Brave (2012)

Let’s get this out of the way first: Brave is not a bad film. It has the makings of a good film, even. But is it a great film worthy of the Pixar name? The critical consensus seems to be that it wasn’t quite the return to form many had hoped for after Cars 2. Fans of the film accused the critics of having it in for Pixar because they’re tired of praising their movies, and of projecting behind-the-scenes troubles (Pixar’s first female director Brenda Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews) on the finished product. When Brave was awarded the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, the other side chimed up with the accusation that the Academy snubbed Wreck-It Ralph (2012) because it wasn’t from Pixar. So, where does the actual film really end up, quality-wise?

The movie tells the story of Merida, a teenage Scottish princess who is to be married off to one of the clan chiefs’ sons so peace can be kept. A tomboy who’d rather go out practising archery than learning how to be a proper lady, Merida’ll have none of that and runs away after a fight with her mother. Deep in the woods, she chances upon a witch, from whom she procures a magic spell intended to “change her fate”. Cast on the queen, the spell has unexpected side effects. Now mother and daughter must race against the clock to find a cure and, in the process, repair their frayed relationship.

As concepts for animated films go, the female angle at least is pretty unique, even if the whole “making amends with someone you’ve had a falling out with” isn’t. It’s just a pity that Brave, which at only one-and-a-half hours is already pretty short, doesn’t spend all that much time on its central relationship.

—Some spoilers magically manifested below—

It would be unfair to ascribe all the distractions from that central throughline to replacement director Mark Andrews. It’s also unlikely. One of the more baffling decisions is that Merida’s spell turns the queen into a bear, something that was presumably part of the story back when Chapman pitched it as The Bear and the Bow. It’s not that the transformation comes completely out of the blue — the importance of that particular animal is established as part of the film’s mythology. But it robs the central relationship of a relatable, human element.

The idea, clearly, is that by forcing mother and daughter to travel together, they must confront each other’s points of view and eventually come to a better understanding of each other. That’s undercut when one half of the pairing is a bear in danger of losing all her/its humanity. What ends up in the movie is one scene that amounts to Merida teaching her bear-mother how to catch fish for food, and thus the value of girls having outdoorsy knowledge and experience, and another scene where Merida repeats a history lesson. If the goal was to tell us how princess and queen have learned from each other, the movie should have given us more moments that actually show us that. It may have also benefited from emphasising how much more like her father Merida is and how not every daughter can end up a copy of her mother.

The rest of the film is filled mainly with a) characters moving across the landscape without important interaction, and b) comic relief by almost all of the characters except Merida and her mother. There are moments of adventure and thrill and peril, to be sure, but they’re not big and momentous or frequent enough to save the story from feeling incredibly small. Which wouldn’t be a problem if the “small” story being told, about a mother and her teenage daughter, was more substantial, but it’s not. Some of the scenes which should have come across as dangerous or heartfelt are also misused as further opportunities for comedy, such as bear-mom’s transformation and escape from the castle, and the queen’s acceptance of her daughter’s wild streak, which devolves into a silly game of Charades.

The movies tells us there are big stakes, but never makes us believe in them. That’s compounded by a curious lack of lasting consequences, for a film where the lesson is supposed to be that sometimes, you can’t do whatever you want, because sometimes adults have good reasons for the things they want to make you do. Everything turns out just fine in the end, with Merida left alone to marry, or not marry, whomever she wants, and her mother having learned that going riding outside can be fun, too. Contrast that with Monsters University (2013), which made a point of not giving its protagonists what they want and reasonably punishing them for their transgressions. Merida also has surprisingly little agency after she runs away, often just blindly following conveniently benevolent magical lights or magical advice.

Brave isn’t a total bust at all. The film is never less than entertaining. And I appreciate the lack of a traditional villain and the even-more traditional romance, and how Merida isn’t just a collection of feisty-girl stereotypes, but a well-rounded character with plenty of flaws. I just wish the filmmakers had spent more time on the journey she and her mother go on and less time on making little children in the audience laugh at the antics of the male Scots.

This time, I’m afraid the critics are right. Brave is okay, about on par with something like Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda (2008), with which it shares an over-reliance on comic relief and a lesson undercut by the conclusion. But Pixar can do better.

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