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Review #3563: Brave (2012)

Posted on the 25 June 2012 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Contributor: Henry T.

Story by Brenda Chapman
Screenplay by Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, and Irene Mecchi
Directed by Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews, and Steve Purcell

Pixar Animation Studios used to have an ironclad reputation. For fifteen years, the studio put out animated fare that was the gold standard of its type for that year. There were some challengers to the throne (most notably from Dreamworks Animation), but there was no question who sat at the head of the class. I write about this because “Brave” was touted as Pixar’s return to form, the first original, non-franchise film since “Up” in 2009. The film is also notable for Pixar’s first film to feature a female protagonist. Even with that unique aspect to the film, its plot could have used more polishing and a dose of originality to it.

Review #3563: Brave (2012)

The look of the film is right in line with Pixar’s usual high standards, but the creativity and wit that defined their earlier canon is missing. Going to the Scottish highlands should have been the impetus for some great adventure, yet it’s only confined to a castle and an over-reliance on magic and curses. All of those elements are staples of Pixar’s parent company, Disney, and it does feel like the parent company had a bit too much input on the story of this film.

I was struck by how simplistic the plot of “Brave” was. Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the first-born daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) in Dunbrough, a kingdom in the highlands of Scotland. When Merida comes of age, she is to be married to one of the first-born sons of three Scottish clans who reside within Dunbrough. Merida is an atypical princess, one who loves riding horses and is an expert in archery. So naturally, she clashes with her more traditional mother, the one person who insists that marrying a husband is the only thing fit for a high-born princess. So Merida does the one thing she can to “change her fate”: Go to a witch and cast a spell on her mother to keep the marriage from happening. Only, the witch’s spell backfires on Merida and turns Elinor into… a bear. That’s all. After Elinor turns into a giant black bear, it’s a race against time to turn her back into her human form before the spell becomes permanent.

Maybe it’s because I came into this film with some misplaced expectations. I figured that with Merida talking about destiny and fate and all that jazz, it would mean that the witch’s spell was going to do something different. When Elinor comes under the spell and moans in pain, I thought she might be phased out of existence. Certainly, Merida expected that her mother would change her mindset about the arranged marriage. She wasn’t expecting for her mother to turn into a bear. Why a bear? At one point, there was an indication that both Merida’s parents knew about the spell in some kind of way, but it’s never addressed.

The film can’t seem to follow any sort of logic from what was presented as the story progresses. Merida’s skill with bows and arrows is largely dismissed after she “shoots for her own hand” at the tournament to determine her suitor. The mother-daughter relationship becomes very one-sided as Merida struggles to communicate with her mother after she has been turned into a giant, non-speaking bear. I think this was meant to have Merida see both the error of her ways in going to the witch for the spell and to get a bit of her mother’s perspective. However, this is largely implied and the lesson seems lost in translation somewhere.

“Changing one’s fate” is a noble theme to build a movie on, but the execution here is off. You could go to any number of different, more ambitious storylines from this, yet the filmmakers stick with Merida having awkward adventures with a bear. I have to admit that was disappointing. Simple logic questions remain strangely unanswered (like where all of the witch’s wood carvings went). The will o’ the wisps that supposedly lead Merida “to her destiny” follow no logical sense. I’d argue the blue wisps give Merida more trouble than anything else. The storyline is also very dark, a departure from the norm with Disney and Pixar. A bear attack is a very scary thing, and the film does carry that impression off well, but it’s not going to appeal to younger children.

Arguably the most enjoyable characters in the film are Merida’s trio of little brothers. Their constant desire for some round pastries adds a very light and comical tone to the film, something that is just lacking throughout the run time. The end is also very disappointing, as Merida and Elinor have somehow repaired their relationship despite what might look like a routine poisoning, but Merida no longer has to marry anyone. Was the witch’s spell really necessary to facilitate that change? I’d argue not.

There is little wonder or color in “Brave”. When it comes to a Pixar film, I expected much more than what was given here. A clue should have been seen in the writing and directing credits. The background story on the film’s production was that Brenda Chapman, credited as both a co-screenwriter and co-director, was originally going to direct it by herself (marking the first time a Pixar film was directed by a woman), but was dismissed from the project and replaced. That turmoil reflects on the product presented onscreen. The story seems to have been cobbled together from two separate, different parts, and then mixed up in a blender.

It might explain why the tournament for the suitors half is so awkwardly meshed with the princess-and-bear story in the second half. It feels like two different films are playing with no discernable break. These are usually flaws that aren’t present in a Pixar film. In this case, the technical achievements, from the wonderful look of the film (indeed, the Scottish highlands are beautifully rendered) to the appropriate score from composer Patrick Doyle, cannot compensate for the failures of the plot.


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