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Non-Review Review: Brave

Brave is certainly a significant improvement upon Cars 2, even if it doesn’t necessarily measure up the finest films in the Pixar stable. Part of the problem is the sense that, for the first time, the studio is telling a story that isn’t really their own. I know that particular films in the studio’s history owe a great deal to certain influences (The Incredibles to The Fantastic Four, for example), but Brave really feels like the studio is very much trying to put its own take on the conventional “Disney Princess” movie. While the results are certainly interesting, it never feels like Braveis entirely comfortable with itself. While the film is, technically speaking, quite impressive, it does feel like it never quite strikes the right balance.

The right to bear arms…

There are a lot of familiar trappings in Brave. There is a feisty young princess who refuses to be bound by her preordained destiny. There are a whole bunch of anthropomorphic animals who bond with the hero – bears and horses. There are suitors. There’s a witch. There’s magic. There’s a classically familiar and yet strangely unique setting – although the film is set in Scotland, it crafts its own history of the realm.

And yet, despite this, Pixar puts its own slant on things. Without spoiling anything, there’s a reason that (some of) the animals are anthropomorphic. The princess rejects the idea that her destiny must be defined by a relationship to a prince. The witch isn’t evil, just insane and incompetent. “Too many dissatisfied customers,”she explains, when she reveals she scarcely practices magic any more. And her spells aren’t intentionally malign. They just have a particular theme to them.

The mother of all problems…

It’s at moments like that where the film feels a bit looser, more spontaneous, a bit more comfortable in its own skin. The witch, for example, is perhaps the most interesting character in the whole film, because she feels like a genuine attempt to reimagine a Disney archetype. She’s the only character here who would feel more comfortable in a Pixar film than a classical Disney film. There’s a nice moment – which feels quite out of place with the rest of the film’s more classical tone – featuring what could only be described as the witch’s “answering machine.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the film feels much more conventional. While Pixar quite happily eschew the idea that a female lead character needs a partner in order to find happiness, the rest of the movie feels much more straightforward. Indeed, I couldn’t help but think of The Little Mermaid, another story about a young princess seeking to escape her kingdom who makes a wish that she winds up deeply regretting. Everything feels a bit more generic, a bit paint-by-numbers in the construction of the story. While none of the character break into song, the music playing over some of the film could easily have come from a nineties Disney film.

A mist opportunity?

And, of course, I should clarify that this isn’t a bad thing. I think that Disney’s last “princess” movie, Tangled, was one of the studio’s finest animated projects in well over a decade. And Brave, despite the sense of an identity crisis, is a solid example of that type of fairytale storytelling. It just feels a little out of place here, and it seems odd to see Pixar’s talents brought to a project that seems too conventional for the studio.

There is, by way of an example, a very short narrative thread involving the history of the dreaded bear who took the leg of our lead character’s father all those years ago. The story reveals the origin of the monster, in a way that is carefully set up and foreshadowed, but never feels like anything that pays off. It’s a story beat that fits the themes of the story being told, but the revelation feels awkward and anti-climactic, as if the team couldn’t quite figure out how to insert that plot point into the story in an organic manner.

Join the cub…

On the other hand, there’s a nice moment towards the end of the film where Merida discusses the legends and myths of the region, which she describes as relatively young. There’s a sense that the writers might be transparently speaking through Merida, as if commenting on these fairy tales as an attempt to craft an American mythology or back story, perhaps attempting to justify the decision by Pixar to tell a story like this by framing it in terms of shared American popular mythology. The problem is that the moment feels strangely disconnected from what is happening around it, and it never really ties into the plot itself.

There is a fair amount to enjoy here. The cast is excellent. Kelly Macdonald is fantastic as the movie’s princess, Merida. It’s great to hear the actress’ Scottish brogue, and Macdonald’s performance goes a long way towards keeping Merida a sympathetic character despite her short-sighted and rash decisions. Emma Thompson is superb as Merida’s mother, and the pair play well off one another. There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm in the performances, with Thompson relishing the opportunity to put on a thick highlands accent. “A princess dunnae doodle!”

She used to be such a straight arrow…

The rest of the cast is similarly impressive. Billy Connolly is great as Merida’s father, and Julie Walters makes for a convincingly scatterbrained witch whittler. The rest of the cast put in solid performances including small turns from Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and – as expected – John Ratzenberger. Everybody does their level best with the material, and the performances are never less than fun.

Similarly, while the narrative feels a little too confined by conventional genre tropes, there is the occasional sense that the Pixar team were having quite a bit of fun putting the bits and pieces together. I can’t help but interpret the name of “Clan Mackintosh” as an affectionate homage to Steve Jobs, and I smiled at the revelation that the least developed of the families had been named “Clan Macguffin.” There’s a pleasant enough wit to the story, and one that keeps it ticking over – even if it can’t overcome the more fundamental storytelling issues.

Out of the blue…

The animation looks fantastic, as one might expect from a Pixar film, and the sound quality and design are similarly impressive. While the studio’s past projects have leant themselves to 3D relatively well – due to their status as computer-rendered animation – the 3D does feel a little bit clunky here. It doesn’t help that the movie itself is occasionally very dark and its colours are frequently muted. The 3D works fine for the scenes in daylight, but during the evening or night-time shots, it can be quite difficult to make out what exactly is going on.

I should also note that Brave comes, as is traditional, with its own Pixar short. La Luna is a superb short animation conceived and directed by Enrico Casarosa. It looks stunning, and it’s genuinely magical in a way that only the very best of the Pixar shorts are. It’s bright and it’s cheerful and it’s magical. It really is well worth a look on its own terms, to the point where I’d almost recommend seeing Brave solely to see La Lunaon the big screen.

Tabled for later discussion…

Brave isn’t an especially strong Pixar film. It feels a bit too confined by the genre it casts itself in. While the studio might toy with a few conventions of the Disney fairy tale, it still feels like a very straight attempt to tell one. The problem arises that the studio’s strengths don’t lie within this sort of conventional narrative framework. Still, there’s enough technical skill here that it’s an entertaining family film. It is certainly a lot stronger than Cars 2.

10 Responses

  1. I think the most telling thing about brave is that the main spoiler of the movie is essentially the premise of the movie; once you know it, you know exactly how the movie will play out. Just very predictable and generic story. The voice acting and animation barely made up for the lack luster story. While Tangled may have had a basic plot, it focused on the emotional connections between the characters in a far more convincing way than in Brave.

    I also was annoyed how the theme of the movie was constantly repeated in the dialogue. Overall, the movie felt very dumbed down not only for Pixar, but even for a Dreamworks movie.

    • Yep. I was careful not to spoil that twist, but… since we’re in the comments… it opened a whole rake of awkward plot holes you’d forgiove if Pixar films weren’t generally stronger.

      For example… spoiler warning

      Why did Merida need to sneak her mother into the castle to retrieve the tapestry? Surely she could have just shown up, announced her arrival politely, taken and sewn the tapestry in her own time, and met her mother outside. That would have avoided the awkward bit where her father tries to murder her mother. Maybe, and this is all I can think of, she was worried her mother would go feral and she’d never find her, but it’s never brought up. Given that it’s a stupid and risky plan to sneak a bear into a freakin’ castle, you’d imagine that it would be a bit tidier.

      I also, while we’re talking about spoilers, hated the cop-out ending. Merida learns to respect her mother. However, despite this revelation, she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to, because her mother learns to respect her wishes. All of this is fine until the pair disagree again, and “respecting each other’s opinion” isn’t easily resolved by a mutually beneficial decision. (Of course, that could have the politically controversial implication of endorsing arranged marriages, which would be its own can of worms.)

  2. She snuck her mother in to retrieve the tapestry so you could practice suspended disbelief watching the film.

  3. I saw your spoiler warning and it took all my self-discipline not to look at the comments, but I didn’t 😀
    I have been wanting to see this movie ever since it was announced and I am sincerely hoping that I, for once, will disagree with you and your review!
    I cannot believe it only opens august 30th in Denmark 😦

    • Apologies. I hope I didn’t accidentally spoil anything for you. And I do hope that you enjoy it. That is quite a wait – and I’m upset we had to wait for a month to get it here.

      • You didn’t spoil anything, don’t worry! I carefully skimmed past the parts that could, possibly, have been revealing! And I have to say, even if you had, it’s my own damn fault for reading something that clearly says “spoiler-warning” 😀
        Yeah, it is quite a wait. Bah!

      • Well, I hope you enjoy!

  4. its is so nice veryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy

    i love this

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