Time for another break from the tough stuff. I want to talk about Disney. (In earnest, mind you. As always.) I just saw Pixar’s Brave and no, I’m not going to write about her feminism—or the ludicrous musings about her lesbianism—or the radical imperfectness of her eyebrows. What pleased me most about this film was its break from the Broadway tradition that has been dominating—dare I say strangling—animated cinema for decades. Throughout my childhood, Disney and their competitors would take you around the world with Alan Menken and his endless supply of wide-mouthed Middle American show tunes as your guide. The main characters’ accents ranged from Beverly Hills to Burbank.
Like The Princess and the Frog, Brave has the guts to feature songs, accents, and expressions native to the story’s setting. And it’s about time. The Broadway model has its merits, but it can start to feel like overkill when it forbids any trace of historical or foreign flavor. When it comes to their family films, Hollywood has traditionally handled their American audiences like cultural infants. There conventional wisdom asserts that any voice that doesn’t immediately evoke baseball and apple pie risks obliterating our ability to empathize. (Only “artsy” films for grown-ups like Brokeback Mountain or Capote dare to let the idiolect match the backdrop.) Hence our heroes Aladdin and Belle and Ariel and Simba and Esmeralda, who all sound like they went to school with the cast of Saved by the Bell. As the New York Times observed in 1997, the closest the actors in Anastasia ever came to St. Petersburg was Pasadena. A character speaking the Queen’s English has been permitted with some regularity, but if they’re not Julie Andrews, they’re probably the villain or the butler.
Paradoxically, these animated family films set in far off lands usually feature one odd character who does speak with a local accent. So is this proof we can catch words pronounced differently, or does it not matter what Token Foreigner says because his character is inconsequential? Beauty and the Beast lets one or two comic roles babble, “Ooo la la!” and “Sacre bleu !” but pretty much leaves the plot exposition up to everyone else. In Aladdin, the Arabic accent belongs only to the characters with the fewest lines, such as the merchant—who sings the racist song that was later edited—and Gazeem the thief, who dies before the end of Scene One. (And by the way, I haven’t been able to find anyone in The Little Mermaid who sounds Danish, under the sea or above.)
Not only does Brave inject its lines with a kick-ass charisma brought on by Scottish brogue, but most of its voice actors—with the exception of Emma Thompson and Julie Walters—are actually, truly, veritably from Scotland. Traditionally, the Token Foreigner in a children’s film has been provided by an American actor putting on a stereotypical accent. (Kelsey Grammer as a Russian aristocrat, Jerry Orbach as a French candlestick… ) The ability to imitate an accent is a great skill for both an actor and an interpreter, but it can easily go horribly wrong without anyone in charge of the film noticing. The fact that Dick van Dyke got away with his impression of Cockney in Mary Poppins suggests that U.S. film critics of the time had pretty low standards. Meryl Streep has been famously lauded for her ability to sound authentically Italian, Polish, and British, but almost none of those singing her praises are Italian, Polish, or British. Her portrayals may very well be accurate, but ever since Mary Poppins, Americans have a bit of a reputation for being too easily fooled. My Nordic partner always rolls his eyes and shakes his head at the Seinfeld episode that tried to pass off this accent as Finnish:
This is not to say that Americans are the only ones who can’t tell Finnish from gibberish. I’ve met plenty of French people who think Japanese sounds like that pathetically generic “Ching-chong-chang!” And Brits who have claimed (a little arrogantly) that the U.S. does not have as many dialects or accents as the U.K. (Ethnologue cites 176 living languages in the U.S. compared to the U.K.’s 12. Great Britain and Northern Ireland may contain more dialects—though I would bet their dialects are fewer in number while boasting more speakers per dialect—but this begs the philosophical question of what separates a dialect from a language. The joke among linguists goes, “A language has an army and a navy.”) Every culture tends toward simplistic views of other cultures. When you begin to type “Brave Pixar” into Google, you get the apparently popular question, “Brave Pixar Irish or Scottish?” Anyone outside of the Celtic-speaking regions could be asking this question.
I’m sure Brave is still rife with Scottish stereotypes that are more craved by Hollywood than are authentic. And the clans of the Highlands most likely sounded nothing like Billy Connolly or Craig Ferguson. But it is nice to see the filmmakers trust us enough to handle protagonists who do not speak exactly like the average American moviegoer. After all, what is the point to hearing stories from far off lands if it’s not to hear things we may not have heard before? And the more we are exposed to different authentic accents, the more likely we are to realize that every one of us has one. And that somewhere, someone is smiling at the way we talk.