Monday, July 23, 2012

Pixar's "Brave": Questioning the Rebellious Princess

Brave is not about a Rebellious Princess who undergoes an awakening into heroism. Instead, it's about a Rebellious Princess who puts a spell on her mother in order to break out of the role, and must right her wrong. There's also a lot of comic relief, an impending clan war, and an evil monster bear.

There were some good parts to this movie, some parts that didn't work, and an it overally defines the term "mixed bag", and thus leaves a viewer wanting a little bit more, for it to stick to what it established.

Because Merida ends up turning her mother into a bear as a result of the usual "spirit not letter" wish, and then refuses to admit it is her fault, the movie places Merida's mother, Queen Elinor, on the moral high ground. True, Merida and her mother both must reconcile their dislike of each other in order to break the spell before it becomes permanent, but Merida is further in the wrong right from the start.

Merida's objections to stifling protocol and an arranged marriage are played like the carping of a spoiled brat, and her objections never feel as though the narrative takes them seriously. She is also the one who cast that damaging wish, and clan war starts brewing over her defiance of that arranged marriage. When Merida must finally fight a monster, all her crack shooting with arrows becomes completely ineffective. This all makes it clear that Brave wishes to tell a story that questions the value of the cherished fantasy archetype.

In the end, however, Brave becomes hesitant about any of these things. Despite all the dumping on Merdia, the narrative still decides to stick with modern values. Merida declares that people can choose who they love instead of engaging in contests for her. It feels like lip service, since the implication is that the three clan princes are still all she can choose from, and of course because Brave was, up till that point, not celebrating female rebellion.

The best thing to come out of the film is the relationship between Merida and her mother, Elinor. It's rare that a mother/daughter relationship is at the centre of an animated fantasy film, and the reconciliation between the two is honest and heartfelt, but it only begins when Merida tries to make good on her mistake.

 Elinor is also not a strawman, since her desires are instead connected to current practical need as stemming from tradition. However, developed characters does not mean a movie is neutral, and it is exactly because Elinor's concerns are justified that Brave appears to challenge the Rebellious Princess myth.

Another false impression that Brave gives from the trailers was that it would be a more dramatic and earnest film than it was. As it happens, there is a lot of comic relief, which isn't grating if a viewer expected it, but it's disappointing when it seemed Brave was to be going in a more straightforward direction.

Most of this comic relief comes from the entire male cast. Merida's father King Fergus is a ferocious warrior and loving father, but he's also there to be "the fun parent" and "the goofy dad". Queen Elinor is clearly the one who wears the "pants" in the castle and the only one concerned with making sure it's running smoothly. As a result, Fergus is just comic relief, and stacked up against his wife's emotional growth, is a weak character. When Pixar movies are usually so good, to see such a lazy dynamic between the parents is disappointing.

The other clan heads and their sons are even sillier, which makes the threat of impending war harder to take seriously. Because they are such silly characters, one could think that this is a concession to the championing of western values, a knock on arranged marriage, but it's difficult to shake the impression given by the main storyline. There is still potential war going on, however comical it looks.

Add to this Merida's little brothers, who are only named once and no lines at all, it seems like the movie built up its central female dynamic and just decided to call it a day, instead of creating a fully fleshed-out cast of both genders.

However, there's also a lot of slapstick coming from the female characters. The transformed Elinor refuses to get rid of her crown or dainty behaviour, and communicates through pantomime and anthropomorphic expressions. The forest witch also sells bear carvings, with an entire hut full of quirky wooden automatons, and also puts on a welding mask to use her cauldron, which also functions as a voicemail. There's a maid who always screams and is tormented by the princes. It's all just a little too goofy.

Another problem is the antagonist Mor'du, the monstrous bear of legend. Mor'du was once a man, fighting his brothers for control of a kingdom. He wished "for the strength of ten men" and became a giant bear instead. There are reasons for him to be in the film: he appears in the cold open and took Fergus's leg, his legend is what Elinor uses to try to teach Merida a lesson, and the forest witch implies she was responsible for him, too. His fate reinforces the notion that you must Be Careful What You Wish For, and reminds viewers that Elinor's transformation could become permanent. However, Mor'du only appears at the beginning and the middle of the film.  He is connected to the story, but it's a weak link, because when Mor'du is not there, his presence is not missed.

In fact, because the film already has the mother/daughter conflict, the need to break the spell, and the need to reconcile the hostile clans, Mor'du feels like a fifth wheel, maybe added only because of the false expectation an animated family film must have a villain.

In the middle of this muddle, viewers might ask why the film is called Brave when it's not about a heroic rite of passage. The most likely explanation is Merida is "Brave" for admitting her mother could be right, and that the spell was her fault and not the witch's. In addition, Elinor and Merida are both "brave" for reconciling themselves to each other's worldview. If this was the intention, however, the theme does not hang strongly enough. As mentioned above, it obvious that Merida needs to change far more than Elinor does, and the film still waffles, unable to commit to the criticisms it makes.

Many have compared the film to How to Train Your Dragon, but the similarities are only surface, coming from their visual motifs. There is a fundamental difference between the two movies, which is that Hiccup learns he can be himself instead of being the Viking boy his father wants him to be, while Merida learns that being the princess girl her mother wants her to be isn't that bad. How to Train Your Dragon also sticks absolutely to its theme and makes it clear, while Brave backs off.

The overlaid comic relief, the fifth-wheel antagonist, are also problems. As a final cap, the movie also feels derivative and predictable. Much of Merida and Elinor's arguments have a familiar ring, as does the fact of wishes that backfire, and the sitcom dynamic between husband and wife. Many events are easy to call before they happen.

These facts are as disappointing as they are aggravating. Brave represented a change for Pixar, its first attempt at heroic fantasy and its first film with a female protagonist, and it could have been much better than it was. This doesn't represent a permanent step down for Pixar, but it is a sad thing.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Yumi Tamura's Basara

If this manga could be described in one sentence, it would be "heroic fantasy as seen through a feminine lens". The structure of Basara is a familiar one: a hero rises from humble circumstances to change a world that is under the thrall of an evil king. Yet this version is also heavily inundated with romance (by both the classical and modern definition) and melodrama. Many tears are shed on all sides and by both genders, and the central conceit is that the heroine and hero are actually on opposite sides of a war…but they don't realize it when they fall in love.

Technically Basara is science fiction, as it takes place in a post-apocalyptic Japan that has become in large part a desert. But to the initial eye, these characters seem to come from the distant past, with robes and swords and ancient-looking villages. The exact nature of the disaster is never explained, with the present-day story being far more important.

Japan is under the rule of King Ukon, who has divided his territory among his chidren: the Black, White, Red, and Blue Kings. In a small desert village, a pair of boy and girl twins have been born, and one is prophesied to be the "child of destiny" that will save Japan. Everyone assumes it is the boy, Tatara, and he is celebrated while his sister Sarasa grows up in his shadow.

However, when a raid by the Red King's army leads to Tatara's death, Sarasa disguises herself as her brother, and sets out to gather allies, overthrow the dynasty, and bring peace to Japan. Sometimes she  goes to bathe undisguised at the nearest hot spring, and there she meets a handsome boy named Shuri. They fall in love, meeting at hotsprings and communicating long distance. However, neither realizes they are Tatara and the Red King, sworn enemies.

Basara  is an epic in the truest sense. Unlike some other long manga series, each volume, except for the last two, feels like a single novel split into multiple parts, with the story gathering momentum through each book, and the scope of the world gradually revealed. No space feels wasted, and more importantly, though it is wide in scope with a large cast, Basara remains focused on the emotion and characterization, which makes the larger plot compelling.

Also like most good stories, Basara does not proceed in a straight line to the ending its characters anticipate. Shuri and Sarasa discover the truth in the middle of the story, and King Ukon is not what they would expect when the audience finally meets him.

The girl-disguised-as-a-boy is a classic trope, and thankfully Basara doesn't keep it a secret from her allies until the very end. Sarasa is a compelling heroine, one of those who is obviously destined to win, but shows enough weakness and indecision that they are "human" while still obviously a hero. Sometimes the emotions involved may seem a bit over the top, but that is the nature of this genre of manga. Shuri is also a worthy match, fierce in battle but easygoing out of it, and able to question himself and his role. Both of their characters change and develop over time, and other cast members also change.

And, if you're searching for progressive ideals in fiction, one could do much worse than Basara. It's the sort of story where some concession is made towards a realistic depiction of the status of women in a "medieval" country, but female characters are given plenty of opportunities to shine in both feminine and masculine roles. The story also doesn't suggest that Sarasa secretly pines to return to her "proper" role as a girl. Any moments where she wishes to "just be a girl" are attributed to normal stress, and are about her young age more than her gender.

The art is shojo art, consistent with its manga genre. The young adult characters are often lean and androgynous, with similar bodies once the hair, skin tone, and clothing are taken out of account. However, Tamura can also draw characters of other body types and ages. "Cute" characters such as babies and Sarasa's pet owlet Shinbashi are drawn in a cartoony, scribbled style, which creates an inconsistency. Backgrounds are often amorphous and can make it difficult to see what is going on in the worst cases. However, the costume designs are great, and the art isn't actually bad, it's just a style that may be difficult to get used to, since by 2012, it might be considered "old-school".

The actual story ends at volume 25, while the material continues to volume 27. These last two volumes are a disappointment: Tamura's short comic strips about her characters are fun, but the rest of it, the series of short stories, add things we don't need to see or don't want to see. There are revelations and sequel content that are too cheesy, or too unnecessarily bleak. They can't bring down the rest of the series, but they are disappointing volumes.

Basara is neither a story about the large conflict or the small conflict. Both blend together, both are important, and this gives the series a richer feel than it otherwise would have. It is a crying shame that this series is currently out of print, with volumes 18-20 suffering from enormous price inflations on the secondary market.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Diagnosing Loki Fangirls

Well, I've been away from blogging for a while, and there's no excuse but that I somehow lost the mojo, which is easy to do since this is a hobby and not the job I intend to have. It's why I can be so lazy to begin with. So, let's get to it.

I saw Thor a while ago, and it was a fun movie--to me, it read like a better version of The Lion King, with a more compelling arc for the lead, a consistently threatening villain, and a more palatable take on all that fantasy racism. I also saw The Avengers before that, feeling I knew enough of the continuity to get by, and I was right. Both films have the kind of spirit I hope my work to have someday: ultimately gimmicky fun, yet also capable of some heartfelt emotion and never losing a sense of humour.

Something I want to talk about, though, is how many fangirls Loki has, and the fan boy "theorizing" as to why it happened.

I want, and try, to make room in my worldview for multiple interpretations of fictional characters, but at a certain point the notion that a character who commits evil deeds isn't a villain becomes something I can't get on board with. Regardless of the reasons these characters have for turning to evil, no amount of sympathetic backstory or understandable motivation can wipe their records clean. Writers should still try to give their villains these two things in order to create a richer world, but usually the roles of hero and villain are usually still clear enough.

The weird thing is not that female viewers have a crush on Loki, but that some of them insist he's not a villain. All of this has been attributed to some kind of hardwired female masochism. Women are inclined to throw themselves at dangerous guys in reality or fiction, trying to change them, trying to interpret them as Not Such a Bad Guy. This is the nasty gender stereotype explanation most often floated for villain fangirls, and it's not supposed to end with fiction.

It suggests women suffer from a fundamental lack of perception as to what a character is "really" like, i.e. a bad person, and that they always desire to "change" a man, an enterprise that would be useless and ultimately hurtful were the character real, but dammit, those silly little women would just keep trying. It's all implied to mirror a drama carried out in real life, a dramatic role that has nothing to do with societal expectations of women, but just the way women are. Women like to hurt themselves by being attached to assholes, whether in reality and fiction.

It's pretty disgusting to see over and over again, and because of this it's tempting to view the stereotypical "villain fangirl" as a straw(wo)man, designed to prop up these myths of female masochism. Yet evidence for this type of nerd exists all around us, so to a point it's real, but the explanations may not be.