The Disney Princess Project and The Films of Pixar: “Brave”

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
Atlantis: The Lost Empire
The Little Mermaid
The Princess and the Frog

As time progressed, Pixar received criticism for not having any films with female lead characters. Pixar had strong female characters, such as Helen Parr/Elastigirl and Violet in “The Incredibles,” Sally in “Cars,” EVE in “WALL-E” and Colette in “Ratatouille,” but none of the lead characters had been women. Pixar decided to fix this by making the lead character of “Brave,” the studio’s thirteenth feature, a woman.

The main premise of “Brave” is that Merida (Kelly Macdonald) does not want to get married. Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), is a little more willing to allow her to be her natural tomboyish self, but her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is concerned about the future of the kingdom and has been preparing her daughter for marriage since she was little. The lords of the land arrive to present their sons and Merida isn’t impressed and challenges them to an archery match. Through this, Merida shows she can do archery better than any of the potential suitors, humiliating her family and the lords. She then runs off and meets a witch (Julie Walters), who prepares a spell to change Merida’s fate. Merida feeds the spell-laden treat to her mother, turning her into a bear. They then run off to try to figure out how to reverse the spell while tensions brew because Merida needs a suitor.

The movie would be much better if Merida wasn’t so annoying. Even at the end it’s difficult to care about Merida and her problems since she brings most of the upon herself by being confrontational and not willing to understand her mother. Additionally it isn’t until the end that Merida really realizes that she brought her problems upon herself. For most of the film Merida feels like her problems are the result of her mother wanting for her to get married. I would be a little more sympathetic if this wasn’t set in Scotland during the same period the Vikings existed and a girl who wasn’t even in her teens getting engaged wasn’t common place. After all, we’ve already seen a Disney movie during this blog post series that featured a woman being engaged to a prince at the announcement of her birth.

What’s troubling about the movie is the use of anachronistic humor in the film. Humor that uses anachronisms can work, as seen with “Hercules,” but because of the tone of the film it seems very out of place. The two examples seen in the film both come from the witch when Merida and her mother visit the witch. The witch has left an away message in her cauldron that has options where you dump a vial to get a different message. This is reminiscent of menus anyone gets when calling a customer service number. When Merida dumps the vial for the message left for her, the Witch mentions going to the Wicker Man fest, which is either the Dark Age version of Burning Man or a festival where people yell “Not the bees!” at each other. Why either of those things would be mentioned in a children’s movie is beyond me. Wicker men were also part of Druid rituals, but even for a film studio that is prone to make obscure references in their movies, Druid rituals is pretty obscure. Also, most adults watching this movie would hear “Wicker man” and either think of the British horror film or the Nicholas Cage film. No matter how you slice this, I don’t know why the “Wicker Man festival” comment is made.

Some of the jokes made in the film also tend to be a bit lazy. In the film we get a joke about haggis being gross and one of the lords lifts his kilt to insult the other lords. These jokes feel lazy because they’re jokes that have been seen in every movie and TV show that has ever had Scottish characters.

But this is not the biggest problem with “Brave.” What ultimately makes this film problematic is the pacing. The big event in the film–the transformation of Elinor into a bear–doesn’t happen until halfway through the film. Everything before the film just leads up to that event. If you think about it, that’s 45 minutes of events that lead up the transformation which isn’t the slowest I’ve seen in a movie released by Disney, but that ends up feeling very slow. As a result, the quest to reverse the curse feels a bit rushed.

But since this is a Pixar film we have excellent animation, particularly with the animation for Elinor. We have wonderful hair designs, especially with Merida’s red locks that bounce up and down as she rides on her horse. The Scottish landscape is wonderful to look at, such as whenever the characters are near water. The attention to detail is also very evident, such as the fabric in Elinor’s dress at the end of the film or the hairs on the chin of the witch.

But is Merida a Good Role Model for Children?: No.

I can see where some people would argue that because Merida is tomboyish and rides horses and shoots a bow and arrow that she’s a good role model. That doesn’t excuse her behavior in the film. Her behavior is in many ways similar to that of Ariel. In this situation, rather than being told by her father that she can’t marry a human, she’s told by her mother that she has to marry. This results in the same solution of going to a witch and asking for help. A difference is that all Merida knows is that she’ll change her fate with the spell given to her by the witch while Ariel is well aware of what she’s getting herself into with Ursula.

That said, there is a clear transformation the character undergoes during the film. All of the stronger princesses I have examined or will examine feature this characteristic. I will give the filmmakers credit for this, but for most of the film Merida feels a bit annoying and also not a very compelling character. What’s even worse is that the conflict of not wanting to be in an arranged marriage feels better handled in “Mulan 2,” and I should not be able to say that I think a plot is handled better in a direct-to-DVD Disney sequel.

As both a Pixar film and a princess movie, “Brave” fails to live up to previous standards. But you could do much worse with Pixar films and it never manages to fall to the level of “Cars 2.”

The Films of Pixar: “Cars” (2006)

John Lasseter’s film Cars is a love letter to the automobile, Route 66, and auto racing, primarily NASCAR racing. However, Cars is not that beautiful of a love letter. Between the dragged out plot, the inclusion of Mader the Tow Truck and details that sometimes become repetitive, Cars is like a love letter that includes the wrong metaphors and similes, causing an unintended response of annoyance.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a hotshot race car that has managed to make a three-way tie between “The King” (appropriately Richard Petty) and Chick (Michael Keaton) for the Piston Cup. In order to determine who is the winner, the three cars must travel to Los Angeles to compete for the cup. On the way there, Lightning falls out of Mack (John Ratzenberger), his car carrier, and ends up traveling down a dusty desert road before attempting to make it back to the interstate. He ends up in the tiny town called Radiator Springs, where he tears up the road. The sheriff (Michael Wallis) arrests him and the morning after his accident, Doc (Paul Newman) orders Lightning to repave the roads. As he struggles through this task, he meets Mader the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), the town lawyer; Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Ramone (Cheech Marin), and Flo (Jenifer Lewis), denizens of the town that grows on Lightning as racing fans panic over his location.

One of the biggest problems with Cars is that it’s set in a world where humans do not exist and presumably a world where there is unbearable pollution since Cars apparently took over the world at some point in time. In all of Pixar’s other films, the characters have to live with humans—although this isn’t as major in A Bug’s Life, but the existence of trash in the big city Flik visits and the sombrero the Grasshoppers party under tells us that humans do inhabit this world. Here, cars control the machines that pave the roads, they make the laws, they create the towns, they run the towns and apparently build every structure. But yet Route 66 still exists, the cozy and familiar architecture of Los Angeles—well, cozy and familiar to me—is still there. Perhaps this is a parallel world, or an alternate history of the country. The lack of humans in Cars leads to there being almost no dramatic tension. In all but one of the Pixar films I’ve written about so far, humans do provide the tension by their deeds. Here, the tension is mostly Lightning saying, “I’m leaving this town!” and Doc saying, “No, you still need to fix the roads.”

But there’s an even bigger problem with this film and that is the existence of Mader. In previous Pixar films, celebrities inhabit the roles they voice to the point that you don’t see it as Tim Allen as Buzz, but just Buzz Lightyear. Here, we are presented with the tow truck version of Larry the Cable Guy, easily the most annoying sidekick ever created in an animated film. He’s dim, he tries to hard to make a joke, he is crude with jokes that will only be caught if you’re an adult and pay attention to the film. For example, there’s this part of the dialogue.

Lightning: He has three Piston Cups!
Mader: He did what in his cup?

Although that is a little more clever than the crude jokes present in the CGI films of Dreamworks, it still feels out of place in a Pixar film. Meanwhile, Larry the Cable Guy feels like he was added in here to attract a new demographic. There doesn’t seem to be any other reason for his character to exist than that.

But there’s still lovely animation and a wide array of cars on display in this film. That doesn’t mean that it’s worth a viewing. At a few minutes short of being two hours long, the film is desperately in need of a trimming, which would probably make it more interesting. Or maybe it needed some deeper character interaction than Lightning falling for Sally or discovering Doc’s secret.

Cars is an incredibly flawed film where it’s hard to figure out what the problem was. It’s clear that there were good intentions with this film, but good intentions does not mean that a product is ever good. At the very least, the film made a lot of money for Disney with merchandising and licensing.

The Films of Pixar: “Toy Story 2” (1999)

"When She Loved Me" was robbed of an Oscar.Toy Story created history by becoming the first film completely done with computer generated images and featured a cheerful, heartwarming story with terrific lines. While Toy Story 2 is an improvement after A Bug’s Life, this sequel fails to match its predecessor due to an overcrowding of antagonists and rehashed plot ideas while still having an incredibly moving scene. Even with the what works in Toy Story 2, I can only be left to say that Toy Story 2 was okay.

The film starts off with a scene that shows Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) flying through space before landing on a planet he believes to hold the stronghold of his archenemy, Emperor Zurg (Andrew Stanton). This sequence ends and it’s revealed that Rex (Wallace Shawn) was playing a Buzz Lightyear video game, but this sets up a subplot involving Buzz and a Zurg action figure that happens in the film. Meanwhile, Woody (Tom Hanks) is being played with by his owner, Andy (John Morris), when a seam rips. Woody is placed on a shelf with other forgotten toys, including Wheezy the Penguin (Joe Ranft). One day, Andy’s mom (Laurie Metcalf) collects toys for a yard sale and takes Wheezy, prompting Woody to go after the penguin toy and land himself in the yard sale. There, Al (Wayne Knight) spots Woody and steals him after being told Woody is not for sale. Buzz decides to save his friend and is joined by Rex, Hamm (John Ratzenberger), Slinky (Jim Varney) and Mr. Potato Head (Don Rickles). Woody arrives at Al’s condo and meets three other western-themed toys: Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack), Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer) and Bullseye. From these toys, Woody finds out that he was the star of a show called “Woody’s Roundup,” something more than just Andy’s toy. Meanwhile Buzz runs into another Buzz at Al’s Toy Barn while the toys try to rescue their friend.

To some extent, this film has a strong plot, or at least a very promising plot. What causes Toy Story 2 to be okay is that the plot is overstuffed with antagonists, resulting in Too Many Antagonists Syndrome. In the main plot, there are two villains—Al and Stinky Pete—while the subplot also involves Zurg, who seems as though he was possibly thrown in to help introduce viewers to him before Disney aired their traditionally animated Buzz Lightyear of Star Command television series. Unfortunately, the plot of this seems to primarily serve as a method to include obligatory space references such as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey or the “I am your father” line. Does it give the characters any emotional depth? No. If anything, it holds up the plot and is the one thing that would make the film so much better if it was eliminated. It’s completely unnecessary, especially since Zurg is never mentioned again in the films. The other problem with the film would be the lack of real danger for the toys. Yes, Woody might be sent off to Japan and never see Andy again, but that’s not as bad as being strapped to a rocket by a psychopathic child or what the toys face in the climactic scene of Toy Story 3. The only time any of the toys seem to be in danger is when Buzz, Hamm, Rex, Mr. Potato Head and Slinky are crossing a busy street to get to Al’s Toy Barn. None of the antagonists are particularly terrifying either. In Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Ratatouille all of the antagonists are terrifying in various ways, be it their appearance, their actions or how they seem as though they would stop at nothing to bring down the protagonist. Although Toy Story 2 has three antagonists, none of them are particularly terrifying and they don’t seem bent on insuring that the toys, or other toys, fail.

Thankfully there is a plot in the film that gives the characters some depth and that is the main plot. The main plot even started what would eventually become a signature of Pixar films: scenes that cause adults—myself included—to cry. This occurs during a scene where Jessie informs Woody of her owner, Emily who abandoned her. The moments shared between Jessie and Emily are shown in a flashback while a song entitled “When She Loved Me” is sung, showing how the girl grew up, replaced her favorite cowgirl with nailpolish and make-up before finding the toy under her bed one day and taking Jessie to a donation box. In some ways, the toys in the Toy Story films feel more like people than the humans do because of their emotions. While watching a toy be forgotten, only to be discovered again, feel as though she’s finally close to her owner again only to be dumped in a box you can’t help but feel sorry for Jessie. In one scene, her anger towards Woody as he goes on about Andy and how wonderful things will be once he’s reunited is completely explained. That one scene is what redeems Toy Story 2 because while one plot does nothing to add depth to the characters one scene makes Jessie a more likable and believable character as well as change Woody’s outlook on things, causing him to realize that he won’t always be Andy’s toy.

With Toy Story 2, the animation starts to show some improvement in detail. While the humans still look very cartoonish and not as detailed as they would eventually become, we begin to see larger scenes such as the luggage belts of an international airport and details on even the fake hair of characters, such as Jessie’s red yarn-like hair. What is truly impressive about this is how the animation seems to jump between A Bug’s Life and this film, but that might be related to the different locations the toys have to move to throughout the film.

No, Toy Story 2 was not better than its predecessor. It even could have learned some things from the first Toy Story film, such as simplicity of plot and the value of having a good antagonist. But thanks to emotion being found in a sometimes unfocused film, it still is worth a watch every now and then.

The Films of Pixar: “A Bug’s Life” (1998)

Bug is a klutz. Bug screws up and is sent on a perceived suicide mission to find bugs to help colony defend themselves agains evil grasshoppers. Bug finds what he thinks are warriors. Bug returns to colony and is hailed a hero. Bug finds out that the warriors are actually circus bugs.

In the first paragraph, I’ve summarized the plot of Pixar’s second film, A Bug’s Life, which was made after the success of Toy Story. Toy Story had an interesting concept behind it, the idea of what toys do when we aren’t watching. A Bug’s Life has the premise of a bunch of ants rebelling against evil grasshoppers. Even though Woody was incredibly insecure, he was still likable, while Flik (Dave Foley) isn’t a really likable character. In the early minutes of the film, we see that his ideas are meant to make things easier for the colony, only he makes things harder by destroying the harvest that must be given to Hopper (Kevin Spacey) and his grasshopper colony. He then suggests that rather than trying to get more of a harvest, that it would be a great idea to find bigger bugs to fight Hopper and his posse, which leads him to the big city. There he discovers a ragtag team of circus bugs that includes a male ladybug named Francis (Denis Leary), a stick insect (David Hyde Pierce), a caterpillar that’s an extreme German stereotype (Joe Ranft), a praying mantis (Jonathan Harris), a butterfly (Madeline Kahn), a beetle (Brad Garrett), a Black Widow (Bonnie Hunt) and two Woodlice (Mike McShane). Convinced they are warriors because of a skit they put on in a bar, he decides to bring them back to the colony. There he finds out that the circus performers, who thought he was a talent scout, aren’t actually warriors, but the attention is nice, so let’s keep lying to the Queen (Phyllis Diller) and Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). Meanwhile, the grasshoppers dance and sing to “La Cucaracha.”

The problem with A Bug’s Life is that lacks charm to amuse intelligent children and adults. There are jokes that will amuse adults and jokes that will amuse children, but none of them have the same maturity as the ones found in Toy Story or another ant-related CGI film released that year, Antz. What is more aggravating is that the plot drags on for a bit partly because Flik doesn’t ever come across as that engaging of a character. Maybe if the film had been told from the perspective of Princess Atta or even Hopper, it could have been more interesting. It also suffers from the problem of having several characters that seem more like caricatures than characters, including Heimlich the caterpillar, who could be the most annoying character in an animated film if Terk wasn’t in Tarzan.

A Bug’s Life could have been a great follow-up to Toy Story. It features a stellar cast and has great animation, but still trudges along as we set up to the point where the grasshoppers come back for the colony. And when the film gets to its ending, it all happens so quickly that it feels a bit rushed, yet at the same time you find yourself waiting for the plot to wrap up and get to the point where the ants are victorious and the grasshoppers are gone.

Yet somehow A Bug’s Life manages to redeem itself from being the worst film released by Pixar. The benefit of having a terrific group of actors to provide the voices is that they actually play the characters, not themselves. A Bug’s Life isn’t as long as some of Pixar’s other films, which does help prevent the plot from seeming too drawn out. And at the end, it’s satisfying because the good guys triumph thanks to the other ants finally finding their courage. Although this is predicted by Hopper at one point, it still is nice to see that the film doesn’t entirely rely on Flik and the circus bugs to save the colony.

Yes, maybe the ants accepting they no longer have to deal with the status quo is what makes the film somewhat enjoyable. Even in the midst of a movie that seems content to be just another family film, a resolution worth cheering for was still found.