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Monday, August 6, 2012

Brave New Film

   Brave is the 13th feature length film from Pixar Animation Studios, and the first original film by the studio since the masterful Up left many of us in tears (literally) back in 2009, the last two films (Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, respectively) being sequels to earlier Pixar features.  Not only was it the first such film in several years to have an original storyboard, it was also the very first time that a Pixar film would feature a female protagonist, specifically a female protagonist struggling to overcome restrictive social constraints in a particular location and time in history when women were not exactly considered worthy of much attention etc. etc. etc. (in this case, the ancient Scottish highlands).  If this sounds like a standard Disney/Dreamworks trope to you, you’re not alone, because in most ways, the film is exactly that, and the trailers effectively reveal as much.    

    As such, it’s easy to understand why there seemed to be a lot of high expectations for the film.  Pixar, finally taking on the standard princess-and-castle fairytale archetypes Disney has dominated for decades?  Surely they’ll find some way to give it a fresh twist, make it something totally new!  It’s Pixar, and that means that every film they make has to elevate and redefine it’s given genre, right?  Right? 

   That, more or less, seems to have been the general expectation people had for this film, which is the only reason I can come up with for the particular type of criticism it’s been receiving.  Not that the film is bad, because it isn’t.  The animation for both the world and the people themselves ranks as some of Pixar’s best, firmly advancing Pixar’s reputation for technical perfection.  It’s a ton of fun to watch, has moments of genuine emotional and visual beauty, and is absolutely worth taking the time to see. 

    However, positive reactions to the film have been rather muted.  The film only holds a 74% percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, significantly lower than ratings for The Incredibles, Toy Story, Wall-E, Up, and most of Pixar’s other features.  Many of my friends who saw it before I did said to me afterwards, “Yeah, it was good.  Just don’t expect a Pixar film.”  A comment that I found to be odd.  Why should it *not* be considered a Pixar film just because it doesn’t cause an artistic revolution?  People tolerate the Cars franchise well enough, and this film stands head and shoulders over both of those incidents put together.  Those were more or less my thoughts as I initially sat down to watch the movie. 

   Okay, I’m digressing.  I should probably go over the story now.  Brave opens with a montage of, honestly, some of the most beautiful animated landscapes I’ve ever seen (think Princess Mononoke), and a narrative voiced by a young scottish girl discussing the nature of fate.  We soon find out that the girl is Merida, the daughter of a Scottish King, Grupel (voiced by the indefatigable Billy Connelly), and his Queen Elinor, voiced by Emma Thompson.  It would also be remiss of me to not mention Merida's grown-up voice, done by Kelly MacDonald (from No Country For Old Men), giving way to her normal Scottish accent for a change.  After the opening montage, we see Merida as a little girl receiving her very first bow from her father as a birthday gift, which she promptly falls in love with (to the clear disapproval of her mother).  However, the party is soon interrupted by an attack by an immense bear, who Grupel fights to allow his family to escape. 

    The fight cuts away to the opening title shot, immediately followed by another montage/narration showing us pieces of Merida’s childhood in her castle in the faraway region of......something Scottish, I’m sure.  This establishes the major figures in her family, along with the core conflict of the film- her father is the gruff and rough yet warm-hearted and fun-loving fighter, her mother the upright (and a little uptight) authority figure in both the house and the kingdom, determined to turn her daughter into a shining example of ladylike virtue, and her three younger brothers are the reasons why Speedy Gonzalez and the Tasmanian Devil should never be allowed to mate. 

    Most of the scenes show her mother furiously trying to instill a sense of genteel queenliness in her daughter, and Merida’s voice tells us how much these efforts infuriate her.  The montage concludes with a scene depicting what is, ostensibly, Merida’s only real desire- hurtling out of the castle gates on the back of her faithful horse, brandishing her bow, with her astonishingly well-animated red hair streaming out behind her, hitting her favorite arrow targets with embarrassing accuracy, and climbing a cliff face alongside a stunning waterfall.  Set to a song that is *just* Nordic enough to avoid being mistaken for a Dreamworks cover, the scene is a visually stunning opening, bringing to mind thoughts of ancient castles, heady action, and adventure. 
    The entire first part of the film after this mostly follows this pattern.  We see Merida interacting with her family, her anger at having to choose one of the sons of the three clans to marry (one of which, to my delight, is named MacGuffin).  As part of a long-standing ritual, she must marry whichever of the sons can “prove their worth,” but, given that each of the three sons epitomize the highest levels of incompetence, the audience is compelled to share her disgust at the prospect. 

    The film is, in my opinion, strongest through this first part.  The ritual (centered around archery) ends with Merida stepping in and utterly humiliating each of the sons in turn (or at least the fathers- the sons seem rather indifferent to the whole affair).  Afterwards, Merida and her mother have a huge fight about the expectations for Merida as a princess and her anger and resistance to the idea that she has to conform to such old traditions.  The fight itself is another highlight of the film.  The voice acting in the entire film is top of the line, and the passionate emotions driving this scene in particular are bitterly palpable. 

    It’s after this, however, that the film takes several strange turns, and where the main issues with it begin.  It’s like the movie suddenly jumps from The Incredibles to Brother Bear, and does so with an almost audible thunk.  Due to a significant plot twist that I won’t spoil here, Merida and Elinor are forced to resolve their differences before a certain misunderstanding results in the destruction of both her family and the fragile peace between the clans.  This is more or less the focus of the remainder of the movie, but even this plot turn gets split up with the introduction of another side story: an ancient legend that may or may not have something to do with their own predicament.  Whether or not that is the case, though, is something that even the film itself seems uncertain about, as the story is thrown in and out of the film almost at random.   

    And that is, ultimately, the biggest problem with the film- it’s schizophrenic.  The film is solid and cohesive through the first 30-40 minutes, but once the major twist comes in to play, the atmosphere and tone of the film begins to shift back and forth dramatically.  Yes, the film continues to look great, all the major plot points are resolved (more or less), and it does end on a good, emotional high note, but by that point many people may feel a bit bewildered, like they aren’t really sure what they just saw. 

    I later found out that this film suffered from production issues unusual for Pixar films, with the production and writing team being almost completely replaced halfway through the making of the film.  A total of 5 different people are credited with writing and directing the film, and it shows.  It certainly explains why the whole product feels like several different films spliced together, and ultimately mutes the emotional impact the film does occasionally have. 

    Because of this, much of the criticism directed at Brave is justified.  As good as the animation and voice-acting is, the writing and direction simply isn’t tight enough to place it on par with Up or The Incredibles.  However, I could not disagree more with the notion that this makes Brave “less” of a Pixar film than the studio’s earlier works.  Saying that every Pixar film has to redefine the world of American animation to be good is like saying that every “good” Miyazaki film has to have the masterful depth of Princess Mononoke, or that every decent Scorcese film has to involve gangsters and gritty violence. 

    What Brave lacks in narrative cohesion it makes up for with the imagination, passion, and quirky eccentricity that are just as much hallmarks of Pixar’s works as their top-notch animation.  While perhaps not the best animated film I’ve seen this year (Arrietty still holds that title), it is fun, funny, and memorable, and I look forward to watching it again.  When it comes out on DVD. 

-Judge Richard


  1. I really enjoyed this! Overall I agree with your consensus, Judge. I think it's a good movie, not a great one, and not in the same territory as other films you mentioned (Up, The Incredibles, etc.)

    That said, I DO think the film is redefining its certain smaller ways. You pointed out that the film is another Disney princess film, but unlike the others, love is never a concern for Merida. That is a nice change of pace, for starters.

    Additionally, when was the last time you saw a movie about a mother-daughter relationship? Seriously, what was the last one? It's pretty rare in mainstream Hollywood nowadays.

    Also, instead of an overbearing father, we have an overbearing mother. And while I think yes, the significant plot twist that you mention is jarring, it actually reveals much about the queen's identity. Does it perfectly mesh with the set-up? Not exactly-but I think it does work to some degree.

    Want more genre-bending? How about a witch character who tries to do anything BUT magic? That's a neat twist-and one that puts much more personal responsibility on Merida, which is a key theme to the film.

    I also thought I should mention that the legend you bring up occurs well before the twist and- without spoiling it for people who still haven't seen it-actually is key to the reconciliation between mother and daughter.

    Another cool image-Merida riding on horseback while SEWING. When was the last time you saw that? It combines essential masculine and feminine traits, while also showing that the path to her maturity will require both her own freedom AND the lessons of her mother.

    If you'll pardon my asking, is there a reason why you never credit the voice actress for Merida, Kelly Macdonald? You do for the King and Queen. Just curious.

    On a macro-level, yeah, I think the film is pretty standard. On a micro-level, I think it does some original things-which aren't simply superficial or insignificant.

    Great job, man! Looking forward to seeing your next one!

    Humbly yours,

    The CineMaverick

    1. I am honored by your feedback, Cinemaverick!

      I actually forgot to mention Kelly MacDonald, simply because I rushed through my final editing of this. I have corrected this error. Moral of the story- ALWAYS read through slowly before posting!

      I agree, there are many small/medium-sized details that are different or new or genre-bending, but I think the macro-issues with the story structure mutes the ability of most viewers to notice and be affected by them. Of course, whatever influence this film does have (if any) can't be quantified just yet, but now that you've mentioned those things I will have to keep an eye out for those the next time I watch the movie (and I do plant on seeing it again at some point).