Some years ago, I recall emerging from a fog of social irresponsibility into awareness that the Tories had yoked their oxen to the cart of family values. It seemed an appeal to traditional institutions was going to take our then sick society and, by returning to the past, recreate all the circumstances that had made our kingdom great. I confess to being somewhat bemused since marriage had only been invented to give the children of the wealthy the better right in law to inherit the property of their parents. Not having property of value, the poor ignored marriage until the late Victorian era when the tide turned against what had been dignified as common law marriage, i.e. a couple shacking up together and brazening it out. Lust was finally restrained by Puritan morality and all accepted the need to get a priest to wave his arms over the couple before they could have sex. Anyway, then Prime Minister John Major thought it a great wheeze to make an appeal to support the family while quietly sleeping with Edwina Currie. Except when his affair was laid bare, the Tories backed away and kept quiet about their family values since, like the rest of us, they had a flexible view of who they should sleep with. This left it to the religious right in America to reinvent the notion as a way of resisting appeals to legalise same sex marriage and to fight feminism by keeping women in the home where they belonged.
So now along comes Pixar with its slightly subversive take on family values and, to give themselves an additional challenge, it decided to climb the Everest of problems: the relationship between the rebellious teen daughter and her status-conscious mother. So here comes the set-up. In this version of Scotland, there are four clans vaguely bonded together. They have a tradition that the first-born children of the four leaders should marry each other, assuming the genders balance. In this instance, however, we have one daughter and three sons. Because these are primitive times, this is an arranged marriage system. The daughter’s only choice is as to which skill she will choose as the test of ability. Whichever son prevails in competition, then marries her. Needless to say this is worthy only of barbarians, so Pixar has to invent a morality story to show us why marrying for love is the desirable choice for a society aspiring to American values. The fact that other civilisations have run successfully on arranged marriages for centuries is neither here nor there. There has to be a social revolution which teaches all the members of the clans the rightness of families based on mutual love and affection, but still reaffirms the traditional values that brought them all together as allies in the first place and keeps them great.
This is actually a tricky assignment. The reason for the alliance was pure self-interest. When enemies attacked from outside, the clans were stronger in defence when they put aside the long-running jealousies and feuds. Remarkably, even though the external enemies have not returned, the clans have maintained this alliance through the arranged marriages. Think of this political use of marriage as the first step towards statehood based on mutual shared interests. The other revolutionary factor is the reactionary attitude of the women. They have accepted the benefits of having warriors to defend them. Now they want to civilise these lummoxes and teach them table manners. When we start Brave (2012), Meridia (Kelly Macdonald) straddles both camps. She can shoot better than most men and can fight when threatened. Yet Elinor (Emma Thompson), her mother, is intent on moving this ragged bunch into the tenth century and teaching them how to behave properly. Naturally, this does not go down well with Meridia who wants to be a warrior like her father, Fergus (Billy Connolly). However, after the transformation by magic, the most important piece of symbolism comes when Elinor takes off her crown and walks away. She has just remembered how much fun it is to eat fish without worrying about table manners. We never see the crown again as she reinvents herself as a mother from the inside out. Meridia has to make a journey in the opposite direction. She has to accept there are times when it’s not appropriate to be a warrior on her own. Sometimes, she has to be a team player and take responsibility not only for herself, but also for others.
This is a Pixar film so there has to be a crisis. In this case, it’s the return of the past. In days gone by, there were four brothers who ruled a strong kingdom but one wanted to be bigger and stronger than the others. Although he got the strength of ten men, it broke the family and their kingdom fell. Now the same thing has happened to the queen, it’s for the family to fight together if the new kingdom is to survive. Only when father, mother and daughter combine can the shadow of the past be beaten and a new unity forged within the clans. This may sound overly sentimental and, to some extent it is. Frankly, we have to accept the likely impossibility of a film celebrating the love of a daughter for her mother and father without there being tears. However, three factors prevent this particular film from descending into mawkishness. First, it’s a beautifully constructed story. Unlike the majority of recent films, this has a coherent narrative in which every plot element is a cause to an effect. Words spoken early on return later. Apparently minor facts assume major importance as we proceed. Its a delight to watch it all unfold. Second, it’s actually very amusing. From nicely observed protocols used on telephone answering services to slapstick routines, this had the cinema laughing out loud on several occasions which is no mean achievement in these rather precious and sophisticated times. Finally, it’s beautifully “drawn” with many of the landscapes looking confusingly real. The characterisations of all the humans are convincing and, although the three baby bears are more of a caricature (particularly when one goes diving for the key), the adult bears are wonderful.
Taken overall, Brave (2012) is great fun and no matter what your political persuasion, not without an important social message about the need for one generation to listen to the other if all humanity is to advance to the next level.