Was Sarah Jane Brave?
Given the cinephilic nature of Pixar films, I thought I had Brave (Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews, 2012) all figured out by watching the trailer. A young girl, Merida, struggling against the imperatives of medieval princesshood, enters an archery tournament to prove to her mother her skills in a man’s world, and wins by splitting the seemingly winning contestant’s arrow. The moment, of course, is an exquisite animated rendering of the great archery sequence in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), the gold standard of Classical Hollywood Technicolor medievalism. In this Michael Curtiz film, Robin Hood (played by the impossibly beautiful Errol Flynn) wins the heart of Maid Marian (Olivia de Haviland) by splitting the winning archer’s arrow so that he may have the honor of kissing her hand.
However, it turns out this beautiful intertextual reconstruction is the least interesting thing about the astonishing new film, perhaps Pixar’s best to date, and that’s saying quite a lot given the exquisite emotional resonance of both Wall-e (2009) and Up (2010). It turns out the film’s privileged classical Hollywood reference is to Moby-Dick, especially the 1956 John Huston imagining of Herman Melville’s classic work. The plot of Brave concerns Merida’s conflict with her mother, Elinor. Out of adolescent pique, Merida enlists the aid of a canny witch (voiced with relish by Julie Walters), who makes Merida a poisoned cake in response to the child’s request for something that will change her mother. The cake ends up transforming Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) into a bear, kin to the film’s enemy, Mor’du, a horrible bear who has cut off the leg of Fergus, Merida’s father in a mad quest to take over all of Scotland. In a Melvillean quest, Fergus hunts down bears in retribution for the loss of his limb. Late in the film, we see Mor’du as he attacks the Scottish clan, laced with spears and ropes, exactly as we see the white whale at the end of Huston’s film, as Gregory Peck hams it up, “spitting his last breath” at the albino cetacean.
The invocation of Moby-Dick is the heart of Brave’s genius. In one fell swoop, the film undoes the romanticization of nature implicit in all classical Hollywood Disney cartoons. In Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), the foundational Disney feature animated film, taking a post-romantic beating this summer, nature is impossibly kind, coming to the princess’ aid at every turn, from helping her clean up the dwarves’ cabin, to mourning over her untimely death. In the early 20th century, Disney films returned to the romantic presentation of nature celebrated by Emerson and Thoreau, exactly the thematic material being undone by Melville in the middle of the 19th century, as he presaged a new Naturalist strain of American literature.
Pixar skips the romantic Disney to return to the anti-Transcendentalist Melville, most importantly by demonstrating the tensions at the human-animal species boundary, of distinct concern both to the post-Darwininan 19th century, and to our own anti-evolutionist contemporary America. In the film’s best visual gag, the witch pretends to be a wood carver, selling her wares out of a bucolic shop. One of the prominent pieces out of thousands the film privileges us to see is an oaken parody of the ceiling of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, in which a bear touches hands with a human. This turns out to be the film’s central allegory. When Merida turns her mother into a bear, she is forced for the rest of the film to confront that which is in her that resonates with the bear. She is far more like her mother than she chooses to realize.
Here, the film takes its final, most canny intertextual turn. At the film’s climax, when Merida realizes the error of her ways, she must fling her body atop her mother the bear to keep the Scottish soldiers from slaying her. The Pixar cinephiles construct an image that resonates not with the medievalism of The Adventures of Robin Hood, nor the Transcendental politics of Herman Melville, but shockingly the melodramatics of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. At the unforgettable climax of the 1959 film, Sarah Jane, a black daughter passing for white who has cruelly disavowed her dark-skinned African-American mother, Annie, emphatically states her love for her dead mother, dramatically throwing herself on the woman’s casket in the midst of a very public city funeral procession. The resonance of this sequence in Brave raises crucial questions about the power of Pixar films. The human-animal barrier in Disney films has sometimes been directly engaged (as in Ratatouille, a film about a rat who is the best chef of human food in France), and at other times, transcended for other hybridities. For example, I have elsewhere analyzed the human/cyborg politics of Wall-e, in which a gender revolution is forged via the wombs possessed both by the “female” robot Eve, and the “male” robot Wall-e.
However, in Brave, the passing of animal for human, and vice versa, drawn from the Hollywood language of race passing in a film such as Imitation of Life, leads toward an elegant solution of what I should like to call Pixar’s “Dr. Seuss” problem. In the children’s book author’s oeuvre, it is only in the posthumously published Daisy-Head Maisie (1991) that we find a central protagonist who is female, and not the little boy trickster at the heart of his countercultural genius. So too in Pixar movies, which heretofore have always concerned the world of boys (from Toy Story’s military, Western, and space exploration devices, to the Route 66 highway culture of Cars). By invoking the bear within femininity that must be expunged to heal the mother-daughter relationship in Brave, Pixar has turned a corner to a further level of narrative sophistication. The fact that the elegance of the Moby-Dick reference is trumped by an even more complex engagement with mothering via Imitation of Life is the most surprising encounter I’ve had at a movie theatre all year.
– Walter Metz