor of physical activity and self-determination. And, you know, it is a movie about that. It's awesome to see Merida free and strong while riding her horse with her crazy-hair. BUT IT'S ALSO A MOVIE THAT VALORIZES MUCH OF WHAT HAS BEEN CODED AS TRADITIONALLY FEMALE. Merida's mom is wrong about the arranged marriage, but she's not a bitch. And it's not the worst thing in the world to have decent table manners, know your history lessons, be able to get a group of people to agree on a common goal, or sew. That shit is actually pretty important and if your mom taught it to you, well you should call her and say thanks (once you finish kicking butt). "Brave's" day is saved through a combination of brute force and needlepoint and, seriously, when's the last time you saw that happen?
Just in case you missed it, the film's villain, the bear Mordu, is the character who's after, you guessed it: individual power and dominance. He wants to be better than everyone else, not to keep his family and community together. And he sucks. I won't say Mordu has a male viewpoint because Ayn Rand, because Helen Dragas, but I will say, he has a culturally celebrated POV right now, and I appreciate that, instead of valorizing the homicidal bear as a job-creator, he is recognized as a threat.
3) Closure. If you can't grasp or aren't interested in Merida and her mother's relationship, then the film seems not to answer the question you think it will at the beginning: who will she marry? Of all the princes we see, not a one seems likely to stir her heart, like, ever, and they make it very clear that, even if not, the kingdom will probably be okay. It would have been so easy (and I am willing to bet someone suggested) to add in a cute dude, just for a second, for a little meaningful eye contact, so we know, "okay, she's waiting, but she's probably going to end up with Hugh over there." But they didn't. And that doesn't mean, OF COURSE IT DOESN'T MEAN, that she's gay. But it does mean that her romantic fulfillment is not the point of the story. Merida and Elinor end the film looking out over their kingdom together, off to have adventures, maybe together, but probably not. Probably Merida will go off and get married (OR NOT) or be gay (OR NOT) or be celibate or bisexual or whatever she is, and probably Elinor will stay in the castle with her cool new hairdo and keep making tapestries and maybe they will see each other at Solstice and that will be okay. It is a beautiful and real place for a movie to end, it had me in tears at the theater, and it is (really, even in "Bridesmaids" Kristen Wiig goes off with the cop) a phenomenally strange and powerfully feminist way to conclude. Family isn't necessarily the enemy. Power isn't necessarily the answer. Doing what you love and listening to the people you love is a pretty good idea.
And when we talk about why we need women in powerful positions and why it's important to change office structures to keep them there, well, this is why. Because I'll be fucked if this movie could have been imagined by a someone who isn't a daughter and isn't a mother.