BRAVE Hits the Bulls-Eye
by Gene Ching
When it comes to martial fads, forget MMA for now. The Year of the Dragon 2012 belongs to the archers, especially on the silver screen. So far, two of this year's top-grossing films feature archers. There was Katniss, the inspirational teen heroine, in THE HUNGER GAMES. Then there was Hawkeye, the Marvel superhero whose super power is only great archery skills, in THE AVENGERS. Next up is the spunky Scottish ginger, Merida, in Disney Pixar's eagerly-anticipated BRAVE.
A female lead is groundbreaking for Pixar, which has previously focused only upon male protagonists. BRAVE is a classic princess tale that centers on that age-old fairytale motif, the backfiring of a magic wish. While Merida is a welcome addition to the bevy of Disney princesses, BRAVE stands out from that flock with absolutely stunning animation of the caliber that only Pixar can deliver. Merida's brilliant scarlet mane puts the last Disney princess hairdo to shame. And that's really saying something as the last Disney princess was Rapunzel in TANGLED (2010). With Pixar animation, the medium is the message, and it is the relationship of figure and ground that provides spectacle. Merida's shocking mop of red is in sharp contrast to the lush green forests and stony castles of Scotland. The intricate landscapes have more detail than most panoramic shots of actual vistas, drawing the viewer into a land of myth and magic. Visually, BRAVE is another masterful achievement for Pixar, intensified by immersive 3D technology, which just seems to get deeper and deeper with each new movie.
The success of any princess movie always hinges on the princess. Merida is whimsically voiced by Kelly Macdonald, who allows her Scottish roots to blossom in a rich, musical accent. As with so many UK-themed films, BRAVE succumbs to the six degrees of Harry Potter. Macdonald was featured in the final Potter installment as the clue-bearing specter, Ravenna Ravenclaw. Also featured in BRAVE are the voice talents of Hagrid (Robby Coltrane as Lord Dingwall), Molly Weasley (Julie Walters as the Witch) and Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson as Queen Elinor) bringing the HP factor to a total of four. But we digress.
Merida, like MULAN (1998), is a warrior princess with matrimonial issues, a girl coming of age while trying to balance the martial and the marital. Unlike Mulan, cross-dressing is not the answer. Instead, Merida seeks the aid of a witch (Walters), who looks disturbingly like an older female version of UP's Carl Fredricksen. Merida's wish quickly sours, as magic wishes often do, and the remainder of the film is spent trying to fix it. This makes for a fairly predictable plot, but that falls to the wayside with the superb visuals and amusing subplots. Stalwart fans of previous Pixar films might find BRAVE less innovative. It follows the story arc of any Disney princess tale - a royal life, misunderstand heroine, a fall from grace, and the struggle for redemption. While BRAVE might lack the universal appeal of many of Pixar's previous works, it hits the bulls-eye with that valuable demographic of princess fans.
If not for Pixar's wizardry, BRAVE might be easily written off as another attempt of Disney's campaign to add cultural diversity. Prior to Rapunzel, the last four Disney princesses seem like attempts to reach various ethnic demographics: Middle-eastern Jasmine in ALADDIN (1992), Native American Pocahontas in POCAHONTAS (1995), the aforementioned Asian Mulan and African-American Tiana in THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG (2009). All of the official Disney princesses were cell animation and strictly Disney productions. BRAVE is a Disney/Pixar cooperative effort, and as previously mentioned, BRAVE is Pixar's first female protagonist. It will be interesting to see if the CGI Merida makes Disney's precious princess cut.
Nevertheless, Merida is a great character, a mighty warrior princess, arguably the strongest so far. She's is feisty, a fine equestrian, quick with a sword and keen with a bow. Like Katniss, Merida can speak to a generation of young girls about expressing yourself genuinely and following your heart instead of the misguided rules of others. Set in a world of kilts, haggis and bagpipes, BRAVE celebrates Scottish culture. It would make a great double feature with another great animated film, albeit Irish, THE SECRET OF KELLS (2009). She has issues with her mother, but as Disney princesses go, Merida is lucky to even have a mother.
In Merida's wake, there are more archers to come. Waiting in the wings, on the small screen, CW is set to unveil ARROW, a series based on DC comics Green Arrow. The character was already portrayed in CW's successful Superman series SMALLVILLE, however this is a new Green Arrow, portrayed by a different actor. And next month, the world will be treated to some real archery at the London Olympics. Archery has been an Olympic event since 1900. It was discontinued in 1920, but was brought back in 1972 and has been a consistent event to this day. Synergystically (as Walt Disney might have put it) a special screening of BRAVE was held in Ogden, Utah, just prior to the Archery World Cup. With the release of THE HUNGER GAMES, USA Archery reported that its website traffic rose more than 30 percent over the previous year. BRAVE will certainly give them an additional bump. Clearly, archery is experiencing a popularity boom akin to what the Chinese martial arts felt in 2000 in the wake of CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. There's nothing like a good movie to give any niche industry a shot in the arm.
Despite the cinematic bump, many real life archers criticized Hawkeye's form as soon as early publicity shots of him shooting were released. Jennifer Lawrence, who portrays Katniss, was challenged on Spain's El Hormiguero to show off her archery skills and perforate a watermelon. Of course, Merida will never have to prove her abilities like Lawrence, but many of those same archery critics applauded Merida's CGI form. Those wizards at Pixar know who to motion capture.
Strangely, archery is usually not categorized as a martial art despite its obvious connections. More relevant to KungFuMagazine.com readers, Chinese archery is often considered a lost martial art. Archery has a longstanding tradition in Chinese culture, so it seems strange that it has disappeared from China's diverse martial landscape. Today, there are some fledgling attempts at revitalization. An archery contest was staged at the 6th China National Outstanding Skills Tournament in 2009. However, Chinese archery has yet to gain significant traction.
While many traditional Chinese martial arts proponents grapple with the impact of MMA, they overlook the obvious. The best way to promote anything in pop culture is with a successful film. While KUNG FU PANDA 2 (2011) had undeniable impact, Po was not the sort of role model to emulate. And the 2010 KARATE KID redux had issues with those loyal to the original. Nevertheless, even with today's CGI-driven fight scenes, kung fu and wushu still dominate the action genre, even more so now than ever. Just consider the genres. The number of significant karate movies can be counted on one hand. The same can be said for taekwondo movies, judo movies and MMA movies. But with kung fu movies, it's impossible to even begin to tally the number. The only possible contenders are the ninja films, and that's a shadowy second at best. So while archery enjoys its year in the cinematic spotlight, proponents of Chinese martial arts need to play to their strongest suit and reconsider their movie potential. With the rise of Chollywood, it might just be a bow snap away.
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