Pop culture is obsessed with fairy tales right now. But it's all retreads of the same few stories from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen — and not even the original, dark-as-hell stories, but rather the warmed-over Disneyfied versions. Where are the people creating brand new fairy tales from scratch? And why don't these endless retellings of old fairy tales keep the emotional and moral core of these stories intact?
If you want to see how to create a new fairy tale, with all the psychological and emotional intensity of an Andersen classic — and the lesson, too — then you should check out Pixar's Brave.
I'm going to try hard to keep any plot spoilers super vague — but if you're the sort of person who wants to avoid even the merest hint about a story, including stuff that's in the trailer, then here's your spoiler warning.
First off: Brave is by no means as mind-blowing as the Toy Story films, or The Incredibles, or Monsters, Inc. But if this film had come out from Dreamworks or Vanilla Disney, or some other studio, you would be left completely perplexed as to how they managed to pull off something this great.
For one thing, Brave feels like a simpler, smaller film than some of Pixar's all-time classics. It's not that Brave is simpler than those other films — at their core, every single one of those stories is a small story about a handful of characters. But rather, Brave doesn't quite muster the same level of sensory overload. There's nothing like the "huge factory full of moving doors" from Monsters Inc., or the frenetic junkyard squence that ends Toy Story 3. If Pixar was about making formulaic movies that all had the same climax, then this movie would be a bad example of the formula. Luckily, that's not the only way to look at it.
And like I said, Brave feels like a classic fairy tale that you've just somehow never heard of before. It works on all the levels that you'd want a fairy tale to work on — the basic level of spectacle and wonder, the gut-punching emotional level of confronting something really terrible, and the deeper level of looking at our capacity to screw everything up.
And Brave's simplicity is its huge strength — there's pretty much nothing in this film that doesn't wind up feeding into the main storyline, either directly or thematically. There are no wasted lines or purely random bits in the film — it's all feeding into the main story, and it all comes together neatly at the end. Without seeming at all pat.
And now, a brief synopsis, without any major spoilers: Brave follows the Princess Merida, the red-haired rebellious daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson!) She's basically Arya Stark, without all the terrible things that happen to Arya. Merida doesn't want to be a lady, she wants to ride her horse and shoot her bow and arrow, and be bad-ass, and her dad indulges her just like Ned Stark indulges Arya. Until, suddenly, it's time for Merida to become betrothed to the son of one of the other chieftains, and become a Proper Lady. Merida doesn't want to give up her freedom, or marry one of these losers, and thus she goes full-on rebellious. But what if there was a way Merida could have everything she wants?
So here are the ingredients of a great made-from-scratch fairy tale, judging from Brave:
Build a sense of place and history
This is something Brave does pretty well — you get a sense of exactly how King Fergus got to be a King, and what the stakes are, with the chieftains whose sons are vying to wed Merida. And the movie does a really nice job of making it feel like a world where magic exists, and people are sort of aware of it, but it's not a magical kingdom where fantasy shit is happening every other day. There's one monster out there, but people aren't sure if it's magical or just a really bitchin animal.
Focus on the relationships
This being a Pixar movie, the relationships are really well drawn — and there's really one central relationship that dominates the film: the troubled bond between Merida and her ultra-controlling mother. If the audience doesn't buy into that relationship, then nothing else will matter, and the characters will feel just like plastic action figures. Luckily, Brave really makes the mother-daughter bond work, in a way few kids' movies have before.
Give the hero a selfish desire, that we can relate to.
The best fairy tales aren't about purely virtuous protagonists — the hero always does something stupid, even when she probably knows it's the wrong thing to do. Most classic fairy tales actually feature someone being told "whatever you do, don't do _____," and then you know that's what the hero will wind up doing. And a lot of classic fairy tales are sort of conservative, deep down — the protagonist brings doom on everybody by rocking the boat and choosing to reject his/her assigned role. (Think the fable of the sausage, the mouse and the bird.) Brave walks a really tough line — as feminists, we want Merida to be free to be herself and we admire her wild-child spirit, but the film also shows how her desire to do her own thing instead of fulfilling her responsibilities is a bit selfish. And the way she goes about trying to get her freedom is definitely a bit of a mistake. Which brings us to...
The darkness the hero confronts is at least partly inner darkness
Yes, the Luke Skywalker lesson. A feckless adventurer facing terrible stuff is compelling — but watching someone confront their own inner horridness is always more interesting. Merida faces the absolute worst thing you can imagine, and the absolute worst thing about it is the light it casts on her and the choice she's made.
The moral lesson isn't simple or spelled out
You can spend a fair bit of time debating the ending of the movie, and just what the film is saying about Merida and Elinor — and I have a feeling there are going to be some pretty interesting conversations pulling apart just what happens in the final act. Oh, and you should expect to get majorly choked up at the movie's tear-jerking climax.
The fairy tale is at least partly a coming of age story
Everybody's changed at the end of this movie, and Merida winds up taking a huge step towards adulthood, with everything that goes with it. To some extent, Merida's rebellion against her betrothal is always a rejection of having to grow up, and by the end of the film she's done that "journeying into darkness and embracing adult concerns" thing — although it's not in any way as angsty as a YA novel, or anything. This is one of those films that kids, teens, and adults will probably all view in very different ways. Because the best fairy tales speak to everyone in a different way.
So to sum up — Brave is a lovely film, which stays focused on one central relationship instead of exploring multiple axes the way some other Pixar films have. And even though it's often funny as hell, it never gets that "million tops spinning" feeling that some other Pixar films have gotten. But it's a really well-told story that keeps a strong focus on character — and in an era where we're getting endless retellings of the same old fairy tales in slightly different flavors ("Dark Snow White!" "Campy Snow White!" "Snow White Riding on a Dolphin!") it's immensely refreshing to see someone creating a brand new fairy tale that manages to feel like a new classic of the genre.