Brave (2012)

Merida (voice of Kelly MacDonald) faces a wisp. “Brave.”

Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman; co-directed by Steve Purcell. Screenplay by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi; story by Brenda Chapman. Produced by Katherine Sarafian. Music by Patrick Doyle. Edited by Nicholas C. Smith. Art Department: Emma Coats, Nick Sung (storyboard artists), Mark Cordell Holmes (graphic artist), Jason Merck (artist). Featuring the voices of Kelly MacDonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson.

It’s difficult to talk about Brave, Pixar’s 13th animated feature, without mentioning a huge honking spoiler. A spoiler, as we all know, is a plot element that is deliberately hidden from a film’s marketing campaign so that it can achieve maximum effect as a surprise sprung in the theater. The spoiler in question—which I will dance around—involves a significant event that occurs right around the start of act two that informs the rest of the narrative. I wish I could say that this plot element has been hidden for a good reason, but I fear it’s a really cynical one. If I were to describe this spoiler from Brave to you…this key element that propels the story…you would be able to predict what shape that story eventually takes. And you would be 100% correct. The coy marketing campaign is not a canny device but is instead a steadfast attempt to make Brave appear more mysterious—and, dare I say, better—than it actually is.

But enough about the marketing. Brave, divorced from its hype is not exactly bad…per se. It’s just aggressively mediocre. That’s odd, since Pixar is usually a studio that upholds quality standards (movies about talking cars aside). I expected last year (with the release of their only-in-it-for-the-money Cars 2) to be a momentary break from the usually high-caliber fare that Pixar founder John Lasseter and his team of magicians tend to employ. But Brave, being an “original” story, is surprisingly unimaginative and passionless. It has a “made by committee” feel to it, as if the filmmakers at every instance fretted about making something too edgy or bold. It’s well-produced, but I would hardly call it well-crafted. Kids will probably like it, but for adults who expect more from the Pixar brand, it’s downright disappointing.

I will tread carefully to preserve secrets, such as they are. Let’s say there’s a fantastic kingdom called DunBroch, somewhere unspecified in the Old World (but clearly Scotland). Let’s say there’s a king, Fergus (Billy Connelly), and a queen, Elinor (Emma Thompson). And there’s a daughter, Merida (Kelly MacDonald), who has flowing red locks, a hard-yet-merry face, and the proclivities of a warrior free spirit tomboy (“A princess doesn’t leave her weapons on the table,” sighs Elinor). And there are three baby brother triplets who spend all their time devising ways to give the audience some comic relief. Merida, as is tradition both in DunBroch and in fables about tomboy princesses, is now being presented with suitors for her young hand in marriage, which would certainly cramp her style, and mom doesn’t understand. Not helping the case: the three suitors, each from a neighboring clan, are straight-up doofuses. And the clans, by the way, are named McIntosh, Dingwall, and MacGuffin. Ho ho ho.

Merida, who embarrasses her mum during an archery contest in which she outclasses the men vying for her hand, escapes into the woods.  She encounters magic wood sprites called wisps, which lead her to a cottage and an old crone (Julie Walters) who seems to have a handy grasp of magic. And woodcarvings. Merida asks for a spell that will solve her problems, the witch obliges, and…

You see the issue. You hear all that, and the last thing you’re thinking is “No, I’ve heard enough.” Because there’s just not enough there. We need details about what that spell is all about. But, see, here’s the thing: you don’t actually want to know, because the effects of the spell are…without spoiling anything…lame. Oh sure, it creates a second act, and things happen because of it, but the whole enterprise starts feeling curiously remedial around this point, as if a creeping suspicion sinks in on the filmmakers that they’ve hitched themselves to the wrong gimmick. After that, the film becomes a slog through mother-daughter bonding clichés, ending exactly where you know it must, and stepping no further off the path, as if the mere thought of it would be offensive.

In many respects, Brave feels like a throwback to the kind of movies Disney used to make in their post-renaissance period. Pocahontas, Hercules, Mulan…you may remember these. They are the type of safe Disney movies that Pixar used to be an escape from, and now they’re just plain aping them. It’s never more apparent than in the film’s many many extended comedy sequences, which are pell-mell with jokes, some of them funny, but many of them fall flat, and other times are awkwardly shoehorned in. Remember how Disney stuffed an incongruous Eddie Murphy into Mulan as a wise-cracking dragon?  That’s the level of poor decision-making we reach, at times, in Brave.

But there’s a bigger issue here, and that’s that the storytelling is simple, and at times ill-defined. Perhaps sensing that this type of story has been done often, Brave skips over some of the very things that would distinguish it as something done well. We’re given only murky motivations for both Merida and her mother, outside of general platitudes, and when Merida whines that marriage is going to tame her, we can’t help but notice that her mother definitely wears the pants in the family, so what are the stakes, again? Merida, despite being a fetching character under the right circumstances, comes across in this plot as juvenile, selfish, not very likable, and…in one key sequence during the film’s climax, a very slow study. Granted, she is good with a bow, as we see in that archery sequence. Guess what? That never really comes up again.

I’ll step carefully here, but as it so happens there is another Pixar movie that has remarkable similarities to Brave, and that’s Finding Nemo. That one was about a father and son, while this one is about a mother and daughter. Just like in Nemo, circumstances cause a separation between the parent and child, and both are nasty to each other right before this happens. But in Nemo, both father and son have their own separate adventures that give them mutual growth, leading to the film’s touching conclusion. Brave tries for similar tears, but it’s one-sided, as the mother figure just isn’t established or developed well-enough.  One moment late in the film that has far-reaching consequences for the kingdom is spurred by a decision the queen makes, and it’s not properly explained within the narrative, nor does it pay off meaningfully. In fact, Brave is in a lot of ways completely a film for kids, because it cares not a whit for how actual adults behave. We’re used to more sophistication from the Pixar name; here, they play to the cheap seats, like a typical DreamWorks effort.

Brave, if we look into the history, is an animated version of what in Hollywood is euphemistically called a “troubled project.” I know that the film was originally titled The Bear and the Bow, and was originally directed by Brenda Chapman (one of the directors of The Prince of Egypt), until she was fired midway through production. What is left of her work on the film is unclear, and this practice has happened at Pixar before (Ratatouille, my all-time favorite Pixar movie, had its original director fired and replaced with Brad Bird, who rebuilt from the ground up). But in Brave, regardless of what percentage of it is one person’s movie or another’s, the film feels unfocused and confused about what it wants to be. That’s a big problem, because usually Pixar excels at razor-sharp precision in their storytelling. Some of their screenplays (like The Incredibles) are taught at film schools, held up as perfect examples of the form. This will not happen with Brave.  

Brave does have a lot of things going for it, however. It looks spectacular, creating perhaps the most vivid and impressive landscapes ever seen in a Pixar movie, and Merida’s curly locks are exquisitely rendered (animating hair is hard). Gary Rydstrom’s sound design is particularly expressive. Patrick Doyle’s musical score is nice. Some sequences work really well, including one scary scene involving a monstrous bear. And the voice work is exceptional, especially by MacDonald as Merida; she has enough spunk to inspire a lot of young girls, and that’s always a good thing. But still, this is a bit of a weak effort from those involved. Hopefully, next year Pixar will return to form. But for the time being, all we have is Brave, which is pleasant to look at, and at times fun to watch, but does not at all live up to its pedigree. Or, come to think of it, its title.

GRADE: C+

NOTE: The movie opens with a Pixar short film called “La Luna,” which is brilliant, heartfelt, and enchanting. It accomplishes more in 10 minutes than Brave does in 96.

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