Movie Review: Brave
Pixar isn’t fallible. Let’s get that out of the way up front. They aren’t. I think we can mostly agree that the Cars franchise proves that statement perfectly. But, when Pixar is performing at their peak, they can make something incredible. Wall-E, Toy Story, and The Incredibles are all examples of some of the finest filmmaking around; truly special movies that can engage the imagination like few others. When Pixar fails it can be frustrating because they often come so close to making something great. Regardless of how you feel about Cars, it at least looks beautiful, and other “failures” like A Bug’s Life are filled with great comic talent. But Pixar is still a studio within the Hollywood system and things can often go wrong on a big production and Brave is a perfect example of that.
Brave was announced in 2008 and it was to mark two significant advances for Pixar: it was going to include Pixar’s first female protagonist (Scottish princess Merida) and it was to be directed by Pixar’s first female director, Benda Chapman. But, as things are so often wont to do in Hollywood, things change. Chapman left the production in 2010 following disagreements over creative decisions and was replaced by Mark Andrews. I’m making no declarations about Chapman or Andrews’ collective work, but the result of these production upheavals is absolutely felt in Brave, which plays like a patchwork of several movies, none of which succeed outright.
The basic story of Brave is that of Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a headstrong girl who relishes the opportunity to practice her marksmanship with a bow but loathes the responsiblities she has as a princess. She and her mother argue about what is proper for a lady, and ultimately what Merida will make of herself. You see, Merida is set to be wed to the heir to another clan. Of course, Merida wants to choose her own suitor and doesn’t like the idea of a contest deciding her fate. After a blowout fight with her mother, Merida rides into the wilderness where she finds someone who may be able to help change her fate.
Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat, I love Merida’s character. I think that it’s high time for Pixar to have a female main character and I love that Disney now has a princess who isn’t defined by her relationship to a prince. Whatever problems Merida causes (and she does set the entire adventure in motion by her somewhat selfish actions), she works to correct them as best as she can. And when Merida gets to pull a sword in the third act, it’s exciting to see this princess take up arms. Brave doesn’t devolve into a love story, it is high adventure with an emphasis on family and choosing your own fate. Merida grows through this adventure and she is absolutely the best part of the film.
Sadly, the rest of the film isn’t as fabulous as Merida. Being a PG rated film means that Merida is never placed in any real danger, and her skills with a bow and sword are shown but she never honestly gets an opportunity to use these skills. I’m not asking for an R rated Pixar film, but the somewhat dark tone of Brave may have been better suited as a PG-13 film, which would allow the producers to show Merida’s skills in a lengthier and a bit more dangerous manner. Instead, as a PG film Brave has no real teeth. Merida faces bears and a couple of humans in situations that should be dangerous but never really feel that way.
There are plenty of examples of children’s films where the characters face danger and feel threatened but come out fine. The Goonies, for instance (released in 1985, a.k.a. Best Year Ever For Movies™) is rated PG, but has the kids being chased by gun-weilding thugs. The kids feel like they are in danger, but no one is harmed; it’s a kids movie through and through. Despite being twenty-six years younger than that classic, Brave feels like it is significantly tamer.
And the tone of the film constantly clashes with the slapstick humor peppered throughout. Merida’s triplet brothers have no dialogue and seem to exist solely to be sight gags. Similarly, Merida’s suitors are played mostly as a joke, with very few lines and silly goofs happening between them and their clansmen. It makes me wonder if these tonal shifts were a symptom of the directorial shift or studio notes from Disney. Regardless of the reason, they absolutely make the film weaker. Not to mention that about halfway through the film essentially begins to ape from another (weaker) Disney film: Brother Bear. One could concieve of a world where this flick was instead called Mother Bear, rather than Brave. It’s a “twist” that comes seemingly out of nowhere, and Disney was apparently eager to downplay this aspect since it’s not even mentioned in the advertising, but it’s the bulk of the story.
Thankfully, for all it’s faults, Brave retains the amazing Pixar visual flourishes. It looks tremendous, and the human cast manages to look that perfect blend of cartoon and realistic that prevents it from stumbling headlong into the Uncanny Valley. And the music, a smattering of traditional-sounding Celtic tunes, is tremendous. Various vocal pieces are peppered throughout, giving the film an authentic feel.
Ultimately, Brave is probably not going to end up on the top of anyone’s “Best of Pixar” lists. It’s a movie that has suffered, probably due to upheavals in the creative process. There’s an interesting film waiting to be found, but it constantly betrays itself with wild shifts in tone. Merida is perhaps the strongest aspect of the movie, a princess who doesn’t have to define herself by her relationship with any man, and a teen who must learn from her childish actions. She is a great female figure for children to associate with.