Brave is not a bad movie.
Let us be clear about that up front since, given the ecstatic buzz about the film, my not-that-great-saying will come across as naysaying. Film criticism on the Internet tends to reduce all judgments to two choices: best movie ever, or it sucked. I suppose if I had enough kids that the lion’s share of my film viewings involved animated animals, irascible tykes, and cartoon nudity, Brave would be the gold standard. But at the risk of bringing the wrath of the Pixardolators down on me, I’ll say that there are enough nits to pick here that not everyone who likes it will love it.
Much like with Prometheus, one wonders if the most glowing reviews will be the product of sky-high expectations that can leave folks with too much invested in a film not to blur the line between really good and good enough. Brave also shares with Prometheus a lopsided investment in art design and action sequencing over story development and narrative coherence. Also like Ridley Scott’s film, the first fifteen minutes–the part dedicated to introducing the film’s characters and themes–is fully satisfying, creating a promise that the rest of the film can’t live up to.
That introduction is not merely about how wildly awesome Princess Merida’s hair is–although visually it is the most interesting aspect of the whole film–but also about how spirited and sporty is the heroine herself. She likes horseback riding, archery, and helping her three little brothers eat pastries for dinner instead of haggis. Life’s not all perfect for Merida, though. Mother Elinor thinks her too much of a tomboy and can’t understand why her daughter doesn’t respond well to being forced into clothes so tight she can barely move or being regaled with with admonitions that a princess must always strive to be “perfect.” When Merida rejects the local tradition that insists that the male who wins a contest of skill also gets to be her suitor, mom, outraged, reams her daughter for embarrassing her and warns of dire consequences for the refusal to conform to her proscribed role.
How Merida responds to that dressing down gets into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say it involves adolescent piggishness, a poorly formulated wish, and the law of unintended consequences.
I had two large reservations about Brave and one quibble. The second half of the film, particularly the last act, lets go of any character development (when it is needed the most) and becomes a series of action sequences, mostly chases. I had a similar complaint about Wall-e, another Pixar film that had an interesting set up and then seemed to give up on the story it created and just sort of reveled in the possibilities provided by computer generated animation. Plot wise, Merida’s quest involves an instruction to repair “the bond that was broken by pride” which somehow, sadly, more or less involves trying to retrieve a particular object from the castle without being seen. Thematically, the film’s heart is in the right place, but it feels like the first half had a polished script and the second was just a series of weak transitions and occasional gags used to bide time until the emotional payoff.
Payoff there is, but I found my own emotions at the conclusion somewhat muted by the fact that–and there’s just no easy way to put this–I preferred the pre-chastened heroine to the one who had learned her lesson at the end. Actually, I am not entirely sure what lesson Merida learned. Ostensibly it had something to do with the “pride” that caused the bond to be broken, but it is hard to see how not wanting to be given away as a trophy to the winner of an archery contest is being too proud. Even the film itself seems confused on this point, since Elinor’s reasons for eventually changing her mind about the necessity of Merida accepting the tradition calling on her to be a trophy wife are never articulated. Mother and daughter come out of the second half reunited, but are they, as the film insists, transformed? Merida remembers Elinor taking care of her as an infant; Elinor benefits from Merida’s skills. But the things that they remember, the plot points that pull at the heart strings, aren’t about the issues that generated the conflict between them in the first place and so the restored relationship between mother and daughter delivers generic emotions but lacks the insight to really pack a wallop. They were both right. They were both wrong. Can’t we all get along?
On the quibble side, too, I don’t understand the film’s title. A coda states that if one is brave one can find one’s destiny, but the lack of bravery certainly was not what held Merida back in the first place, and its exercise was not really an integral part of breaking the spell.
Given my own admission that Brave is above-average animated fare, why spend the bulk of a review on these reservations? Perhaps it is because as I’ve grown older, I’ve become somewhat more sympathetic to the concern of parents, particularly those of young girls, regarding the cultural messages that animated movies send. I think it is hard for those of us who grew up before VCRs became ubiquitous to really feel and understand the differences in the level of cultural saturation that these consumer products (and I will insist that they are consumer products first and works of art second) now achieve. The standard Disney princess (with Mulan, perhaps, excepted) is beautiful and passive and measures her self-worth by whether the combination of those two qualities can get and keep a man. When the woman acts as agent there is usually hell (or a witch) to pay, and regardless of how many others contribute to the problems there will always, always, be an admission from her that “it is all my fault.”
It is particularly disappointing, then, to see a heroine who starts off breaking some of these molds pulled back to the pack where spiritedness in a female is synonymous with “pride,” where wishing for others to change when they are in the wrong is evidence of a girl’s immaturity, and where being a grown woman has more to do with being willing to sacrifice your own dreams and aspirations than it does with measuring those desires honestly and pursuing them with bravery.