Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Over the last seventeen years we have once again fallen in love with the world of animation, with stories resonating just as brightly for the old as they do the young. Pixar rose from the ashes of a dying Disney dynasty and brought us wildly diverse worlds of little boys, toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes, cars, rats, robots, and old men. But in all that time, there was never a lead, female protagonist. Even Ellie, the introductory heroine who inspired widespread adoration in Up, was nothing more than an all-too-brief blip created to inspire her widowed husband’s adventures.
The tide changed in 2008, when it was rather quietly announced that a film by the name of The Bear and the Bow (later renamed Brave) was on the upcoming slate not only with Pixar’s first female lead, but also with their first female director, Brenda Chapman. In fact, it took some two years for the Internet world to catch on and people to realize that yes, women had definitely broken into Pixar’s boys’ club. The celebration, however, was short-lived. Just one month after the world caught wind of Chapman’s gig, the director left the film.
Two years later, Brave is hitting screens, with wild, royal Scottish abandon. Princess Merida doesn’t want to play the Dating Game, Highlands-Style. She wants to be in peace to marry herself, shoot her arrows, and get her nagging mother off her back. She’s a princess, which everyone feared for after the merging of Pixar and Disney, with a healthy dose of the spunk the former studio is known for. It’s hard not to fall for her in the trailers alone, with her wildly flowing ginger locks and her charming Scottish accent (offered up by Kelly Macdonald).
It’s no surprise that we’re visually drawn to Merida. She’s the result of five years of work, research, programming, and minute detail. Chapman (along with production designer Steve Pilcher and replacement director Steve Andrews) recently talked with the New York Times about how Merida came to be and the effort that went into her creation. Chapman envisioned “a real girl, not one that very few could live up to with tiny, skinny arms, waist, and legs. I wanted an athletic girl. I wanted a wildness about her, so that’s where the hair came in, to underscore that free spirit. But mainly I wanted to give girls something to look at and not feel inadequate.”
From there, layers were added, the culmination of everyone’s inner vision and the aspects of the character’s personality. Multiple character sketches were created, to both hone in on Merida’s look and how she would interact with her rich, Highlands environment. As Pilcher explained: “I wanted to think about colors that would work with her and that would always make her hair the element that you look at the most. With her eye color, a natural thing to do would be to pick the complementary color to her hair, which would be green. But that’s done to death, so we went blue.”
Every slight visual aspect of Merida’s appearance and environment were methodically researched, planned, and executed. There were multiple trips to Scotland, education in kilt and tartan design, special programs created to make Merida’s hair and the kilts flow with realistic precision, and more to tackle the land and water. It begins to make you wonder: What would female characters in Hollywood be like if that much attention was paid to their characterizations?
Of course, visual representations are essential because they tap into recognition and memory. If Pixar yearns to create a human heroine, they best put a lot of effort in and avoid the sinkhole where Robert “DeadEyes” Zemeckis resides. It’s the first-impression theory; what we see makes an immediate impact, and doesn’t have the perks of slow and measured development. Nevertheless, there’s an argument to be made for that detail being brought to characterizations. We’re a moviegoing public taught to focus on story and stomach stereotype – conditioned to often expect little, and pleasantly surprised by simple, basic effort.
Ellie in Up is a prime example. There is nothing extraordinary about her. She’s a spunky girl who craves adventure. She’s like a lot of boy characters the screen has introduced, who have such drive and charisma that everyone loves them. But she’s a girl. As such, she’s a wild anomaly, especially in the world rife with princes and princesses. Her rareness makes her extraordinary, which speaks to our sad state of affairs when a very real and recognizable girl hero becomes something of extensive note.
If the same attention was paid to characterization, might the boys’ club of classic Hollywood filmmakers and writers have comprehensively researched women’s thoughts, motivations, and actions? At the very least, such attention to detail would mean that Hollywood releases wouldn’t be littered with so many superficial characters and repetitive, clichéd women. At the very best, real, diverse women would be the easy norm, so that creators could then focus on crafting the extraordinary.
The danger, naturally, is in giving something too much thought – in putting such pressure on expectations requirements that the art can’t flow and develop. In his review for Salon, Andrew O’Hehir distinguishes between heroines who are “good for us” and heroines who are “actually, y’know, good.” He explains: “Both Brave and the Dora franchise represent honorable – and desperately needed – attempts to craft alternative role models, and alternative entertainment options, for girls who yearn to break out of the pink-and-peach prison of princess culture.” He frames Brave as the Disney film with “almost none of the usual adult-directed comedy or ironic context” Pixar usually offers.
Early reviews – even the positive ones – certainly seem to recognize this as more of a decent Disney film and a Pixar disappointment. Matt Singer wrote about the failure of Pixar’s third “Rule of Storytelling.” Christy Lemire wrote: “This time, the usual depth of story and well-developed characters simply aren’t there. It’s a pleasant diversion but, comparatively, a disappointment.” Similarly, Kate Erbland described Brave as “a poor Pixar feature, but it’s a wonderful Disney Princess film.”
So perhaps the eagerly anticipated feminist message, zeroing quite firmly on the relationship between mother and daughter, distracted the Pixar team from creating the rich stories that have made the studio a family film powerhouse. I’d like to think that it couldn’t be the “pressures” of creating female characters and experiences. They proved their talent with Ellie, and as numerous films have revealed (like Ripley in Alien), merely writing the part for a boy and switching it to a girl often results in some of the most memorable female characterizations.
But does obsession and detail really ruin the overall effect? Take two modern folk heroes, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. While having coffee in Paris, Dylan once asked Cohen how long it took to write his now widely covered song, “Hallelujah.” Cohen lied and said a couple of years, when it actually took more. When the scribe subsequently praised one of Dylan’s songs, and asked how long it took, Dylan said: “Fifteen minutes.”
Brilliance and depth can come in minutes or years. Sure, there’s a level of extreme talent from scribes like Dylan and Cohen that cannot be expected by every film that hits Hollywood screens. But Cohen is, certainly, an example of how a precise commitment to detail and the formation of words and thoughts can create beloved pieces of art.
It can’t happen in Brave. The film is signed, sealed, and almost delivered. But maybe the whole package will come next. Chapman has told the NYT: “Fairy tales have gotten kind of a bad reputation, especially among women. So what I was trying to do was just turn everything on its head. Merida is not upset about being a princess or being a girl. She knows what her role is. She just wants to do it her way, and not her mother’s way.”
The princess angle has been turned on its end, so maybe – in Merida’s wake – Pixar will recapture its groove, retire the royalty, and give us the heroine who can rise above Up and inspire us all.