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TAG TEAM REVIEW: Brave

Josh Miller: Brave is Pixar’s thirteenth feature film, and that ominous distinction seems rather fitting. The film was a step in a whole new direction for the company. Originally titled The Bear and the Bow, the project was Pixar’s first film to feature a female protagonist, and the first to be directed by a woman, Brenda Chapman. It was also meant to be their most adult film, drawing more from the dark fairytale worlds of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm than the cheery worlds of Cars or Monsters Inc. Pixar even rewrote their animation system for the first time in 25 years. Somewhere along the way though things weren’t clicking. Chapman was replaced by Mark Andrews, Reese Witherspoon backed out, and the title was changed to Brave. And something else notable happened too — Cars 2 came out. While the film netted plenty at the box office, it also netted Pixar the worst reviews in the history of the company. Realistically speaking, Cars 2 is a perfectly acceptable kids film, and any sane filmmaker would be honored to have something of that quality be their worst film. If anything, all the negative hyperbole thrown at Cars 2 merely demonstrated what high esteem people regard Pixar with. But that negativity nonetheless had an affect. Now, Brave may be the first Pixar film that people aren’t blindly excited for. I think a lot of the Cars 2 hate came from people who had convinced themselves that Cars was a fluke, that Pixar was infallible, and that Cars 2 would right the ship. Then it was just Cars 2. Then those wafer-thin Brave teasers came along, followed by somehow even thinner full trailers — Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a spunky girl who loves archery; her parents, Queen Elino (Emma Thompson) and King Fergus (Billy Connolly) want her to get married; she doesn’t want to; then… Yeah, then…? What is the hell is the movie about?

The way people (at least on a site like CHUD) used to talk about Pixar films, they might as well have all been titled Pixar Animated Movie 5 or Pixar Animated Movie 8. Now people are looking at Brave with squinted, skeptical eyes. It is a rare Pixar film that people may actually read reviews like this to determine if they will pay to see it in the theater, or wait to rent it, or – gasp! – skip it entirely. So, Tim, let’s see what we can do here…

Tim Kelly: It might be counterintuitive to say that Brave is the least Pixar film in their catalogue, while at the same time being comfortably nestled within the greater Disney’s wheelhouse. But for many of the reasons Josh mentioned above, it’s absolutely true. This is a vast departure for the studio that’s given us Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. It’s total “Disney Princess” fare, even when it tries to riff on the tropes of that very specific subgenre – it’s still doing so within those pre-determined confines.

And for me it works, surprisingly so. Brave‘s Week 1 reactions will be amusing, as I think most conversations will be less about the film’s overall quality and more about how little of the story Disney actually revealed in those tepid trailers – to the point where they’re approaching full-on bait-and-switch territory.

What’s been sold as an adventure story is something quite different, and actually far more intimate. I feel there’s a universal impression that Brave is this far-reaching quest story, as Princess Merida leaves the kingdom behind to forge her own path – swashbuckling her way through cavernous mountains, roving hills and enchanted forests. While there are aspects of those concepts present, and where the first act would lead you to believe that is where the storytellers are taking this, the second act makes a very sharp turn. We’ll trudge into spoiler territory momentarily, but know that Merida never gets more than a mile away from her own kingdom. In many ways this is the most self-contained Pixar joint we’ve seen. Again, I feel this is a very good thing.

Josh: I agree completely with your assessment, though my reaction was different. I was disappointed that the film was so firmly entrenched within those Disney Princess confines. It is counter-productive to critique a film based on how it fits into a studios’ overall catalog, but for all the reasons I stated in my intro I went into Brave expecting something more Pixar — i.e., something creatively novel. I don’t mean to be punishing the film for failing to meet my specific interests, but I nonetheless found it a little dispiriting in this regard. Aside from Brad Bird’s two films, Pixar has never felt masculine to me. The fact that none of their films featured a female hero always seemed more of an oversight than an aesthetic. Part of Pixar’s power and charm has always been that they are telling Disney-esque stories, minus the Disney trappings. So I have a hard time not finding it conspicuous that Pixar’s first film about royalty is also their first film with a female hero. Sure Merida isn’t Ariel, pinning all her hopes and dreams on catching that perfect prince, but she is still a princess and the movie is still about her mother wanting her to get married. This was a chance for Pixar to teach Disney how its done — to tell a story for little girls that demonstrates there are more female stories to be told outside the age-old themes of wedding-obsessed mothers and the ‘burdens’ of high society.

Brave positions itself as though it were breaking with Disney Princess tradition, but it is in fact covering a lot of well-covered ground. While five-year-olds obviously won’t notice, Merida felt a little old hat to me. We’ve seen plenty of tomboys, and we’ve seen plenty of spunky royal/rich girls whom we’re meant to relate to because of the ways they don’t cotton to being royal/rich. Oh, she doesn’t like wearing a corset and tight dresses? She likes galloping around on her horse and getting dirty instead studying how to be prim and proper? These are now typical choices for modernizing the typical Disney female. For me, I just couldn’t shake the feeling of — why do a princess movie at all? Why try to make a princess relatable to regular girls when you could just tell the story of a regular girl? Pixar has always been the Marvel to Disney’s DC, breaking from Disney’s fixation on the very rich and the very poor and telling directly relatable fables about characters that feel like us. But enough about what I want the movie to be…

What did work for me was the intimacy of the story you mentioned. While I didn’t necessarily like how small in scope the film was, it did deliver emotionally in this respect. Brave is a mother-daughter movie. This is what it cares about, and where it creatively puts its energy. I sense Disney is hesitant to advertise this (they totally should have released the film Mother’s Day weekend), which seems odd because this is the area in which it most succeeds emotionally. Moms will like this movie, because even though Queen Elinor is your standard no-fun over-bearing mother character, the movie is more about Merida learning to appreciate Elinor, than the other way around. Frankly I think this is something the movie could have run even further with, as Pixar is great at expressing such unlikely messages.

Tim: The one thing I’ll say in defense of the film, is even though we both agree that it’s playing in the above-mentioned confines, it still brings some new things to the table. While I’m completely comfortable putting this in the Princess category, what starts as a familiar tale diverges and ends in a very different place. This film is without a Prince Charming, which makes Brave a unique endeavor in its own right. There’s no man in this film that comes in and saves the day. Merida certainly holds her own, making it more Huntsmen than Seven Dwarves. So as far as the Princess take goes, it’s hallowed ground that further explores a direction we’ve seen more female characters taking recently. Merida is a princess, but she’s an aggressive and reactive one.

That said, this is a film that has far more in common with Beauty & the Beast than anything we’ve seen from Pixar before. There’s a certain amount of quirk and wonder absent that has everything to do with that bouncing lamp before the film. Moviegoers have been trained to expect some very specific things from Pixar that are noticeably absent or restructured in Brave.

I do second your questioning of the advertising, however. After John Carter, this is now our second review where we’re collectively shrugging at Disney’s marketing choices. Although I suspect it’s not the mother-daughter aspect that Disney’s hiding, but how completely small-scale Brave reveals itself to be. This is a film that stays very close to home and is as much an intimate character study as it is a meditation on the nature of fate. But it’s that small scale and the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship that drew me to Brave in ways I wouldn’t have expected. It does some very simple things, but accomplishes them astutely. Still, there’s a self-awareness typical of Pixar that is lacking here. Its similarities to Beauty & the Beast border on derivative, but it never steps over that line.

Josh: Unsurprisingly Brave looks amazing. I’m not enough of a tech-head to pick up on what rewriting their animation system ultimately yielded, but the texture of the film is gorgeous. Thirteen films in it is getting harder for Pixar to find new worlds to explore, but the dense Scottish wilderness feels incredibly alive. This is why I said I didn’t necessarily like the small close-to-home scope of the film, just because I would have loved to get even more of the beautiful landscapes — Merida’s journeys into the dark woods following Will O’ the Wisps look particularly good in 3D.

At this point it is almost boring praising Pixar’s character animation. It is never not fantastic — even Cars 2 was a wonder to behold in this area. The design work on the characters is typically top-notch, especially on the fathers and sons from the neighboring clans who come to vie for Merida’s hand. I burst out laughing pretty much every time Young Macintosh, the jackassy emo-rockstar-looking suitor, is on screen. And Mor’du, the evil bear, is just badass looking. Little Boy Me dug Mor’du in a big way.

Tim: The visuals are a dominating part of what make Brave a leap forward for Pixar. It’s easy to forget that this was a studio whose narratives were driven in part by their technological limitations – animating human beings were a major hurdle for them when they first started. That’s all out the window here, and visually I’d go so far as to say the film’s a benchmark for CG animation.

For me, that has everything to do with the atmosphere and environment. There are landscape shots with an almost photo-real grandeur to them, yet they’re still fantastical enough for the exaggerated likenesses of the characters to fit right in. You’re absolutely right however, as the look of this place makes you long for a story that physically goes somewhere. When you think about it, the film really only takes place in the confines of the same three or four setpieces, with some mountains and forestry mixed in to broaden it out. That’s a shame, but it still is a visually captivating effort, Pixar’s raised their game and it shows.

And say what you will about the members of neighboring clans (they are great), but it’s those three young ginger kids who owned the humor in this film for me. They’re mischievous, crass and crafty. But to your point, there’re a variety of humorous characters that are no doubt there to assist two relatively dry leads. Speaking of which, are we ready to traverse Spoiler Mountain?

HERE BE SPOILERS

Josh: Most people have noticed that trailers for Brave don’t seem to indicate what the fuck the movie’s story actually is. That’s because Disney is advertising it like a M. Night Shyamalan movie. The trailer only covers the set-up for the film. When Merida ventures into the forest, she comes across a witch who gives her a spell to “change her destiny.” But what Merida doesn’t know is that the spell will turn her mother into a bear. Which it then does.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t view this as a spoiler whatsoever. Calling the bear spell a spoiler is like calling Ariel getting legs a spoiler in Little Mermaid. That is the goddamn premise of the movie! It a story about a princess who turns the queen into a bear, with the conflict being even greater because the king is famous for killing bears. We could go back and forth for a bit on theories of why the film is being advertised this way, but whatever. Disney clearly feels that the bear is a turn-off. And maybe it is. I told my friend about the bear and his response was basically, “Wow, that sounds really stupid.” So there you go. A better question than why Disney made this choice is just how are audiences going to react this weekend? Will it be a pleasant surprise or an unwanted WTF twist? Some will no doubt be tickled, but if I were Disney I’d be worried about some backlash too. Personally, I would have preferred knowing that the queen was going to be a bear for half of the film. This advertising choice does a disservice to the film by making it seem structurally weird while you’re watching it — Oh, wait, huh? This is a movie about a person turned into a bear now? WALL-E was advertised in a somewhat similar way, as far as not revealing the entire second half of the film, but that was fine because the ads still accurately sold you the main story — the romance between WALL-E and Eve.

But the advertising does highlight a criticism that I have with the Queen Bear section of the film, which is that there isn’t enough of it. Disney was able to get away with treating it like a twist because the bear spell doesn’t happen until the middle of the film. Which – using screenwriting formatting terms – makes it the Mid-Act II Crisis, when really it should probably have come at the end of Act I. The film becomes so much more interesting once Merida and the Queen Bear are out of the castle and roaming the woods. There should have been more. The pieces were all there, with tons of possibilities to explore, but things wrap up rather quickly. We’re given the dire consequences of what will happen if the Queen remains a bear for too long, but for me we didn’t quite get enough time for these consequences to gain their intended emotional weight. It almost felt rushed. King Fergus is reduced to a farcical foil during this period, with the film taking the easy way out of allowing Merida and Queen Bear to continually escape him until the climax. So many interesting things could have happened if the story didn’t keep them apart. Brave needed one more step in the plot development once the Queen became a bear for the film to reach the level of impact that the best Pixar movies have. Structurally, because the Queen Bear transformation beat is pushed so far back in the film, it ended up feeling like we skipped a plot beat towards the end. I demand more plot escalation!

Tim: Exactly. The problem with Disney selling the film this way is that the Bear IS the movie. The Bear Queen and Merida should have been the poster, the trailer, the whole nine yards. And Josh is dead-on when he says they take too long getting to the turn. I feel like viewers will have to readjust their expectations when the film finally gets on track: “Oh, so this it’s one of those Queen-Turns-Into-Bear stories. Well okay then.”

Honestly, it’s not until the status quo is set that Brave finds its footing. But it’s in the interplay between Merida and Bear-Mom that’s the heart of the film. The bear’s actually quite charming and the animation pulls off the mannerisms perfectly, you’ll know there’s a person in there. They have some great moments together when Merida’s forced to protect mom from her left-in-the-dark father (a fabulous Billy Connolly, whose character ‘s leg was taken by a bear – go figure).

I also think there’s more than just a teenage daughter/mother clash that’s happening here. First of all, time is an important factor. Where Beauty and the Beast had the wilting rose, Merida and the Queen have until second sunlight to reverse the transformation. There’s great subtlety to the inner-workings of a mother/daughter relationship. And the film sees it through. With the transformation taking hold, the Queen encounters moments of bewilderment and full-on bear rage. There’s a moment where the Queen no longer recognizes her daughter, and I couldn’t help but think of the struggles some people endure with parents afflicted with Alzheimer’s. The film ends up at a happy medium, but this is also a story where we see the child grow into not just an adult, but a caretaker. Point being, there are added complexities that lend Brave more of a punch. There’s more going on than just a kid and her bear mom.

Josh: I wouldn’t directly disagree with any of that assessment, but none of it resonated with me as strongly as it did with you. The moment with the mother briefly becoming all bear felt too offhand for my tastes. It just happens randomly and then she is back to normal, which is less scary to me than having her slowly becoming more and more bear-like, pushing towards that event horizon.

I think ultimately the reason I couldn’t fully connect with the movie was because I couldn’t fully connect with Merida. She is a perfectly fine character, and certainly more interesting than Belle from Beauty and the Beast, but I would rank her as one of the weaker Pixar leads. I would agree that it was progressive to not give Merida a love interest, especially since the set up of the film is her mother trying to force her to marry, which normally comes with a fella our heroine falls for, but I also I think the story could have benefited from giving her something she did want. Not a love interest, but something to fill that void. We know all the things that Merida doesn’t want to do, or hates having to do, but other than shooting arrows we aren’t given a ton to glom onto as far as what she desires. This is an area where a little bit of hackiness can go a long way. That said, I love the design of Merida (her hair is a character unto itself), and enjoyed Macdonald’s performance. As far as Disney princesses go she is a good one, though the competition isn’t exactly steep.

Tim: What does it say that we find ourselves in agreement on most everything but our overall enjoyment? To me, it means that, while Brave might not be a universal crowdpleaser, there’s still a great deal of merit to the proceedings. At some point Pixar was bound to break out of their tried and true mold, it’s just unexpected that by breaking free of their typical fair they’d settle into something so comfortably Disney. That’s going to rub some people the wrong way, I didn’t mind as much. The end justifies the means.

This will be a divisive film, it’ll be a debated film, but most everyone should agree that it’s by no means a bad film. It might not have the Pixar feel, but the look and tone are indicative of Pixar’s output up to now. There are those that’ll view Brave as a misfire. I’m not one of them, but I hope even the film’s detractors can appreciate that this is a very solid film. The talking toys, bugs and automobiles will always be a part of what got Pixar to where it’s going. Don’t let Brave‘s lack of resemblance to that keep you from enjoying a really good movie.

Josh: What is sadly (for me at least) clear with Brave is that the Disney/Pixar merger has produced a creative equilibrium at the two companies. The presence of the Pixar Brain Trust has drastically improved the quality of Disney’s feature animation output in recent years. But it also seems like the Disney attitude is rubbing off on Pixar too. Hell, the trailer for Disney’s upcoming Wreck-It Ralph feels a lot more like a Pixar movie than the trailers for Brave do. But I digress…

Brave is by no means a bad film. And to be honest, I don’t imagine it will prove that divisive either. It isn’t quite special enough to inspire the kind of drooling praise that will in turn inspire those who didn’t like it to shit all over it, as we saw with John Carter earlier in the year. Nor is it messy or frustratingly inept enough to inspire lengthy Carter-esque breakdowns of all the ways in which it fucked up. It is a cute film that’s greatest failing is simply that it failed to be great. While watching Brave I mostly just had the feeling that the film wasn’t made for me. But I would imagine a whole generation of little girls are now going to flock most excitedly to the costumed employee wearing the giant curly red wig at Disneyland.

Josh’s
[rating: 3]

Tim’s
[rating: 4]