For at least a decade, numerous individuals, particularly those in media, lamented the fact that Pixar had never made a film with a female protagonist. I lamented it. So did this blogger. And this one. And many others.
Now that movie is here. “Brave,” the story of a plucky Scottish girl who would rather nail a few bull’s eyes than marry a potential prince, has opened in theaters and, therefore, should finally put all the angst about Pixar’s boys club vibe to rest. Except that it won’t, and not just because some were already kind of annoyed that the movie, in typical cartoon-for-girls mode, is about a princess.
Merida is not, despite her appearance in a Disney/Pixar movie, a typical Disney princess. She is headstrong. She is anti-traditional in a pretty obvious way, in that she literally refuses to go along with a tradition in her Scottish kingdom that requires her to marry the suitor who snags the best score on a chosen feat of strength. Her hair, unlike Cinderella’s or Ariel’s, is seemingly unbrushable, a mass of glowing tangerine, cotton-candy curls that, as a testament to Pixar’s stellar animators, one can practically feel brushing against one’s cheek while watching the film.
The problem that Merida faces is that she’s arrived somewhat tardily on the pop cultural landscape. It takes a long time for the creative team at Pixar to make a movie. Plans for “Brave,” originally titled “The Bear and the Bow,” were announced all the way back in 2008, before the first installment of “The Hunger Games” had been published and long before it turned into a movie that became a box office phenomenon.
Now, smack in the middle of 2012, we have been bombarded by images of defiant young women who shoot arrows (see Katniss Everdeen), and fairy tales featuring females with some fight in them (see “Snow White and the Huntsman,” among others), and numerous works of film or television that have injected much-needed estrogen into the zeitgeist. For the past several months, it feels like we’ve been “girl-ed” to death, what with “New Girl,” and the girl-related issues on “Mad Men,” and HBO’s “Girls,” and the 8 million things everyone at any semi-major media outlet feels compelled to say about HBO’s “Girls.”
So clearly, in conclusion, the concern about women figuring prominently in pop culture has now been resolved. Everyone who writes for Jezebel, Feministing or Double X can now officially pack up their stuff and go home.
Uh, no. That is not the case.
But all this evidence of the rise of the femme in mass entertainment amplifies the sense that “Brave” has arrived really late to the girl-power party, a fact implied by The Post’s Ann Hornaday in her review. The film’s case also is not helped by this inescapable fact: As Pixar movies go, “Brave” isn’t particularly great. Is it a perfectly fine, reasonably entertaining adventure to take your kids to see? Sure. But in terms of the Pixar pantheon, it lands at the bottom of the list, parked right next to “Cars 2.”
This is what happens when a movie studio sets a standard that it improbably and awe-inspiringly continues to meet or exceed for a decade-plus: It can’t reach it forever.
That’s a problem that I was all too aware of while watching “Brave.” At no point, for example, did the film ever really surprise me. And most of Pixar’s films have done that, by inviting me into worlds where rats clandestinely master haute cuisine, or an insane amount of helium makes an old man’s travel plans come true, or a vending machine can serve as a hide-out for a bunch of daycare center toys. At their best, Pixar films don’t just distract us and the kids for a few hours. They help us crack open our imaginations far wider than daily life usually allows.
“Brave,” while charming during certain moments, didn’t crack open my imagination very much. Given the expectation that this film would mean something significant to 50 percent of the population, that lack of wonderment feels like an even greater disappointment. And that’s why the conversation about how Pixar and other family-oriented films can do a better job of truly embracing and speaking to girls will likely continue.
For the record, there is one thing that “Brave” manages to do that many of its fellow refreshed fairy tales haven’t: It depicts the prickly push-pull of the mother-daughter relationship and — minor spoiler ahead — shows us it’s possible for that bond to be one that involves mutual respect and deep love. Parents may appreciate that.
The young girls in the audience, on the other hand? If they’re old enough to have seen “The Hunger Games,” they may simply look upon Merida and say, “You know, I like her. She reminds me of Katniss.”