Brave (Chapman, Andrews, and Purcell 2012)

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.




Rocks in my Pockets (Baumane, 2014)
In Defense of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — A Response to Roger Ebert
Out of the Dark (Quílez, 2014)
Out of the Dark (Quílez, 2014)
About Kenneth R. Morefield
  • SDG

    Good thoughts, Ken. I don’t think we’re as far apart as you might think (though obviously our responses are notably different). For what it’s worth, I liked the film a lot but I stop short of saying I loved it.

    (Note: Spoilers ensue.)

    Your critique about character development in the third act is well put, and that may go to a recurring issue in Pixar movies. I also agree, and said in my review, that the movie could be clearer what it thinks about the arranged betrothal and Merida’s response to it. And I agree that the title, and the voiceover justifying it, aren’t particularly illuminating (particularly since the visuals give us a wisp at the end, pointedly reminding us that Merida didn’t exactly accomplish it all on her own through pluck and grit).

    I’m surprised by your apparent assumption that Merida’s literal interpretation of the exhortation to “mend the bond torn by pride” is the correct one — especially because it doesn’t seem to work at first. It isn’t until Merida breaks down crying, with her arms around her mother’s neck, admits that this is “all my fault,” recognizes that her mother has always been there for her (though we only see this, alas, in Merida’s childhood and post-transformation), etc., that the spell is broken.

    That’s how the bond torn by pride is mended. At the very least, as I wrote in my review, I think there’s a deliberate ambiguity there that warrants notice.

    What I don’t get at all is this assessment:

    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.”

    Um. What?

    To speak only of the Disney Renaissance and beyond: I don’t see Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Tiana or Rapunzel in there anywhere. Going back to the actual days of Uncle Walt himself, Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are all passive, I guess, and two of them have witch problems, though there’s no “witch to pay”; that can only refer, as far as I recall, to Ariel.

    And even Ariel never says “It’s all my fault.” I guess when King Triton first shows up she has a quick line like “I’m sorry, Daddy,” or something, but it’s such a fleeting line, uttered in a moment of stress and fear to an angry parent, in a much larger narrative that is overwhelmingly about glorifying Ariel’s pursuit of her own agenda in defiance of her father, by any means necessary. The bold mermaid gets her man.

    Other than that, what other Disney princess ever says “It’s all my fault”? What other Disney heroine even admits wrongdoing? For that matter, how many Disney heroes admit wrongdoing?

    Merida’s initial denial of culpability (“It’s not my fault,” she keeps saying), followed by her climactic admission that “this is all my fault,” seem to me striking and unique in the annals of Hollywood animation — not at all a trope that we’ve seen any number of times before.

    BTW, let’s be clear about what Merida did; It wasn’t just shooting the three arrows and “acting as agent”; she procured a spell to use on her mother to try to change her mother to resolve the dispute about the wedding.

    It’s precisely the film’s moral perspective on this appalling act, from Merida’s initial denials to her ultimate acceptance of responsibility, that I most appreciate about Brave‘s narrative, along with Merida’s intact family with active and sympathetic parents.

  • Kenneth R. Morefield

    Steven, thanks for your comments.

    Jasmine, Ariel, and Belle all said “it’s all my fault.” The vagaries of false-memory syndrome are such that I suppose it is possible that I am wrong on this, but I’d bet money on it. With Jasmine, especially, I remember the particular incident very vividly. That this seems counter-intuitive to the overall memory of these characters I think speaks to how forced the lines can be. But, yes, like any composite/generalization, not every example is going to get every element on the checklist.

    I did not assume the literal interpretation was the correct one, though I count marginally against the film that Merida apparently did up to the bitter near-end (sewing on horseback as she is galloping against time). Because of her assumption, most of the second half of the film is spent in chase mode rather than in learning/development mode, and the recognition of the responsibility seems (to me) both overdue and too quick.

    You are probably right that we aren’t really that far apart. Incidentally, though, when I mentioned “the most glowing reviews,” I (honestly) wasn’t think of you. That may go without saying (though your insistence that you never said you “loved” it makes me feel like it needs to be said), but given the long (and, imo, tedious) history of people at a particular message board we both frequent to make thinly veiled references about other posters under the guise of generalizations, I suppose it can’t hurt to be explicit about that. The screening I was at had some local critics who were more excited about the film than I was, and one of them shared with me two quotes from advanced reviews that I found surprisingly gushing. I knew you had given Brave a positive review, but even when you like a film, you rarely gush (with the possible exception of Into Great Silence) in that particular style that makes me want to run in the other direction.

    I suspect that Brave is one of those films where critics need to know their audience and audiences need to know their critics, because films that rely this much on emotional button pushing will get a wide spectrum of responses.

  • SDG

    Actually, Ken, my opening disclaimer above was more a response to your “ruh roh” comment on my Facebook update than anything here. :-)

    I think the tapestry misdirection/ambiguity works — if what Merida really needs to do is repent and apologize, etc., the movie has to distract us from that fact. Of course the key character/relationship development takes place in the great hall when Merida, aided by her mother, makes her big speech. I guess that’s transition to the third act, so yes, the third act is basically chase, and I have my own misgivings about that that I’ll document at some point.

    I’m pretty sure that Ariel’s fleeting “I’m sorry, Daddy” is as close as she gets to “It’s all my fault.” At least, I Googled a transcript, and that’s all I got.

    As for Jasmine — okay, in the middle of the film, when she thinks Aladdin is dead, she says “It’s all my fault, Rajah” — but the movie undermines this in so many ways, starting with the fact that Aladdin isn’t dead, so there’s no “fault” to be assigned. Also, Jasmine doesn’t know the treachery of Jafar, who is really responsible for Aladdin’s plight.

    To top it off, Aladdin himself also says “This is all my fault” — and at a much more critical juncture, about something much more important — and he’s actually right. Very clearly Aladdin’s mistakes are responsible for the movie’s real crisis — and the movie blames him, not Jasmine, who does nothing wrong.

    What about Belle? Looks like she actually gets the line twice — but not for “acting as agent” or doing anything dodgy like pursuing her desires. Rather, she acts selflessly in all cases, but can’t restrain Gaston’s misdeeds.

    Oh. And guess who else says “It’s all my fault”? Not only Aladdin, but also Simba (repeatedly!), Quasimodo, and Tarzan (almost; “It was my fault”). So it seems to be more a “Disney hero” thing than an “heroine acting as agent” thing.

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  • Tom – Video Production Massachusetts

    I disagree about Wall-E, I think the characters progressed enough to where they were who they were, and all that was left was their struggles. About the actual movie “Brave”, this was alright, but I felt they weren’t sure in which direction to go. They were afraid to commit, and stayed ambiguous.