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    The Deep End and the Wading Pool: Pixar’s Brave vs. Madagascar 3

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    By Trevor Main

    [dropcap]F[/dropcap]rom its posters and advertising, Brave, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, gives off a Joan of Arc impression in the way that the heroine must undergo physical, dark challenges and face her worst fears to achieve a certain goal. Even though the idea of physical struggle is a part of this story, if you go into the theater expecting this to be what the movie is really about, you’ll walk out confused and perhaps uninterested. But make no mistake, Brave has a message significant to every human being who’s ever lived.

    The film breaks a lot of new ground for Pixar. Not only is it the first of their movies that stars a female protagonist, it is also the first of their stories in which magic is introduced—in contrast to Toy Story, for example, where the characters’ life-like qualities aren’t owed to a particular phenomenon.

     

    Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is the princess of one of four united Scottish clans. According to their creed, she must marry the winner of the competition for which they’ve all gathered. But Merida’s free spirit causes a rift between her and her mother Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Relying on a spell to make her mother change her mind about making her marry, Merida accidentally turns her mother into a bear, and the clock is ticking to the second sunrise, when the spell becomes permanent.

    Hope is a funny thing. There is never a tangible reason to have it, and yet without it, the quality of life dramatically dwindles. In this movie, hope is illustrated in two different stages. The first is when Merida thinks she’s cracked the riddle that will reverse the spell put on her mother. She believes the riddle refers to her mother’s tapestry, a sewn wall portrait of the royal family that Elinor stitched before she turned into a bear. But this hope is misplaced in something that technically fits all the clues but has no chance in eternity. The tapestry is only a shadow, a representation of the real deal–the thing that is eternal, which is the relationship between the two women.

    True hope is something pure and cannot die. Losing hope is often a good thing, because whenever hope is lost, it’s a sign that we were hoping in the wrong thing to begin with. False hope cannot last. It’s in those moments that God refills us with a new hope we never knew before but can never experience until we let go of the old, hence a crisis. Whatever is now called a catastrophe will one day be recalled as an adventure in the presence of the living God.

    Brave would not have been the same movie if it had not been set in the Celtic era. It gives the film a sense of raw, earthy pride reminiscent of Braveheart and Highlander. The first sequence of Merida as an adult captures the primal aura of freedom and sets up the film as a story of Scottish lore.

    Brave has all the iconic Pixar traits of humor and creativity, but cleverness isn’t this movie’s strong suit, nor subtlety, seeing how it uses two scenes of rear nudity to induce chuckles. But what it lacks in creative humor it makes up for in the depth of its message.

    You will notice some all-too-familiar themes in this film, such as being forced to marry out of duty and obligation rather than love; wanting to remain single and free; and a character being transformed into an animal by a curse and learning some important lesson thereby. This movie presents these themes in a fresh way by involving characters you wouldn’t expect. Most stories that have bestial transformations involve romantic relationships, like Lady Hawk and Beauty and the Beast. But there is no romance in Brave, and it becomes clear that none of these familiar themes is what the story is really about anyway.

    The movie digresses to the popular plot point of two people forced being together in an extraordinary circumstance, and through the experience they come to understand one another. This dead horse has been kicked one too many times in movies such as Avatar and The Last Samurai. Instead of conflicting countries or armies, however, the conflict is domestic between mother and daughter, but again, this movie doesn’t stop there.

    The core message begins to unfurl when the solution to Elinor’s plight presents itself through the mending of the tapestry. But physical solutions are too easy. Any problem between two people is relational, and no amount of muscle, hacking and slashing, or sewing can repair intangible problems. In the movie, mending the torn tapestry illustrates that which you and I intellectually know to be true about our neighbors, our spouses, our God. What we say about our Father means little, if anything at all. But believing that which we know requires a brokenness of spirit rather than cloth.

    Likewise, the quest for unity in the body of Christ is simple yet far from easy. We can gain unity by seeking to understand one another. But to do so requires suffering and pain. It requires a moment of crisis. Many people think of struggle, battle, or stress when they think of crisis. Brave suggests a new definition: A crisis in one’s life is the complete loss of hope. Without a crisis point in life, our words are simply words. Just like when Merida was trying to fix the tapestry: Her goal was not to fix the problem but merely to evade inconvenience. It is only at the very end when she has lost all hope that Elinor is restored, along with their relationship.

    But the most frustrating point for analytical thinkers is that even though we are aware that we need a crisis point, we can’t make it happen ourselves. So in a way, the before-the-second-sunrise deadline was not so much a point of no return but a point at which Elinor could be returned, because at no other time would Merida truly believe she had lost her.

    It is here that one finds the true meaning of the movie’s title. In relationships each of us must be brave to endure the suffering required to understand each another. Without suffering, mankind couldn’t survive, for we would all die at the hands of each other’s selfish hearts as was once the path of Elinor and Merida.

    Madagascar 3, featuring the voices of Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, David Schwimmer, and Jada Pinkett Smith, is a movie for the little ones with little effort made to reach out to older audiences. With talking animals running amuck in Monte Carlo, monkeys going incognito as humans, and lions trapezing with jet packs over pools of cobras, it’s safe to say this movie is unpredictable if nothing else.

    Alex, Marty, Melman, and Gloria begin in Africa, where the second movie left us. They miss their home in the zoo, and the penguins and monkeys fly off in their airship to gamble in Europe. Instead of waiting for them to come back, the four beasts decide to travel to Europe to meet them. But when their ship breaks down, they have to hide out in a traveling circus bound for New York while policewoman DuBois (Frances McDormand) tracks them with the intention of killing them and mounting them on her wall.

    Unlike Pixar’s films, Madagascar 3 lacks subtle humor and decides to go straight for the slapstick approach with absurd situations and manufactured danger. The first half-hour or so is unimpressive. The pacing feels awkward and forced. The animals are in Africa at the beginning, and Alex gets the idea to follow the penguins and meet them in Monte Carlo. Then poof—in the next scene they’re in Monte Carlo, ignoring the months it would take to walk there. This first part of the movie just seems like a big excuse to get them to meet the circus animals, where the story finally begins to take shape. Well…almost.

    After the main characters pretend to be circus animals to join the real circus, you can expect that at some point the real circus folks will discover the lie and lose faith in their faux friends. But this plot unfolds in an awkward moment right after they all put on an extremely successful performance in London. After that show, who cares if Alex and his friends aren’t really circus animals? Yes, they were improvising, but they proved themselves, so it seems silly that the European circus should feel betrayed.

    The actual performance in London shows real creativity in its visual effects, mixing the psychedelic colors of Star Road from the Mario Kart video game with the disco aura of Saturday Night Fever, if you can imagine such a thing.

    One theme the movie focuses on, particularly near the end, is the idea of adventure–not the zoo–being the four companions’ true home. They spend so much of their focus on returning to what is comfortable that they don’t see the blessings in the new friends they make or the thrill of the unknown.

    Many of us Christians tend to strive for the predictable and the comfortable, whether we realize it or not. It’s the epitome of the American Dream: comfortable, safe, stagnated. The zoo that they’re from symbolizes a prison not only for their bodies but for their minds as well. It’s the same thing that happened when Moses led Israel out of Egypt. On multiple occasions the Israelites begged to go back to Egypt where they might be slaves but life was predictable. It’s like the Joker says in The Dark Night, “Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying!”

    Why else are there so many movies out there where the poor street-smart wanderers enjoy life so much more? Because they realize the thrill is in the risk; a lesson we Christians must learn, because comfort is like coffee. It stunts your growth.

    Trevor Main has a B.A. in fiction writing from Columbia College, Chicago, and is working on his master’s degree in communication at Dallas Theological Seminary. His ministry experience with Youth With a Mission has taken him across Europe, Africa, and Asia.

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