We Need a Hero: 'Brave' & 'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter'
The quality that has always elevated Pixar, with its incredible string of critical and financial wonderments, above the rest of the animation houses (DreamWorks, Universal's Illumination Entertainment, whoever makes Ice Age) is an originality of spirit that finds adventure, enlightenment, and genuine sentiment in odd and unexpected places. The small world of toys tells a huge, emotionally epic story of growth and loss; a lonely trash-collecting robot illuminates a longing that exists within all of us; balloons spilling out of a small house's chimney are a whimsical paean to the human spirit. These are not traditional setups for children's movies — sure there are heroes and villains, but all the old familiar tropes are shaped and shaded, given grain and texture, in such a unique and wise way. The joy of watching a really good Pixar film is encountering a new and surprising world only to have it warm and enrich your own familiar heart, mind, soul, whatever.
And so when we arrive at Pixar's latest film, a Scottish Highlands-set adventure featuring the company's first true female lead, it comes as something of a disappointment, perhaps a big disappointment, that instead of creating another of Pixar's innovative and wholly original worlds, the creative team has plopped the girl down into a traditional princess story. Brave is about a headstrong teenage-ish girl named Merida, the princess daughter to a doting king and a loving but stern queen, who, in the spirit of all good tomboy princesses, doesn't want to be married off to some random lordling. That's the basic setup of Brave, a standard princess tale in the true Disney tradition. But wait, why can't Pixar's first head girl take a balloon adventure to Venezuela or go traveling to Sydney to find a lost loved one or cook beautiful food in a Parisian kitchen? She's just a girl who doesn't want to get married? She's a girl who rejects girl things and is thus a hero? (Because girl things are silly, whereas swords and arrows are totally cool, period.) There's a strange undercurrent of mistaken feminism running throughout the film. It's as if the writers and directors felt that making the girl be interested in traditional boy things might somehow elevate her out of the creaky old framework they seemed to think she belonged in.
There was some kind of shuffle that occurred during production that had director Brenda Chapman, Pixar's first female director, replaced by a pair of men, who also came in and tooled around with the screenplay, but let's not get into any behind-the scenes speculation. The point is that, this being a Pixar film, Brave is a dismayingly unimaginative movie, one that presents a seemingly exciting, liberated young woman but still keeps the walls pretty tight around her. It's a nice, heartwarming story, but it could have been so much more. It literally could have been anything! The limits of the universe have, in the past, seemed of no concern to Pixar's crack creative team, so it's strange to see them so cowed by, well, a little girl.
Headstrong, archery-mad Merida (voiced with pluck by Kelly Macdonald) doesn't want to get married but her mother (Emma Thompson, cozy as ever) won't budge. So, in a rage one day, Merida follows some blue-glowing fairies called will-o'-the-wisps (their appearance and the sound they make, coupled with a horseback archery scene, suggest to me that some designer out in California was playing a lot of Ocarina of Time a couple years ago) to a witch's house and makes a bargain with the quirky old crone. Merida asks the witch to simply "change" her mother, in the hopes that this change, whatever vague change it is, will free Merida from the crusty old tradition of betrothal. (There are three boys of varying dopiness, sons of clan leaders, competing for her hand.) Of course the spell gives Merida more than she bargained for and the latter half of the movie becomes a quest to undo the spell and reconcile with her mother. So actually this is less a story about independence than it is one about teenage daughters and their mothers, such a contentious relationship at times, and in that vein there is a nice glimmer of that old Pixar sageness, the keen knowingness about humanity that has won over as many adults as it has children. But still, why is the Pixar movie with the female lead a movie solely about female relationships? That seems like it could be a nice subplot, a teen and her mom coming to appreciate each other's point of view, but the scope feels awfully small compared to, say, the softly profound rumination on time that is Toy Story 3, or Ratatouille's deep and rich meditation on artistic conviction. That's not to denigrate this complex relationship, there's plenty there to mine, but as the main narrative thrust of the film, it feels a little thin. Or lonely, maybe. Merida is a fun, spirited character, and it would be nice to see her do and experience so much more than this essentially domestic drama allows.
Brave feels distressingly like the most market-tested of Pixar's films (save for Cars and its sequel, perhaps), and the creative team (who knows who is responsible for what at this point) overcompensates for the girl-lead factor by throwing in lots of cartoony slapstick violence, seemingly afraid that the boys in the audience would get bored without it. There were plenty of hoots and hollers at all this in the kid-filled crowd I saw the movie with, but the young gents also seemed plenty rapt at the more serious or emotional or, yes, girly parts too. It's strange to watch adults graft gender expectations onto kids who, bare of any outside influence, don't care much about gender. They just want a fun story in which fun, interesting things happen. Fun, interesting things do happen in Brave, and the kids in my audience ate it all up, but sadly there was little there for the adults; the movie is missing a strain of thoughtfulness that we're selfishly used to getting from Pixar.
All this criticism aside, Brave is a lovely film, chock full of lush Highland landscapes — the craggy, snowy peaks of the Cairngorms (or some such place), tumbling waterfalls, crumbling druid ruins, dark and mysterious forests. But the highest accomplishment of Brave's animation is Merida's hair, a joyful burst of fiery red tendrils that move with a bouncing life of their own, dangling over her eyes like vines, swishing back proudly like a lion's mane when Merida prepares to loose an arrow. Pixar is always so good at these lively details, they are why their wacky worlds work; there's a thoroughness that makes them believable. Brave does not exist in such a wacky world, but all of the careful artistry does still remind us that we are watching a film made by the best animators in the business. It's a simple fairytale princess story, and that's a disappointment, but it's still a beautiful swoon to behold.
Now that we've gotten Merida's first early teen rebellion out of the way, let's let her and that hair of hers go to some new, unexpected places. What kinds of adventures await her beyond Ben Nevis? She's a nice creation, lovingly rendered and given a sturdy, sparkling voice, but Brave pens her in, tells her it's great to be a girl who's leading the pack, just so long as she doesn't stray too far from the rest of her kind. Next time, if there is a next time, I hope they let her run as wild as she wants to be.
Maybe Merida would make killing vampires in the 19th century South more interesting than Abraham Lincoln can in the dreary, nonsensical new fantasy action mess Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Adapted from the novel by irksome, smug pop gimmick peddler Seth Grahame-Smith (who blessed us earlier this summer with his flimsy Dark Shadows script), AL: VH has "fun" tweaking history to transform our sixteenth president from Great Emancipator to Butt-Kicking, Axe-Wielding, Matrix-Fighting Emancipator. The humor of this joke lasts about as long as it takes to consider the movie's title, and then you have to sit through the damn thing, a soggy, sloppy, incoherent belch of a movie that is devoid of any value whatsoever.
The plot, if you care, concerns a young Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker, such a swaggering, sexy, visceral presence in Broadway's Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, so muted and wasted here) whose mother was killed by a nasty vampire and has sworn revenge. Luckily he hooks up with a mysterious fellow (who wears sunglasses and is seen applying thick skin cream, what could he beeee?), played with bored, "flats in Belsize Park don't pay for themselves" dimness by Dominic Cooper, who teaches him the way of the vampyr and how to kill them. These vamps are done in by silver, something Biblical having to do with Judas' thirty pieces of silver, so Abe pours molten silver over his axe blade and begins choppin' fiends. Along the way he meets Mary Todd (Elizabeth Winstead — guest houses in Los Feliz don't pay for themselves either) and encounters his true nemesis, the original vampire, called Adam (oohhh, scary! Adam!), played by Rufus Sewell, who, I dunno, has kids to send to private school? There's gotta be some reason.
Anyhoo, Adam has set up vamp camp in the South because
Jason Stackhouse lives there and he's sexy they can feed off of slaves and no one will notice that the slaves are gone, because who cares they're just slaves. So that's the strange conceit of this movie: The Civil War is fought not by Southern humans who want to keep slaves, but by diabolical undead monsters who want to eat slaves. It both lets Southerners of the era off the hook and equates them with demons. However you interpret it, the effect is curious; both groaningly silly and also vaguely offensive. Hearing the Gettysburg Address spoken over scenes of vampires in Confederate uniforms being slain by silver bullets and cannons stirred in me only a cold kind of revulsion at having our country's greatest and most vital internal struggle reduced to a cheap vampire joke. I realize that's taking the material a bit too seriously, but 3D vampire fests should probably never be a medium for talking about slavery and emancipation.
A bit of that cultural insensitivity may be owed to the fact that Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is directed by Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov, the seemingly tasteless schlockmeister behind Russia's most successful film ever Night Watch, its sequel Day Watch, and the Angelina Jolie/magic loom of fate action picture Wanted. Bekmambetov brings all of his stale visual tricks to AL: VH, most of which involve slo-mo shots of violence and blood splatter that are maybe kinda cool the first few times, but when every single kill is slowed down and amped-up it all becomes meaningless. The film's two big set-pieces are a physics-be-damned chase through a horse stampede (a vampire throws a horse at Abe, who, I'm pretty sure, catches it with his legs and begins to ride it?) and a finale involving a train, a flaming bridge, and a bunch of angry bloodsuckers. Everything is choreographed with the same blurry confusion — it's near impossible to tell one character clad in period brown from another — and it all adds up to basically nothing. There is no meaning, purpose, or necessity to any of the film's action, it's all arbitrary hack 'em for hacking 'em's sake. Which may sound fun to some of you, and on a normal day would sound fun to me (Underworld is The Cherry Orchard compared to this gunk), but don't be fooled. This is senseless violence as tedium rather than titillation.
In the end, the vampires are (spoiler) slain, and the union is once again restored, the nation's black people no longer forced to
work for callous white humans in their killing fields be food for vampires. (Is that an allegory? A metaphor? Whatever the fuck it is, it doesn't work.) And we all know how Lincoln's story ended, so there has to be a nod to that. It's all junk and clutter and crap that means nothing and should not have been made. It's a waste of everyone's time and talent (if you saw Rufus Sewell in Tom Stoppard's Rock and Roll, you know what exquisite artistry he is capable of), and is an especially terrible big film debut for supposedly next-big-thing Benjamin Walker. I wonder what Walker's mother-in-law Meryl Streep will think of this film. I imagine a cold Miranda Priestly stare and then a curt dismissal. We should all do the same.