Pixar's Take on Kafka

He that hath children hath given hostages to Disney, as Francis Bacon would no doubt have put it if he'd lived in our time. That's why the latest reason I'm glad little Thomasina Carson doesn't exist—there are many, and Justin Bieber's existence is the least of them—is the woe I'd feel at watching her innocently toddle off to see Brave.

It's not that the movie's bad, understand. After a shaky start and despite some later missteps, it turns into one of Pixar's best, and definitely one of the most surprising. In the wake of, among others, Up and Wall-E—well, the latter's first half, anyway—presumably we can all agree that's no trivial claim. 

But the movie's power is due to a certain Big Transformation of a major character midway through that, like my colleagues, I have to wrestle with divulging or not—even though, as my pal Glenn Kenny of MSN grumped, the whole world will know about it by the weekend. (It's already in the movie's plot summary on Wikipedia, making critics' good manners feel even dumber. ) And said Big Transformation triggers sequences so wrenching—they tap into some of childhood's most basic anxieties and fears in an utterly original way—that her mom and I might be comforting our imaginary Thomasina for a month. Put it this way: if you thought Bambi was traumatizing, you don't know how easy you had it.

For Pixar to be doing a princess movie at all is plenty weird enough. It's sort of like NASA trying its hand at curating the National Gallery's skating rink. Early on, Brave's trio of directors—Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell—seem to be playing by rules that don't interest them very much and not making an especially bright job of it. Merida (nicely voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is the red-headed daughter of rambunctious, supersized Fergus (Billy Connolly) and demure, diminutive Elinor (Emma Thompson), rulers of an imaginary kingdom in ancient Scotland. Not only does the setting feel like a hand-me-down—the movie's rositering Scots are far too reminiscent of How to Train Your Dragon's roistering Vikings—but a lot of the exposition, from Fergus's revenge fixation on a black bear named Mor'du who gave him a duplicate of Captain Ahab's old peg leg to a legend Elinor tells her daughter about a rebel prince who once laid the kingdom low, just sort of dithers along.

So you wait for something to interest you. True, Merida's more tomboyish than your average Disney princess: not only does she hate dressing up, but she's handy with a bow and arrow. Between this movie and The Hunger Games, manufacturers of junior archery kits must be agog at their unexpected good fortune.

By 2012 standards, though, that isn't exactly mold-breaking. Neither is the dilemma that finally puts the plot in gear: Merida's upcoming betrothal to the first-born son of one of the kingdom's three leading clans, bound by tradition to compete for her hand. Naturally, she doesn't have a say in which one wins, but ... well, we know that none of these three bozos will be The One. So where's Prince Charming, we wonder—the low-born but handsome palace stable boy (or whatever), who will, after many misadventures, etc.?

Honestly, it's no small thrill when we catch on he's nowhere in sight—and won't be forthcoming, either. Instead, feeling understandably balky about the whole three-suitors deal, Merida betakes herself to the forest and is a led to a witch (Julie Walters) who cheerfully agrees to cast a spell that will change her fate. But you know how it goes when you forget to specify how, which is where the Big Transformation comes in. 

Redeeming the long build-up and then some—if Wall-E's first hour evoked Samuel Beckett, the homely metaphor for domestic relationships that turns startlingly literal in Brave's second half is a projection of family tensions not too many rungs down from Kafka's "The Metamorphosis"—the rest of the movie involves Merida's race to reverse the spell before "the second sunrise" makes it permanent. And here's where life gets frustrating for reviewers who've decided not to give too much away. Repeating the advice I've already given to at least one brainy but tender-hearted female friend—"Do Not See This Movie With Your Mother"—is about as far as I'm prepared to go.

So let's see what I can tell you instead. That both the costs and the value of adolescent rebellion get their fair due, as do both the hassles and the benefits of having parents whose duelling temperaments turn a kid's life into ping-pong. That the classic-Disney tradition of cutely anthropomorphic animals was probably long overdue for a twist that turns it scary and enormously moving at once. That the post-transformation animation of the character in question is as purely lovely—delicate, humorous, poignant, and somehow more evocative of the original's true nature than the original was—as anything Pixar has done.

What else? That any child who's ever been frightened by the sight and sound of Mommy and Daddy at odds into thinking "It's all my fault" is in for one agonizing ride before the (c'mon, calling this a spoiler would be silly) happy ending. But that he or she will also learn that parents are never more truly parents than when they're protecting their offspring from danger. That if How to Train Your Dragon's scenes of the dragon being tormented were too much for your wee one—and who says I don't try to be responsible?—better wait a couple of years before renting Brave.

And, oh, yeah: that I hope Thomasina would have been made of tougher stuff than I am. The cranky reviewer who drove to the screening knows very well that Brave's storytelling and characterizations have their flaws and too-easy bits—maybe more of them, in fact, than any Pixar classic. But the sack of mush who drove home couldn't have cared less, and it's just as well the whole thing doesn't work as well as the climax does. Then my remnants of dignity really wouldn't have a leg—or should that be a peg leg?—to stand on.

Footnote: It would be remiss of any reviewer to write anything at all about movies this week without mourning the loss of Andrew Sarris (1928-2012), the father of us all. In this epigone's case, not that either of them knew it, the hypothetical custody battle between him and Mom -- Pauline Kael, of course, and she got to me first -- may mean that my two cents on the great man's legacy are too puerile and/or obvious to share. We took them so personally, no matter which side we were on or thought we were.  Maybe next week, but in the meantime, I recommend two apt, heartfelt, very different tributes: Peter Gerstenzang's and David Edelstein's. There will be many more, and should be.

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