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Movie Review: BRAVE

June 24, 2012

Pixar’s story development process has become somewhat legendary. They’ll work and rework a story until it’s perfect — or at least, they used to. The behind the scenes material on the home video releases sometimes contains information on early versions of a given film’s story.

For example, in WALL-E, the titular character’s travels into space had him meeting up with green Jell-O aliens rather than flabby and helpless humans. THE INCREDIBLES originally had Syndrome only as a throwaway villain for the cold open. And CARS was going to have Lightning McQueen not only stuck in Radiator Springs doing hard labor, but actually switching bodies with Mater. Wisdom prevailed in these cases, and the films we got were probably better than we might have got had they not continued to revise and refine.

Pixar’s new venture, BRAVE, is the kind of film we’d have gotten if they had decided to just roll with the “Mater and Lightning switch brains” plot for CARS. It makes an equally bizarre story choice leading into the second act, and while it explores the choice well enough, in the end I wished they’d thought better of it.

Spoilers to follow…

If you’re still reading, you either have already seen the movie or don’t mind being spoiled, and the story choice I’m talking about, of course, is Merida giving her mother a bewitched cake and turning her into a bear. The film’s first act — and the marketing — spend a great deal of time considering the notion of fate, and of changing one’s fate. But Merida asks the witch for a spell to change her mother, not her own fate; and when the spell comes on, discussion of fate and destiny go out the window. All the time we spent setting up suitors and that whole conflict? It’s basically forgotten, except when their presence is useful to complicate bearmom’s attempt to move through the castle. Likewise, the thing where she’s a master archer, also at the centerpiece of the marketing and the first act? Also not significant to the story whatsoever after act two begins. The story decides to abandon all its setup and pay off some other story entirely.

It becomes a straightforward, superficial story about a girl learning to appreciate what she has, instead of wishing for something different — which was absolutely NOT her problem at the beginning of the film. No, her problem was she loved the life she had and resented being forced by custom down a particular path requiring she give it up.

Something something duty? I dunno; anyway her mom’s a bear.

The spell will become permanent unless Merida and her mother reconcile within two days. They spend a lot of time onscreen together, but mainly just doing things expedient to the plot. It’s unclear what true reconciliation entails, so as an audience member it was frustrating to watch, because I don’t know what they’re trying to achieve, nor will I be able to recognize it once it’s been achieved. Instead of feeling triumphant when Merida succeeds (at the last possible second, of course), I’m just left wondering what finally worked and was different from the other stuff she’s been up to the entire third act.*

It almost seemed like the story should have been about her mother, who has the much more worldview-shattering experience. But her mother is not the main character, and it’s not clear what her mother needs to learn, nor how becoming a bear teaches it to her. She changes her mind about Merida having to follow tradition, but why she should do so is not clear.

The movie behaves, in fact, just like a body-switch story, as though Merida and her mother’s minds swapped bodies and thereby came to understand each others’ perspectives. Except they’re not seeing each other’s perspective, they’re just dealing with the fact that one of them is a bear and trying to change her back.

I have no problem with the fact it’s magic — I can suspend that kind of disbelief no problem. The problem is, it makes no thematic sense. I don’t understand what the moral of the story is supposed to be, and therefore I don’t understand why the story was told to me.

In my view, if you want to tell the story about appreciating your loved ones and seeing things from a different perspective, go whole hog with the body-swap story and have Merida trying to be mom and mom trying to be Merida and both of them discovering it’s not as easy as it looks. If you want to talk about fate and destiny and what our lives mean in the big picture, maybe crib from IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and have the spell drop Merida into a world where she never existed and show the chaos it wreaks.

Or, her wish for a change in her circumstance brings in some evil outside force — a dragon or something — which, sure, will mean she doesn’t have to agree to an arranged marriage, because there’s a war on, but it could also mean the annihilation of everything she holds dear, and she has to stop it. You know, do something BRAVE. As it is, I have no idea why that’s the title.

I’m sure plenty of people out there would defend the film as being fine “for kids,” and I’m expecting too much out of a “kid’s movie.” I’m sure any parent would tell me their kid loved it and wants to see it again, and I can easily see why. But Pixar used to make films for kids and adults, films both fun to watch and fun to think about, and bore up under more sophisticated scrutiny. Films I, as someone in my 20s without kids, could unabashedly look forward to watching, because it was made for me, too. But they’re starting to slide into slapstick, goofy anachronism, and bright colors to appeal solely to a certain, younger (read: toy-buying) demographic — which, I think, is what people mean when they give this film the backhanded compliment of being a “good Dreamworks movie.”

It’s impossible to know if the film’s story didn’t get enough attention and revision, or if too many cooks in the kitchen spoiled the broth — though the fact this movie went through several directors and the way it changes gears so abruptly are points in the latter column. On a technical level, of course, it’s phenomenal. Visually stunning, some great animation (especially bearmom and Merida’s triplet siblings), a number of fun moments. It’s an alright diversion for a few hours, but not by a long shot the kind of storytelling masterclass which once gave the Pixar name such weight.

I guess if I were a real reviewer I’d make some quip about archery and missing the bullseye or whatever. But I’m just kinda sad.

*I think it had to do with Merida accepting responsibility for her mother’s predicament; up to that point she’d insisted it wasn’t her fault and at the end she says it is. But I shouldn’t be wondering what worked or why at the end, I should just be cheering, right?

  1. I fully agree. The initial set up with suitors, archery, teen rebellion to authority as well as the stage (warriors, bagpipe music and beautiful Irish scenery) were really setting my expectations high.
    However it does take a weird turn, and it wasn’t even an original one. At one point I thought I was seeing Brother Bear once again ( , with the difference that the magic transformation into a bear actually is coherent and pertinent to the story of Brother Bear.

    I feel the same frustration, knowing this could have been much better for it showed you in the first minutes it had the potential to be.

  2. King Kool permalink

    The example you mention, if Brave was more like It’s A Wonderful Life and put her in a world where she never existed… that’s basically Shrek 4. And honestly, Shrek 4 is decent. I’m not sure if it’s better than Brave, but it’s less uneven than Brave.

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