So the other week my friend Katie asked if I would watch Brave for her (which sort of sparked the whole idea of commissions). I’d seen it before, so had reasonably strong memories of its strengths and weaknesses. It’s a good movie; maybe not Pixar’s finest (because, yes, it’s Pixar!) but really fun to spend time with and possessed of an enormous heart. The pre-credits sequence with Mordu works well—I’d completely forgotten it, but it effectively front-loads what we need to understand for the plot to work. The most interesting thing about Brave, of course, is that it’s a mother-daughter love story, with Merida’s independence, uncouth manners and rebelliousness pitted against her mother Elinor’s profound, and probably painfully earned, awareness of the role of women in their society: to wield soft power as peacemakers, diplomats, and, frankly, designated adults. The scene where Elinor walks through a room of fighting chieftains, who immediately stop throwing things and settle down by the mere virtue of the presence of a woman, is perfectly pitched to convey this (and I hope I don’t have to spend much time on the fact that it’s not feminism, given that it relies entirely on the pedestalization of women and the infantilization of men). It’s later mirrored in a scene where Merida throws herself into the centre of the hall to speak to the chieftains, drawing attention to herself and giving Elinor-as-a-bear a chance to move through the room unseen. The fantasy element of the movie is, as they often are, the least compelling aspect, but what the animators manage to do with bear-Elinor is beautiful and convincing, from the way her ears turn down when she’s sad to the way her eyes change when true wildness takes over. (And her final fight with Mordu! Of course animators know their onions, but it’s so exactly what bears look like.) A lot of the comedy in the middle section of the film comes from bear-Elinor pretending she’s still human, and the bittersweet moment when Merida sees her catch a fish like a real bear and is torn between pride at her capable mother and fear that her mother will become truly feral is perfectly judged. The rest of the comedy comes from Merida’s three little brothers, who are probably dividers of opinion; I loved them because I love comedies of scale, and the idea of a tiny menace is never not funny. Likewise, you’ll either find busty and constantly-shrieking nursemaid Maudie tiresome or hilarious; I tend towards the latter, and defy you not to at least giggle when she sees the three little lads in the form of bear cubs. It’s almost as good as the moment when one of the three suitors for Merida’s hand speaks in actual Scots (as opposed to the other characters’ commercially friendly Scottish accents), and no one understands him.
Moana is the other HUGE Disney success of the 2010s, and it would be unfair of me not to say from the start that I’ve seen it twice already and absolutely love it. Watching it shortly after Frozen is an exercise in comparison; both of them front-load their bangers (a technical term) in a way more reminiscent of a Broadway show/operetta like Les Mis than of the evenly spaced songs characteristic of the earlier films. As my very clever housemate Joe points out, this strategy is way more musically and structurally sophisticated, because it establishes three or four tunes that viewers then recognize when they recur (instrumentally or in vocal reprise) later. (It’s Wagner’s tactic. Yes, I just compared Moana to Wagner. This is the kind of hot take you love.) So, for instance, the song “Where You Are”, which is the second number in the film and happens within the first twenty minutes, comes back when Moana’s Gramma appears to her as a kind of force-ghost (in a scene that always, always makes me cry). Narratively, Gramma’s apparition exists to buck Moana up, remind her of who she is, and inspire her to use her own inner strength. That aim is reinforced by the music; we last heard that tune being sung by her whole village, on her island, and she draws her strength from being a part of that community. It’s a powerful parallel, and it helps that the music is so good (Lin-Manuel Miranda!!) And, my God, this movie has heart. Dwayne “The Rock” “My Future Husband” “Pretty Sure My Boyfriend Has a Man-Crush On Him, Too” Johnson as Maui is magnificently selfish, yet also likeable and funny; Auli’i Cravalho, who was sixteen when she voiced Moana, is vocally gifted and conveys the headstrong determination of a teenager so well. (The lack of a marriage plot means Moana as a character can be younger than Disney heroines usually are, too, which I love; I’d say she’s about fourteen.) The Mad Max coconut pirates and the cabaret crab are kind of weird if you stop and think about them too hard (they feel rather too much like episodic obstacles to be overcome because otherwise it’d be too easy), but both are executed in a way that feels thorough and considered. And OH MY GOD, THE CHICKEN. It’s literally one joke for two hours, but perfect. Solidly in my top five, so far.
The Star Wars project continues with Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, which is the source of almost all the images, memes and incidents I associate with the original trilogy. Luke is still lame and drippy (theory: he, Harry Potter and Frodo comprise the OG Troika of Boring Chosen Ones), but the training montage on Dagobah at least shows some work being done with and around the Force, which is the first time in five movies that anyone has expended any kind of effort in order to wield it. Perhaps the most surprising thing in the film is Yoda, who when we first encounter him is completely chaotic and steals Luke’s flashlight for fun, then shouts “Mine! Mine! Mine!” at R2D2 until Luke lets him have it. He’s a far cry from the gnomic sage of the prequels, and I really much prefer him this way. Perhaps he’s meant to be a bit mad after his long exile?! Leia and Han’s chemistry is on fire (as I said on Twitter, it’s not that on-screen couples have to be fucking irl, but there’s a reason Ford and Fisher work so well together). I like the introduction of Lando Calrissian; we didn’t necessarily need another loveable rogue, but it feels right that Han should have had some handy contacts outside the dynamic trio. (Quartet? Do we count Chewie? I don’t, really; he’s basically useless, although he does put C3PO together again, so that’s nice.) Luke’s showdown with Vader feels like it’s treading water, though—until that line, which is what we’ve all spent the past ten minutes waiting for anyway. And the ending is a great, infuriating cliffhanger.
…Which meant it was lucky I could carry straight on to Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. It’s got Jabba the Hutt, which is a major plus; the scenes in his court are a mix of decadent, horrifying, and absurd, which makes me wonder what life as a Huttian courtier is like. I’m sure there’s fanfic in abundance. Carrie Fisher’s chainmail bikini, and the fact that she’s chained by the neck and reclining on Jabba’s enormous fleshy slug-body, is waaayyy more sexual and simultaneously more disturbing than I remember (though I do remember being very disturbed by it as a nine-year-old. I think the overt sexiness of the bikini somehow suggested to my pre-adolescent mind that she’d Had Sex With Jabba, which I knew in some obscure way would have been coerced and deeply not okay, although I didn’t have the vocabulary or the framework to understand that at the time. For the record, adult me is pretty sure she hasn’t Had Sex With Jabba.) Anyway, the Emperor finally shows up and is horrifying (he’s played by Ian McDiarmid, who plays Palpatine in the prequel trilogies! He was in his early 30s and in heavy makeup when he played the Emperor, and in his 60s when he played him as a “younger” man. Oh, time is so weird.) Ewoks are cute as hell, though I know they divide opinion; I really like them. Vader redeems himself, the ending is touching, blah blah. (I actually was touched by Luke’s final farewell to his father. I know Vader is one of those awful genocide guys whom we like to pardon in our collective cultural consciousness because he sheds a single tear before dying, which apparently, to us, constitutes meaningful remorse, but it is a genuinely moving moment nonetheless.) But the moment that really matters in this movie, maybe the best sixty seconds or so in the entire original trilogy, is right after the death of the Rancor. Everyone runs around screaming and Luke is dragged out of the lair, and in amongst all of this, there are two shots of a guy who’s clearly the Rancor’s keeper, crying. We never get any more of it. We don’t know his name, where he’s from, he doesn’t get a word of dialogue, he never appears again, he’s totally irrelevant to the plot, but for a moment, a profoundly unimportant character’s humanity is fully exposed to us. It’s not too much of a stretch to call this Shakespearean. It reminded me of Aguecheek’s line in Twelfth Night: “I was adored once too.” The audience never gets to know that story, but they know it’s there.