Who is Laura Lamont?

Laura Lamont's Life in PicturesEmma Straub’s debut novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures charts the transformation of a rural Wisconsin girl, Elsa Emerson, into one of the starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Using Jennifer Jones’s biography as a springboard, Straub writes of a woman who juggles multiple identities throughout her life: daughter, sister, wife, mother, and actress. In fact, the book is divided into twelve chapters whose titles encapsulate the roles she plays. Opening the novel in 1929, “Cherry,” at once suggesting the ripe potential of her later life’s work and the lost grandeur of Chekhov’s last play, details the special circumstances of her childhood spent behind the scenes and on the floorboards of her parents’ barn-house theater. Nine years pass between the suicide of Elsa’s older, beloved and beautiful sister Hildy and her escape from Door County with stranger-cum-costar-cum-husband Gordon Pitts. Within a few years after their arrival in Los Angeles, Gordon signs a contract to be a bit player at Gardner Brothers, and Elsa’s own acting ambitions take a backseat to her familial responsibilities. In the second chapter, “Laura Lamont,” studio executive (and Gordon’s boss) Irving Green flirts with Elsa at a wrap party and rechristens her “Laura Lamont,” telling her that, provided she loses thirty pounds once she gives birth to her (second) child, she is pretty enough to be a star. And so our heroine now sets her mind on becoming the star she always wanted to be.

Straub is a deft storyteller, and structuring her fictional biography according to the highlights of Laura Lamont’s life and career excises the fat of the more uneventful, prosaic moments of a character’s story. However, after reading all 304 pages of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, the titular protagonist still remains somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps this is intentional. We read as Elsa/Laura struggles to define herself, mainly as her new glamorous identity fails to wipe the slate clean. She can’t face up to her mother, who resents Elsa for leaving Door County, seemingly forgetting who she is. Laura is haunted by past traumas, such as her sister’s suicide, and, years after she has divorced Gordon and married the studio’s number two, Irving Green, her first husband becomes a drunkard, a drug addict, a costly thorn in her side. The role that she chooses to most define her is that of mother. More pages are devoted to Laura’s dedication to and admiration of her three children: Clara and Florence, from her first marriage, and Irving Jr. This isn’t objectionable, of course, but as a film scholar and historian, I was more interested in how Straub represented Hollywood of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s.

Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub's Laura Lamont.
Jennifer Jones (1919-2009), the real-life inspiration for Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont.

Just as it is unreasonable for a film critic to judge a motion picture against the film s/he would like to have seen, it is not fair of me to judge Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures as lacking an in-depth exposé of Hollywood goings-on from the perspective of one star—or cog in the machine. Besides, as Straub told Jacki Lyden in 2012 on NPR’s All Things Considered, “I made sure to stay away actually from Jennifer Jones’ biography ’cause I didn’t want it to be, you know, a thinly veiled version of her. I really wanted my Laura Lamont to stand on her own feet.” However, just as I really enjoyed Farran Smith Nehme’s engagement with the archival preservation of forgotten silent films in her recent novel Missing Reels, the characterizations of Hollywood and its myriad players in Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures really delighted me. For example, when Laura starts at Gardner Brothers, whose company name recalls that of the real-life Warner Bros. but whose physical location more accurately resembles that of Paramount, she begins cutting a rug in a string of comedies with her red-haired friend Ginger Hedges. Years later, after Ginger becomes a big star in comedy, rival studio Triumph Pictures poaches her, and she later goes on to head the studio while producing and starring on a successful television sitcom with her husband. It should come as no surprise that Lucille Ball inspired the character Ginger. Robert Walker, Jennifer Jones’s first husband, does not end up as ignobly as Gordon Pitts does. At least the real-life actor, who also died young, can claim an illustrious career with the likes of BataanStrangers on a Train, and My Son John in his filmography.

The Song of BernadetteWhen the hardcover’s opening book-flap describes Irving Green as Laura’s “great love,” I recognized that the character must be a stand-in for David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones’s second husband. Selznick produced such classics as King Kong, Gone With the Wind, Duel in the Sun, and The Portrait of Jennie, the last two of which starred his wife Jones (neé Phylis Lee Isley). Before striking out on his own, Selznick worked at MGM, Paramount, and RKO. While the novel does not present Irving as an independent producer like Selznick, it does show that his decision to put Laura in more serious roles, in romantic, historical epics, eventually nabs her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Jennifer Jones won her first and only Oscar right out of the gate, for her leading role in The Song of Bernadette. In crafting Laura Lamont’s backstory, Straub cleverly keeps the religious theme of Jones’s film when she writes that Laura won for her performance as a nun in Farewell, My Sister, a film whose script somewhat imitates her relationship with Hildy. Unfortunately, I found the description of Laura and Irving’s relationship lacking in intensity. Although married for years, before his untimely death from a prolonged heart-related illness, I never really understood the lovers’ mutual fascination. Irving is repeatedly described as short, slight, balding, and regrettably, Jewish, as if that is enough to characterize someone. Sure, power is an aphrodisiac, but outside of his unexamined devotion to Laura and her children, I fail to see how he is appealing. He isn’t given any thought-provoking dialogue or much to do at all, really. He mainly just sweeps her off her feet, seeing someone else in Elsa Emerson, a brunette rather than a blonde. Laura herself is a bit of a simpleton, especially when it comes to interacting with her growing children. And Laura’s relationship with her young black maid, Harriet, reads too much like one Joan Crawford or Vivien Leigh had with Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel on-screen. Since we glimpse Laura mostly in her private life, it is difficult for me to imagine the character as a glamorous starlet. She mainly just upholds the Grand Narrative of the Hollywood Dream Factory: she did as she was told, read her lines, and was happy if the bosses were happy.

Coming off the heels of her beloved father’s death, Irving’s death further pushes Laura into decline. Deep in debt, she abuses anti-anxiety medication, falls into an intractable despair, and eventually attempts suicide. She gradually makes a full recovery and adjusts to a new life out of the limelight. Chapter eleven, “The Shopgirl,” recalls silent film star Louise Brooks’s biography rather than Jennifer Jones’s: the former actress died in 1985, destitute and purportedly a salesgirl in a department store. Meanwhile, in 1975 and now a grandmother, Laura supports herself as a shop assistant for dressmaker-to-the-stars Edna (clearly inspired by famed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, who was also the model for the scene-stealing Edna Mode in The Incredibles). The novel ends where it began: in the theater. In 1980, the newly rediscovered Laura Lamont makes her Broadway debut in The Royal Family, the same play that she performed with Gordon Pitts before they married and skedaddled to Los Angeles with dreams of stardom shining in their eyes. I can’t deny that the final scene is poignant. Her children reunite in New York to see Laura on opening night, but when I closed the book on her life, I couldn’t help thinking that I wanted more from it.

News Clip: AMPAS Chooses an Oscar Host I Barely Know

I would like to thank the Academy for, in their latest attempt to court a younger viewership, choosing a host for the 85th Academy Awards whose creative output I’m completely unfamiliar with. This is a first. Congratulations, you just alienated a 26-year-old.

Per the Washington Post, the creator of the cult favorite TV show Family Guy (1999-present), Seth MacFarlane, is poised to emcee Movie Night on February 24, 2013. Isn’t he the guy who made a movie about a foul-mouthed CGI teddy bear? (Who cares if it grossed more than $420 million worldwide; what does that box office take say about us?) Isn’t MacFarlane also the guy who last week couldn’t find the microphone while presenting an award at the Emmys? Honestly, I thought this was a joke until I read press release attached to WP TV columnist Lisa de Moraes’s news brief.

It’s not that I have a list of more desirable candidates for the coveted hosting gig. But, if you insist… How about Jimmy Fallon? Hugh Jackman, perhaps? Louis C.K., if you want to be “edgy”? Ellen DeGeneres again? Wait, wait! I got it! Amy Poehler would be awesome as Oscar host. You might think she’s more associated with TV than she is with film. OK, that’s true, but so are all these other people (except Jackman, of course). After all, it’s not like MacFarlane is known for much else besides stupid animated fart jokes on TV.

None of this is to say that I won’t be watching the Oscars telecast when it airs. I hate it, always, but I can’t help myself.

Movie Travel Diary: Dublin

Look closely: it's the Ha'penny Bridge lit up at night. Photo by the author.
Look closely: it’s the Ha’penny Bridge lit up at night. Photo by the author.

I spent my third year of college studying abroad at Lancaster University in Northwest England. From there, one of my earliest trips was to Dublin with two of my friends. We rode the ferry from Holyhead in North Wales to Ireland’s capital city. I have very fond memories of that weekend, such as my first (half-)pint of Guinness stout, the friendliness of the people, and the sight of the Ha’penny Bridge lit up at night. And although I didn’t see it until after I came home, months after it was released in U.S. theaters, the intimate musical romance Once (John Carney, 2006) reminded me of the place I have come to think of as “my Dublin.”

I had seen countless films set in Dublin before, everything from The Commitments (Alan Parker, 1991) and The General (John Boorman, 1998) to InterMission (John Crowley, 2003) and Rory O’Shea Was Here (Damien O’Donnell, 2004). But by virtue of being about a musician who busks on Grafton Street for pocket change from tourists, Once invariably represents a Dublin that I, as a tourist, came into contact with. Many of the scenes in the film take place on that pedestrian thoroughfare, Dublin’s high street or main shopping district. This was where, after nearly two months in the British Isles, I spotted the first Starbucks, an occasion so momentous—even though I didn’t drink the stuff—that I snapped a photo of it from the cobblestone street (the major coffeehouse chain over there is Costa Coffee).

Once was produced on a shoestring budget, and it has a very improvisational quality to it. From what I understand, it wasn’t so much scripted as it was outlined, and nowhere is this on-the-fly, gritty documentary feel more pronounced than in the scenes on Grafton Street, where the unnamed guitarist (played by The Frames’ bandleader, Glen Hansard) meets the young Eastern European pianist (Markéta Irglová), before they embark on their pseudo-romance and journey toward self-discovery while they collaborate on a few original songs. From what I can remember, director John Carney and his tiny crew shot the unprofessional actors unobtrusively, allowing real passersby to walk in front of the camera. This explains why some of the protagonists’ exchanges aren’t clearly audible. When I was on Grafton Street, I remember feeling claustrophobic, trapped among seeming multitudes of people and their bulky shopping bags, as everyone walked in different directions. The busyness of the area represented on-screen in Once reminded me of my brisk walk down the street. I didn’t know where I was headed, my friend chasing after me in the crowd, but eventually I wound up at the northwest entrance to a city park, St. Stephen’s Green. Similarly, in one scene, Hansard’s character runs after Irglová’s, too, and they take the exact same route as my friend and I had done. Strange how someone else’s art imitates your life. (I should note that Lance Daly’s black-and-white 2008 film-story about a pair of runaways from abusive homes, Kisses, is also partially set in this corner of the city, rendering it even more menacing, full of real terror for children.)

When I watched Once for the first time in late 2007, I recognized straightaway a particular landscape beyond Grafton Street. Since my sojourn in the city, I have associated Dublin with rows and rows of brick townhouses that have brightly colored front doors, alternating among blue, yellow, green, and red. The movie Once merely reinforced this picture of the city for me. Although we see such dwellings throughout the film, I still can’t shake the image of the woman standing outside one of these houses—or poking her head out of her second-story window, I can’t be sure—and gazing up at the sky because she knows her songwriting partner should be in the air, on his way to London. This scene speaks volumes to me, as I would love to return to Ireland someday and spend more time in the city.

But don’t fret; I did much more than feel stifled on Grafton Street and admire the lushly painted doors on houses. Like any well-informed tourist, I frequented Temple Bar, the trendy arts district lined with restaurants and galleries, visited the National Gallery of Ireland for an exhibit on native son Francis Bacon, and stopped by Dublin Castle (which was, to my surprise, a mishmash of architectural styles) and Trinity College. I regret I was too cheap to pay the admittance fee to see the Book of Kells up-close while at the university, especially since an inventive animated movie inspired by the illuminated manuscript, The Secret of Kells (Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, 2009), would come out of nowhere years later and earn an Oscar nomination. When I stop to think about it, I realize that much of my Dublin jaunt has movie-related anecdotes.

For one thing, the weekend I was in Dublin was the weekend that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (remember TomKat?) were wed in Italy. I remember seeing photos of the actress’s demented smile, as she nuzzled her cheek into Tom’s at the altar, splashed across the front pages of the tabloids while walking from the hostel to downtown Dublin.

Furthermore, I can’t think of the film Little Children (Todd Field, 2006) without being reminded of Dublin, because that is where I saw it—with one of my companions, Denise. I’ll never forget the morning—November 18th, it was—that we were walking along O’Connell Street (the Champs-Élysées of Dublin), near the “Stiffy by the River Liffey,” and came across a multiplex that advertised that it was screening the American indie picture about two suburban stay-at-home parents having a hot summer fling. Talk about making playdates.

Later that night, after dinner and during the film, I couldn’t stop thinking about how odd this movie-going experience was at the time. Here I am in Dublin, with my German friend, and we’re watching an American indie movie set in a resolutely American milieu and ennui at a giant multiplex on O’Connell Street. I bet I’m the only American sitting in this theater, I said to myself, as if mentally detached enough from the goings-on in the auditorium and up on the screen that I could see myself sitting in the back row. For all I know, the Cineworld in Dublin may have been the closest theater to where I lived (in Lancaster, England!) that was playing the film. Ever since having this “out-of-body, out-of-mind” experience while watching a movie in another country, I have sought to replicate it everywhere I go.

Stay tuned for a similar episode in a future edition of Movie Travel Diary. But in the meantime, tell me about your movie-related experiences in Dublin. Which film(s) best exemplifies the Dublin you have visited?

Long Take: Reclaiming Brave

Viewed June 27, 2012

Pixar’s thirteenth feature, Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman & Steve Purcell, 2012), may not be the best of the studio’s output. While it doesn’t reach the narrative heights of Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007), The Incredibles (Bird, 2004), Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), or Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010), the film certainly doesn’t belong with the drudgery that is Cars (John Lasseter, 2006) or Cars 2 (Lasseter, 2011). Set in medieval Scotland, Brave is a solid piece of Pixar animation and an affecting story that anyone would be proud to produce. Unlike most critics, who have contributed to the film’s middling score on Rotten Tomatoes (it’s middling for a movie by Pixar, whose works are almost always universally praised), I didn’t find Brave disappointing. In fact, it exceeded my expectations. Originally conceived by director Brenda Chapman, Brave is a welcome woman-centric entry into the Pixar canon. But it really should be celebrated for what it gets right: its overwhelmingly feminist story. You know the drill by now: I’m going to spoil the movie below.

During its opening weekend, Brave racked up $147 million in worldwide box office receipts ($66 million of which was gained in the US alone), thereby quelling fears that audiences wouldn’t turn out for the first Pixar movie to have a female protagonist. There is such a thing as brand loyalty, and when the film’s studio is synonymous with quality (in terms of story, characters, and art), who really could have thought that Brave wouldn’t bring audiences in, anyway? Still, it is refreshing to reflect that, provided the little ones weren’t bored with the emotional story, spectators of all ages were treated to a poignant film about mother-daughter relationships. In other words, Brave is not just another fairytale.

The mother-daughter relationships in fairytales historically pit good against evil, generally in the form of a young, beautiful, and sweet-natured “princess” overcoming the emotional and physical torture inflicted upon her by her stepmother. For example, Cinderella’s stepmother punishes her with menial labor around the house because her now deceased husband loved his daughter more than he loved her, and Cinderella is rewarded in the end for her moral goodness when the prince chooses her for his bride and not one of her stepsisters. More tellingly, one of the most enduring fairytales, which is coincidentally the first full-length animated feature (by Pixar’s parent company, Disney, no less), is about a witch’s murderous envy of her stepdaughter’s beauty. According to Maria Tatar, the Grimm brothers’ early version of “Snow White” reflects “children’s fears about the cruelty of stepmothers, at a time when mortality rates for child-bearing women were exceptionally high.” However, Monica Hesse is quick to point out that the original Grimm story was about a mother’s desire to kill her own daughter for the same reason. In this sense, Brave breaks with the fairytale tradition because the generational conflict is about compromise forged out of love.

Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) don’t see eye-to-eye on how the princess should comport herself. The teenaged Merida has taken after her warrior father, the fun-loving and rough-housing King Fergus (Billy Connolly). She prefers to fill the hours horseback riding through the nearby forest, climbing steep rock-faces to enjoy the view from the top, and practicing her already accomplished archery skills. Elinor is trying to make a lady out of her daughter, insisting she perfect her enunciation, needlepoint, and hospitality. Even though Merida is nowhere near ready to assume queenly duties (and nor does she want to), the queen has gone behind her daughter’s back to invite the first-born sons of three neighboring clans to compete in the Highland Games for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida tries what she can to deter her mother’s plans, even going so far as to compete in—and win—the archery contest for her own hand. Watch this scene and get the chills:

So, Brave is a universal story about wanting to choose your own path in life. Following Merida’s embarrassing commandeering of the Games, mother and daughter get into a heated fight. Unfortunately, I can’t remember who acted first, but I know that Merida takes a knife to Elinor’s tapestry-in-progress, a portrait of the family, separating Elinor from the rest, and Elinor throws Merida’s bow into the fireplace, immediately regretting such an impulsive move. Although Merida’s desires are decidedly different from Ariel’s, the generational conflict in Brave reminds me of the one central to The Little Mermaid (Ron Clements & John Musker, 1989). Merida even enlists the transformative powers of a witch (Julie Walters), only, unlike Ariel, she selfishly wishes to change her mother rather than herself. (Recall how, in striking a deal with Ursula in order to meet and woo a land-bound prince, Ariel gained legs in exchange for her beautiful singing voice.) In Brave, the witch, who so desperately wants to work in peace as a wood-carver (“too many dissatisfied customers”), forgets to give Merida special instructions for serving Elinor the magic cake, and that is when the action really takes off.

The working title of Brave was The Bear and the Bow, and it is a good thing that the filmmakers made the switch. For the title would have given away the narrative twist, which Brave‘s marketing materials have done so well to keep under wraps: consuming Merida’s peace offering, the witch’s cake, transforms Elinor into a bear! A wacky Freaky Friday of sorts ensues with mother and daughter teaming up to reverse the spell while dodging the riotous clansmen in the castle. King Fergus in particular has a bear on his hit list; in the pre-title sequence, set when Merida received her first bow as a little girl, the giant, legendary bear Mor’du attacks the family’s picnic and eats Fergus’s left leg below the knee (off-“camera,” of course).

I’m not sure that the bear carries any special significance in Scottish culture, especially since neither Scotland nor the whole island of Great Britain has been home to wild bears for thousands of years. However, the bear metaphor is apt because we tend to anthropomorphize the wild animal due to the mother bear’s fierce protection of her cubs. Just this week, Good Morning America reported that three bear cubs broke into a car near Denver searching for food, their mother initially scared off by police officers who snapped photos of the bandits red-handed. The only other mention of animals in Brave are of the mythical sort. I can’t recall the exact circumstances, but someone mentions to Fergus the impossible existence of dragons, which I have interpreted to be a slight against How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders & Dean DeBlois, 2010), perhaps the first and only near-Pixar quality DreamWorks Animation film about a viking community that, oddly enough, has a character or two with a Scottish accent.

In any case, Brave has received a lot of attention because animating Merida’s untamed orange curls pixel-by-pixel is an impressive feat. However, just as the filmmakers successfully infused children’s toys with life and a rat with excellent culinary skills, the animators of Brave wonderfully imbue the bear with Elinor’s prim-and-proper personality. We still see Elinor in the bear as she proudly wears her crown and insists that Merida keep her bow off the table. Though they’re both despondent, things calm down between them once the duo have learned, via a potion-controlled automated message from the now-absent witch, that if they do not mend their bond by the second sunrise, Elinor’s metamorphosis will become permanent. Frustrated that she can no longer speak, mother and daughter gradually develop a language based on non-verbal sounds, hand (or paw) gestures, and facial expressions. The first steps toward reconciliation occur on the banks of a river, where Merida teaches her mother how to fish. The irony is not lost on me: a young woman teaches a bear to fish with just its bare claws. Later, when they happen upon Mor’du’s pit and must run away to save themselves from his wrath, Merida rides on her mother bear’s back. Merida’s horse Angus may prove valuable in the end, but this earlier scene is poignant because it shows how connected mother and daughter are, despite (or because of) Elinor’s change.

In fact, one of the aspects I like best about Brave is how active both Merida and Elinor are. Their daring escape from Mor’du’s lair is just the tip of the iceberg. In the end, after Fergus finally discovers the broken furniture in Elinor’s bedroom and attributes the mess to Elinor the bear, believing she is Mor’du and therefore responsible for taking his leg and killing his beloved wife, he locks a protesting Merida in her room and chases Elinor out of the castle. With the manpower of the three visiting clans behind him, Fergus follows Elinor to a mystical Druid circle. Eventually, Merida gets out of her temporary prison, stitching up her mother’s tapestry while bouncing along on Angus’s back. She arrives just in time for the real Mor’du to show up and attack the humans. Fergus withdraws his fight, and everyone watches as Elinor the bear defends Merida, ingeniously wearing down one of the stones so that when Mor’du slams into it, it crushes and kills him. This resolution is satisfying because it defies expectations laid out at the beginning. Not only has the queen come to respect her daughter’s rough-and-tumble talents, she has also exhibited them herself. It is Elinor, after all, a woman bear of action, who defeats her husband’s wild foe—and not Fergus himself who does the deed. It is also important to note that Mor’du isn’t a villain; he is the way he is because he was once a human prince who broke with tradition and sought the witch’s magic in order to rule the kingdom on his own. His curse became permanent because he was too stubborn to right his wrongs. So, when Elinor kills him, his soul gratefully finds peace.

The maternal melodrama reaches its tearful conclusion when Merida, having practiced the womanly needlepoint skills her mother desperately grilled into her, wraps the tapestry around Elinor the bear. With a humble apology and a profession of love, Merida manages to bring back her mother’s human form, just as the sun rises. As much as I like New York magazine’s pop culture blog, Vulture, I am not willing to ignore its faults. Contributor Kyle Buchanan misunderstands a lot about the witch’s spell, believing that she casts it “[j]ust for cruel kicks.” First of all, Merida asks for the witch to “change” her mom, not for one to more accurately change her mother’s mind about her future, so we can hardly blame the witch for Merida’s confusing choice of words. Buchanan also takes the witch’s explanation of the spell’s conditions too literally, incredulous as to how the witch could have known that Elinor’s tapestry needed mending. That’s not actually the case, Kyle. The witch’s “answering service antidote” refers to the mother-daughter bond in a metaphorical way. It is Merida who conjures the idea to stitch the tapestry back together. Just think of how pleasing it would be to her mom!

Originally, I rolled my eyes at the the plot contrivance that the spell’s effects are only temporary for the first two days, but in hindsight I realize that it is enough time for the mother and daughter to reconnect. After all, they used to be close because of their shared belief in magic, and they do know each other very well. Through their adventure, they arrive at a compromise, which technically lies heavily in Merida’s favor. For even before Merida breaks the spell in the Druid circle, the princess’s agility outdoors and heartwarming speech in front of the fighting clansmen who have convened for the Highland Games inspires Elinor, still a bear, to sign the rest of her daughter’s speech, announcing that Queen Elinor has decided to suspend the Games. In witnessing Merida’s full appreciation for tradition, Elinor insists that the three suitors who have competed for her hand, along with everyone else throughout the kingdom, should have the right to choose whomever they want to marry. Talk about a change of heart.

This resolution complements the film’s overarching feminist representation of power. Fergus may be the king of all four clans, which are each headed by men, but it is Elinor who effectively rules. She organizes the Highland Games and arranges Merida’s marriage. When fighting breaks out among the clans upon their arrival, she brings it to an end with a stern turn about the room, silencing even her brawling husband. Most importantly, Queen Elinor stops Merida, who speaks passionately about the importance of tradition, before her daughter chooses who among the sons of Lords Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), will be her husband. In this way, through her influence over her mother, Merida becomes the most powerful DunBroch in the kingdom. In the future, she may remember to keep her bow off the dining room table to please her mother, but she will not have to hang it up completely.

Brave is violent in parts, such as whenever Mor’du appears on-screen. But perhaps more shocking than this is the prevalence of nudity. For example, Merida locks Fergus and his men outside on the tower in order to get Elinor, newly transformed into a bear, out of the castle. The men tie their kilts together and climb down, and as they walk out of the frame, the spectator glimpses their bare asses. Later in the film, after Merida breaks the spell, her mischievous little brothers, the triplets Hamish, Hubert, and Harris, run over to the naked Queen Elinor, their bare asses also visible (they had eaten from the magic cake at one point, too). It is an interesting choice to feature comic nudity in an animated family film. Pixar had never gone this route before. But I am glad that the filmmakers included a sexualized instance of the female gaze. When Lord Dingwall introduces his son before the royal family, a gigantic Schwarzenegger-like figure with bulging muscles and an unreal tan stands in front of them. Elinor leans forward in her throne to watch the expression on Merida’s face as she registers the man’s appearance. It’s not clear whether or not the denouement that he is not Lord Dingwall’s son disappoints either woman, but their looking at his body suggests that the filmmakers have a keen sense of irony when it comes to fairytale desires.

As a lover of all things Scottish, I admit that I was originally trepidatious going in to see Brave because the film circulates many stereotypes, including a mystical highland setting, jokes about kilts (Lord Dingwall moons Lord MacGuffin), and anachronistic blue face paint. In fact, I didn’t even like the title because it resembles too closely Mel Gibson’s rape of Scottish and English history also known as Braveheart (1995). Thankfully, the film is neither Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) nor Braveheart, and these small quibbles do not detract from the emotional pull of the story. In sum, I appreciate that the film reclaims the adjective “brave,” which typically connotes masculine courage, by attaching it to a young woman’s adventure of self-discovery.