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What Brave Did Wrong

  One of my great, unsung desires is to be a voice actor. This dream results in such things as narrating crappy 1950's shorts and a profession where people listen to me talk. So, with this in mind, I am fully aware that I’m probably killing any potential career I may have by reviewing Brave.

  Let it be said that I pretty much love Pixar. The only movies that I have stayed away from are the Cars series, because I think that anthropomorphic vehicles are pretty dumb. I’d like to think that in terms of narrative, we learned that talking/thinking cars are a waste of effort. Did we learn nothing from My Mother the Car, Knightrider, and Warrior of the Lost World? Also, the only thing I’ve ever found funny about Larry the Cable Guy was David Cross’s response to him (warning: pretty damn offensive, but also pretty damn hilarious). Regardless of my own opinion about vehicles and car-based silliness, Pixar knows what they’re doing, from both a marketing standpoint and a narrative standpoint.

  Which is why I have to wonder why Brave was such a misstep.

  Before I go any further, it’s not a bad movie by any stretch. The voice acting is excellent. The animation is, as always, flawless. All the elements are in place except one huge one, which I’ll get to in a moment. The problem is that it’s not Pixar good. It’s still leaps better than almost anything out there, but compared to its siblings, it comes off as a bit of the red-headed step child of the bunch (didja get it? C-cause the main character has red hair).

  The problem with this movie comes in with the story. And before anyone has the audacity to shout “It’s just a kid’s movie!” let me counter by pointing out almost every other thing Pixar has done. Finding Nemo dealt with horrible death right at the beginning of the movie. Remember good ol’ Marlin and his wife at the beginning and their thousands of eggs? Remember the fish that ate her and the eggs with the exception of Nemo? That’s a pretty hardcore thing to include in a movie for kids.

  Or how about Up, quite possibly the best Pixar movie of the bunch? The first montage of the movie could have been titled Everyone You Love Will Die and it would have been pretty apt. Hell, the entire story arc with Russell centers around the fact that he’s just a kid and is very alone in the world.

  Even Toy Story deals with growing up with a best friend and then essentially being thrown away when the first opportunity arises. A kid going through a divorce, someone losing their best friend to someone else, or even just a regular child without a lot of friends can certainly relate to Woody’s angst toward Buzz Lightyear.

  The point I’m making is that movies from Pixar have some of their biggest strength - not in the animation - but in the stories they tell. Every movie could be done in a traditionally animated style, but they’d still be fantastic because they don’t shy away from the harder questions about life, the universe, and everything. They treat their audience - and yes, this means kids - with a great deal of respect. They don’t sugar-coat things or talk down to anyone. But most importantly, they always tell a cohesive, well-balanced story where the characters behave and interact like people.

  And if anyone still wishes to use the ‘made for children’ approach to my argument, here’s what I want you to do: go up to your children (I’m assuming you have them - if not, borrow someone else’s), look them in the eye, and tell them they’re stupid. Go ahead. Oh, you don’t want to? Because your (or your friend/relative/person-in-a-parking-lot’s) child is clearly a super-genius? Well, sorry, but that’s essentially what you’re saying when you use that excuse to cover up narrative holes in movies and books. It didn’t work for the prequel trilogy of Star Wars, and it doesn’t hold water here.

  So, I do hold children’s movies to a pretty high standard, and it’s a much higher standard than I have for books. Because the books don’t need to have a complex plot - and typically, they’re over and done with in about five minutes. No one bitches about the plot of Goodnight Moon because there’s no pretense of something bigger. And as the always super-awesome Twentyfourpages.com points out, substantial changes between the book and movie of Where the Wild Things Are were necessary to stretch it into a film.

  So, here’s the rub. The standard story is a young girl, Merida, wants to ride her horse and practice archery while her mother Elinor demands she behave like a ‘proper’ princess. For a discussion of the gender roles that are being questioned here, you should check this out, but if you want the gist of it, here it is: Merida doesn’t want to be a princess if it means being constrained to a rigid set of rules while her father, Fergus, supports her for whatever makes her happy while her mother is a big ol’ meanie head who’s a big meanie.

  It’s a fairly archetypical story, really. Generational conflict is not original, but it can be creatively told. And that’s what Brave tries to do. They try to weave in some larger threads of narrative, with mysterious nods to fate and ghosts and changing fate and magic, but it’s all rather limp in execution. Magic’s power is only shown to the audience once, and that’s when Merida gets a witch to give her something that will change her fate - or her mother, because that will somehow change her fate because her mother will be different. The narrative flip-flops on this because I don’t think anyone sat down and decided on what “fate” actually meant in this context.

  The problem is that the narrative itself is kind of... I dunno... lazy. There’s an absolutely ridiculous plot device which lead characters around by the nose. Whenever sufficient time has been spent in a scene - we’re catching fish! I need to find my mother even though she left fifteen minutes ahead of me! - little will o’ wisps pop up to lead the characters to the next set piece.

  This may not seem like much, but it takes all the agency away from the characters. Honestly, there’s no sense of discovery or adventure because apparently everyone in this reality can just wait for spirits to show up and point them in the right direction. When Merida first runs away, the wisps show her to the witch - which I guess was fate. Which means that “changing her mother’s fate” was fate already, which meant that it was something that was always going to happen. So her mother’s fate was to turn into a bear and save her daughter from a marauding beast. This was preordained because the magical wisps tell people where to go. It’s a good thing souls of the dead or whatever they are have nothing better to do - I’d hate to have characters make their own decisions. Think of the chaos if Merida went on a grand, exciting adventure! No one would pay to see that shit. Nope. Neat and orderly. Because people hate everything that may seem too “out there”.

  What’s really kind of doofy about this whole thing is that they borrowed the magic glowing waypoints from friggin’ video games. Think I’m wrong? Here:

lost
Oh, no! Space mechanic can't find his way!

lost
Thank you, magic pointer, for taking the guesswork out of adventuring!

That’s a video game character not knowing where the fuck to go, and then a friendly blue beam tells him go over there to advance the plot. Really? This is what movies needed? “Welp, we painted ourselves into a corner with this plot. Let’s hit R3 to summon the magic plot device to move us along.”

  What’s particularly sad about this is that someone should have pointed this out. Every single Pixar movie (I’ve seen, ‘cause until a weeping child makes me watch Cars, it ain’t happening) has had characters that acted of their own accord. I guess if there were any that didn’t, it never appeared to be as glaring as Brave. Here, it came off like no one on staff actually cared about the story being told.

  So instead of wasting ten minutes of my time showing Merida and Ursa-momor (get it? Like the constellahfuckit) endlessly faffing about, why don’t they set off on a quest to find the witch? Along the way, you can briefly show Merida and her mother learning things about each other - like Merida hunting to provide for her mom who, despite her new strength, is still useless outside the castle. But no. Fishing! And bears eating! And magic spirits to point us toward the next set piece! Wooo!

  On top of this, the Fergus is shown to be desperately in love with his wife and cares deeply about his daughter. And, yet, something like 24 hours pass and he doesn’t notice that they’ve disappeared? Even though he’s essentially hosting a party in his daughter’s honor that only his wife has shown any interest in? On top of that, Elinor’s shown to be the only one to command respect from the other clans while their sons are fighting for the right to wed Merida - why aren’t they concerned about the ladies’ whereabouts? It’s not just sloppy writing - it’s a damn plot hole. It becomes especially frustrating when the king could have rolled into the bed room the night the women disappeared, found the trashed stuff, and gathered his men to pursue his wife-bear. It would have kept things moving and generated a lot of momentum to get the curse broken rather than some arbitrary two-day limit which was only in place because they needed a ticking clock element for some reason.

  Oh, and that beast Elinor kills that I mentioned earlier? It’s apparently a demon-bear that is really the soul of a corrupt clansman from a legend Elinor told to Merida which boiled down to “Get into the kitchen or else you’ll ruin everything forever.”

  I don’t want to make this about ‘what could have been great’. Every author has their own style and any story can be good if it’s told well. This was apparently the story they wanted to tell, but it’s just confusing that the studio made such an egregious misstep. What’s particularly puzzling is why they chose to spend so much time with Merida when she’s clearly not the main character.

  You may be questioning why I would come to that conclusion: after all, she’s on the poster, she’s the narrator, she’s featured prominently in the trailer and the movie. Even the merchandise is Merida-centric. How is she not the central protagonist?

  Well, she doesn’t have an arc, for one. She essentially ends the movie the same head-strong brat she started as. She doesn’t really learn anything. Alright, I suppose she realizes she has responsibility to her country, but that’s about it. I suppose she’s also softer toward her mother, but that’s entirely because her mother has stopped hounding her to become a “lady”. The main character, the one who actually goes through a character arc which results in someone evolving, is Elinor. She learns to accept that her daughter doesn’t want to be soft-spoken and married. She learns that sometimes tradition needs to stuff itself. She learns that her endless hounding of her daughter has alienated them and she, not Merida, needs to change in order to heal the damage. She even ends up being the character who kills the shoe-horned-in bad guy at the end of the film. On top of that, she learns that being a bear is hard - or something. Why the fuck was she a bear again?

  And you may think that the decision to have Merida act as the protagonist is because the target audience is young. That’s how that works, right? Children want to see children/teenagers in movies, right? Well, no. Not really. Notice how Finding Nemo wasn’t called Waiting for Marlin? Because if we had spent all our time with Nemo, the film would have been a fish-based The Great Escape, and we already had a poultry-themed version. Marlin was on an epic quest to find his son, something which introduced new characters at a healthy clip and was always moving closer to a definitive goal - Nemo’s rescue. Marlin was also the one who learned something in the film - he learned that, no matter how much he loved his son, he was going to have to let go eventually.

  Further, we have Up. Ed Asner, who has been ten million years old ever since I was born, voices the elderly protagonist Carl. Yes, there is a youth in the film, but Russell is comic relief and is definitely not what the story is about. He’s more of a foil and plot device for Carl - he helps the old man eventually realize that he still has a lot of life and love to give. It’s an absolutely heartwarming story, and it wouldn’t have worked if the camera had been focused on Russell the entire time.

  We can even go all the way back to Toy Story. While the story does have a child in it, Woody is definitely an ‘adult’ of sorts. Buzz Lightyear, too, is hardly a youth - remember, while he is a new toy, his entire reality is based around his belief that he’s had an entire existence of being a badass space marine or whatever the hell he was supposed to be. Woody also had an adult girlfriend in Bo Peep. Mr. Potato Head had a mustache that could never have been grown by a teenager. My point is that all of these movies were able to connect to their intended audience - children - even though all their protagonists were technically adults.

  Pixar has always been at the forefront of technology, and it would make sense that they would push the envelope with every new movie. But from where I stand, it seems a bit excessive that people are concerned with the technical aspects as much as they are. I mean, they developed five separate software programs to simulate the movement of hair and fur and tons of other things. And that’s neat. I get it. I’m a nerdy guy. I wrote a book about super heroes, I obsess over minutiae in video games, and I rip apart movies only myself and the MST3K guys have heard of. But a movie’s central purpose is to tell a story. All the technology in the world doesn’t impress me if the movie made with it has a problem delivering its emotional heart.

  Brave certainly succeeds in that connection with the audience, but the bait-and-switch of Merida and Elinor makes their efforts falter. I would have been more engaged in the movie if Elinor had more screen time or if the entire script had been re-written to make Merida the main character. Combined with the stories about how much effort they put into her hair, it gives the appearance that it’s not even Merida who’s starring in Elinor’s movie: it feels like I’ve been duped into watching The Adventures of Red Hair and This Girl Attached to It and Something About Bears, Too, I Guess. It would be like if the first color films were just endless images of vibrant fruits - um, thank you, I guess, but if I wanted to look at colors, I’d just open my eyes. The worst part is that they developed these technologies and I’m apparently too jaded to notice. Either that or it’s all the video games which make 3D animation and technologies more than a little old hat for me.

  Speaking of video games, if Pixar was (and I’m not saying they were) less concerned about the plot and more about the technology of making hair look like hair, then Brave isn’t a movie so much as it is a tech demo. You know, something that a game developer will produce (for free, mind you) to show off their new 3D engine. And something like this looks cool, I won’t deny that. But I certainly wouldn’t try to convince someone to watch that video because of it’s deep and engaging plot of “Big dude in flaming armor gets out of his chair and walks out of his house to look at some snowy mountains.”

  I know I’m not the first to say that Brave disappoints, but it’s not bad. It’s a good movie by almost every metric you can throw at it. But the fact that Pixar’s batting average is outrageously high, and they’ve proven time and time again that they can tell a great story, this is their first movie (I’ve seen, anyway) that the studio’s reputation has damaged my experience of the film. I really wanted to love this movie, but all I can really hope for is that maybe they read the criticism leveled at it, take it to heart, and make a sequel which shows that Merida was a character worth watching. For the most part, people love their movies, and for good reason. Criticizing a beloved studio like Pixar is done only with the best interest of everyone at heart. We have high expectations of them because we know they’re capable of producing amazing things. And stumbling is not indicative of failure.

  Mirror, Mirror would be.

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