Film Review: Pixar’s “Brave” Aims High But Falls Short

June 21, 2012

Brave
Directed by Mark Andrews and Starring Emma Thompson, Kelly Macdonald, and Billy Connolly

I had high hopes for Brave; it's Pixar Studios' first film focused on a female character. She's a wild-maned young warrior princess named Merida (Kelly Macdonald) whose massive father the king of Scotland (Billy Connolly) has a pathological hatred of bears since one of them bit his leg off years ago, and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) spends her days trying to keep her headstrong daughter from archery, rock climbing, and other tomboyish activities. (Between The Hunger Games and Brave, this is a good year for female archery.)

Merida complains a lot about how hard it is to be a princess, resenting the expectations and obligations that come with the position including dressing and acting a certain way. (Perhaps Merida would gain some perspective if she lived among the commoners who spent their days in menial, backbreaking labor and their nights sleeping six to a room on thin straw mats-but Brave has other lessons she's to learn.)

Merida's quarrels with her mother come to a head when she's told that she is expected to marry one of the sons of neighboring clans, to cement their allegiances and maintain an uneasy truce. When three boats of caricatured and clearly unsuitable suitors arrives--apparently all the women are beautiful and all the men are goonish oafs--Merida becomes desperate to change her mother's mind about the betrothal.

To that end she seeks out a witch and, without explaining her circumstances, asks for a magic spell that will change her mother, and indeed the mother does change-into, of all things, a bear. The rest of the story involves trying to undo the spell. (In one of several glaring plot holes, Merida's smart enough to figure out a technical loophole in a suitors' competition to win her hand-entering an archery contest in disguise to essentially choose her own husband: none-but not smart enough to explain to the witch what sort of magic spell she wants other than that her mother should "change.")

Brave's animation is beautiful and soaring, though many of the visuals are inexplicably murky and dark. The voice actors are uniformly excellent, providing enthusiastic life to the characters. Unfortunately the cast is let down by a meandering script that doesn't really know where it wants to go. Too much of Brave is wasted on tired slapstick seen in hundreds of other animated films: running full-bore into a tree, for example, and then the head woozily spins slightly as the character has a dazed look on its face (all that's missing is the stereotypical trope of the stars and circling, chirping birds around the head). There's nothing wrong with including a few of these creaky clichés and broad gags, but Brave uses them as filler when that time could have been spent fleshing out the story.

Brave, in a welcome feminist angle, takes pains to reject Prince Charming fairy tale stereotypes (for example showing that girls don't need dashing princes to be rescued, and don't need a man to be happy), but unfortunately the film's potential is squandered and its message muddled. For example, Merida does eventually declare her independence and claim the right choose her suitors-but only because she's following her mother's wishes. Merida gives a speech where she's about to announce that she will finally agree to wed one of the Scottish Dating Game rejects when her mother (as a bear, from the back of the room) bizarrely mimes a message to her daughter, telling her what to say.

If Merida was going to do whatever her mother told her to do in the first place, what was the point of the story? There's little or no arc in Merida's character; she begins the film only obeying her mother's wishes when it suits her, and ends the film only obeying her mother's wishes when it suits her. The only character with a change of heart is Merida's mother; she is the most powerful character in the film, yet the least interesting and spends most of her screen time clumsily dealing with her new bear body. And where did Queen Elinor's sudden change of heart come from? It's not clear, though apparently spending some time with Merida in the forest did the trick. Perhaps the witch's spell worked after all: if you want people to see things your way, just turn them into bears.

So much for girls making their own decisions. It's not clear why the screenwriters did this; perhaps Disney didn't want to go too far in encouraging kids to disobey their parents. Whatever the reason, this robs the film of a potentially empowering message for girls. Brave starts out with the promise of a grand adventure--and unfortunately ends the same way. Brave is not a bad film, it's just not a very good one. Merida is a great character--a plucky, smart, capable, independent girl--stuck in a muddled and mediocre movie. She deserves better, and so do we.