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. 

Comments:

#1 mckenzievmd on Friday June 22, 2012 at 10:06pm

I’d put this review in the “Aren’t we taking this all a bit too seriously” category. Enjoyable, if imperfect, movie, but if you were expecting powerful and cogent social commentary, perhaps you were expectIng a bit much?

#2 Kylie S (Guest) on Friday June 22, 2012 at 11:48pm

Re: mckenzievmd - When it’s a film marketed to young people, particularly young women, and considering the trend towards (as said in the review) movies that depict girls as the heroes of the story? Yes, I would hope that screenwriters would deliver on their promise and make something worth paying for in the cinemas.

It’s just one reason why I choose to or choose not to purchase animated movies for young relatives (particularly nieces) or even teach them in my high school English classes. When students wonder why we don’t teach this film - reviews like this are useful to show why.

#3 TurboFool (Guest) on Saturday June 23, 2012 at 8:16am

I have to strongly disagree with the idea that she was merely following her mother’s orders. She came to respect her mother’s position, her own lot in life, and her own duty to her kingdom, and made the decision to follow through. She had to couch all her terms in “my mother said,” because her mother’s the queen and MAKES those rules. Merida couldn’t say that she, herself, made any of these decisions and be taken seriously. So when she realized she had to make a sacrifice for the future of the kingdom, she knew she had to claim the orders came from her mother.

Meanwhile she didn’t then ALSO follow NEW orders from her mother, allowing her her freedom. Her mother pantomimed to her, essentially, that she was right all along and that her mother had been convinced. Her mother was correcting her and telling her, “no, you were right, what you’re doing now ISN’T what’s best for the kingdom, go back.” The fact that she was able to understand her mother’s pantomimes was due mostly to the fact that they were merely reinforcing Merida’s own ideas. Her mother wasn’t ordering her, she was giving her the freedom and support in following the path she had wanted to all along.

Both characters found the wisdom, respect, and strength in the other, and Merida DID gain her independence and voice. I think you missed the very basic undertones in that interaction and viewed it on the most surface level, when the most important parts of that scene carried out in primarily subtext, or the background knowledge we had gained of the characters through the film.

Also, as for the slapstick, I’m trying to think of which Pixar films didn’t have their share of it. I’d argue this one had far less than many.

#4 Ben Radford on Saturday June 23, 2012 at 9:47pm

TurboFool wrote: “I think you missed the very basic undertones in that interaction and viewed it on the most surface level, when the most important parts of that scene carried out in primarily subtext, or the background knowledge we had gained of the characters through the film.”

It’s interesting, you and several other people have come up with rather elaborate deconstructions of the inter-character dynamics in the film… We can all read whatever interpretations, hidden subtexts, and meanings we like into the film, but that doesn’t mean that audiences (especially young Disney target audiences) will interpret it the same way. Moviegoing audiences (kids and adults) often DO take films on a surface level… indeed that’s what the copious slapstick in Brave is all about.

In other words, we can debate Merida’s (and her mother’s) intentions and meanings all day, but the fact is that what audiences see is Merida’s mother telling her daughter what to say (almost literally). I suppose it’s possible that kids and others will think to themselves, “Even though the queen is telling Merida what to say, what’s REALLY going on here is that she came to respect her mother’s position, her own lot in life, and her own duty to her kingdom, and made the decision to follow through….” If I had the time and resources I’d love to interview 100 kids in the target demographic and see if that’s what they took from the scene; I’m guessing that won’t be it, but I could be wrong.

You may be right in your interpretation. But if so, the screenwriters took a rather roundabout, tortured way of going about it. Surely they could have found a better, clearer, and more direct way to communicate the message. For example, they could have simply had Merida stand up for herself and assert her independence for her own sake instead of having that message clearly delivered by her mother when they were supposed to reflect her true feelings. It’s a kids’ movie, after all, and far less plausible things happen all the time.

I’ve studied screenwriting, interviewed screenwriters, and have done a bit of it myself, and this device would fall under “being too clever for your own good.”

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