Ten Word or Less Review: Brave? Not really.
For the first time in Pixar’s illustrious history the animation giant is being coy and evasive about one of their movies. For the past year Brave has been sold to audiences in a cryptic way. The previews have been selling a generic looking fable about a fiery haired Scottish princess wanting to hang onto her freedom by refusing to marry a pack of dorky suitors. There’s something about a bear involved. That is pretty by the numbers material for Pixar and no one really believed this is all the acclaimed studio would have up its proverbial sleeve. Now, after successfully keeping a lid on things until release, the audience finally sees what Pixar has in store for it’s first princess story. Sadly, the end result is mundane and unexciting, two things Pixar’s skills have routinely been successful at avoiding.
Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the free spirited lass in this particular princess tale. Not since the days of senseless Snow White has a Disney princess not been as such. Prone to wielding a bow and arrow, riding her horse through the woods and climbing great, scenic looking rocks which reach up to majestic waterfalls, marriage is the last thing on Merida’s agenda. None the less her mother (Emma Thompson) tireously tries to prepare her iron willed daughter for her inevitable position of royalty. The dreaded day comes when three dopey marriage possibilities vie for Merida’s hand. Embarassing her family and insulting the visiting clans, she vies for her own hand in an archery contest and swiftly trumps the three losers. Merida and her mother have a knock down drag out resulting in Merida taking off for the woods in a fit of rage and anger. This is everything Pixar and Disney have decided to tell you about Brave. Here’s the rest they didn’t want you to know before hand.
Once in the woods Merida is lead to a shack by mystical little ghosts which is inhabited by a goofy witch. She wants to sell her wood carvings of bears. Merida promises to buy all of them in exchange for a potion which will change her mother’s mind about the situation tearing them apart. She gets said potion, but change her mind it does not, it morphs her mother into a bear. Stuck in a castle with a bear hating father and three clans of violence prone Scots, Merida has to find the wood carving witch and get her mother turned back into a human before she gets impaled on a spear and stuffed. Of course she only has two days, after which her mother will remain a bear forever. This is the plot Brave spends the majority of its time trying to sort out. Merida desperately wanting to save her mother from permanently being a bear. If that sounds underwhelming and off from Pixar’s more inspired efforts, it is.
Once this story of transformation takes hold of Brave the movie comes to a thematic crossroads and winds up getting stuck in the mud, doggedly going nowhere fast. The traditional way this story is dealt with, independent princess finding Mr. Right and getting hitched, is mercifully absent. To see Pixar tread over that hypocritical arc would have been awful, but there’s nothing worth while in its place. The movie becomes a series of pratfalls and adventures having Merida trying to save dear old Mom. There is of course the gradual story beats where Merida and Mom connect emotionally and Merida learns that she’s being bratty while Mom learns that she’s been close minded. It’s all very okay but pretty unchallenging and predictable and not up to Pixar’s unusually high standards, Cars flicks not included.
Making everything just a little worse is a glaring missed opportunity in the story department. A subplot about a vile, terrifying old bear who chomped off the leg of Merida’s father’s and is haunted by the spirit of a lost king has more potential narrative heft, but is never given much attention. It winds up feeling like a big Macguffin to make everyone act in tandem when they need to. This ferocious antagonist appears rarely and there is a better movie lurking in it’s fierce, fleeting moments. Why they shoved aside the story possibilities involving this twisted behemoth with a ghostly soul so we could watch Merida teach her bear mother how to catch trout is anyone’s guess. Maybe they didn’t think girls would like that story.
Whatever mistakes Pixar has made in the story department will likely be glossed over by many due to the film’s voluptuous visuals. Brave has that lush, detailed look that Pixar specializes in. No matter how mundane the story feels one can at least appreciate the artistry of the top tier CGI. Merida’s hair deserves some kind of special award come Oscar season. Her mane is made up of thousands of strands of fire which flow across the screen, always in stark contrast to the deep greens of the forest and shadowy castle surroundings. It’s almost hypnotic.
Were this movie released under anyone else’s watch the expectations wouldn’t be so titanic and perhaps opinions would be tempered to some degree. An average Dreamworks animated movie? Big deal. But this is Pixar, a studio which has set the bar so high for itself that to see it’s ambitious nature all but missing feels like a major slight. The fact that this is their first non-sequel in three years, and also coming after the abysmal Cars 2, adds to the sting of things. We’re left to wonder what kind of stories Pixar has left to tell now that their golden age looks to be ending. A prequel to Monsters Inc. next year could be fun but doesn’t really fill one with unhinged excitement. If this animation giant has reached its creative apex the slide back down to Earth to join mere mortal filmmakers will be a sad journey indeed.