Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Disney Princess

Film: Brave
Format: DVD from Coal City Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve seen almost everything ever produced by Pixar, and I’ve gotten one step closer now that I’ve watched Brave. I’ve been sort of warned about Brave, that it’s not of the same quality as other Pixar films, or at least that there are a number of Pixar films better than this one. It’s unfortunate to go into a movie with a preconceived notion, but when it comes to movies from this branch of Disney, it’s hard not to know what almost everyone thinks right away.

So, as the last person in North America to watch Brave, I’ll be quick with the recap. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a young Scottish princess who chafes at the role she is forced to play. She’d rather shoot arrows and run about. She clashes frequently with her mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) about her behavior and seems to be otherwise tolerated by her father King Fergus (Billy Connolly).

The time comes, though, that Fergus calls the clans together because Merida has reached an age where she needs to marry. It’s political thing, there to help bolster the unity of the clans, but the three suitors all appear pretty unsuitable to Merida. It’s up to her to pick the contest that the three will compete in for her hand, so she chooses archery. And then, since she is the oldest child of her clan, she “competes” for her own hand and shows up all of the potential suitors. This causes a great deal of embarrassment for the other three clans and also starts a fight between Merida and her mother, a fight that ends in a torn tapestry.

Merida flees the castle, and guided by the sudden appearance of little blue will-o’-the-wisps, she reaches the cottage of an old witch (Julie Walters). Here Merida gets a cake that she is instructed to feed to her mother to change her fate. She does, and the cake turns Elinor into a bear. More specifically, she’s turned into a bear that looks an awful lot like the bear that took Fergus’s leg years before. So now, Elinor has to figure out how to change her mother back into her mother, keep her father from finding out, and most especially keep her father from seeing the bear and trying to kill it. Adventure and family reconciliation ensue.

The sad truth is that most of what I’ve heard about Brave is true, although it’s less dire than a lot of folks have painted it. This is lower-middle range Pixar, but it’s still Pixar. Brave isn’t a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also far from a great one, and far from the sort of film that Pixar is capable of producing and has produced over and over again. It’s certainly better than their worst films, but it’s nowhere near the level of Pixar when it’s really running on all cylinders.

There are some things that Brave does right, though. First, any film that gives voice work to the great Billy Connolly can’t be all bad. I recognized him on his first line and was pleased to be spending some time listening to the man talk. Emma Thompson is good as always. In fact, the voice work is as good as expected from a Pixar production. Pixar has always gotten good work out of a talented cast, and this is no different.

I also rather like the character of Merida. There are two potential Disney princess clichés, and she sidesteps both of them fairly well if not perfectly. She is definitely not waiting around for a prince to save her, and so there’s a positive message there. Merida is capable of being the heroine of her own story. But she’s also not the total tomboy opposite. There are elements of that in her and she may rebel against the restrictive dress her mother puts her in, but she’s also not running around in leggings and covered in mud. She’s definitively female without being girly and without being butch.

It’s also visually appealing. Pixar has always pushed the envelope for animation, and there’s a lot of great work here, particularly in Merida’s hair. Frame for frame, it looks as good or better than any other animated film out there.

My issue is that the main thrust of the story seems forced. The whole “mom turns into a bear” thing feels like retread, and not the sort of unique take on an old story that Pixar does so well in so many other films. It’s perhaps too expected. Worse, it hearkens back to Brother Bear, which is never a good thing for any movie to do.

There is a way to tell the story being told here without witches and magic spells. That would have been the movie I’d have liked to have seen. Brave isn’t a bad film, but it’s not going to ever be remembered as a great one simply because we’ve all seen Pixar do it a lot better. It's the most Disney of Pixar's films, and not really in a good way.

Why to watch Brave: It’s Pixar!
Why not to watch: Almost all other Pixar films are a better choice.


  1. lol, in my own review I also specifically mentioned Merida's hair. They did such a wonderful job with it and all the visuals. I enjoyed this more than most, but it's certainly lower middle tier Pixar. And still about a thousand times better than either of the Cars movies. Great review.

    1. I'm not sure it's possible to review this movie and not mention Merida's hair. It is the most striking visual element of the film.

      I liked it a little better than I thought I might, but that's only because I went in expecting nothing based on word of mouth. I like it better than a couple of Pixar films. Cars 2 is the only one I haven't seen, and based one what I've heard, I'm not itching to see that one.

  2. Yep, you're right on with this. I love the beautiful setting, the voicework is great, and all the characters are there, but it just doesn't quite come together. As you say, it's not bad (I actually enjoy it a lot), but I always feel like it's missing a subplot as the story is too straightforward.

    Connolly is great as the King and I like the three suitors, especially when they unexpectedly back her up in making her own decision whom to marry. I wish they had been used more. I also really like Merida's three brothers, but they aren't given enough to do either.

    And then there's Merida who is the real prize in the movie. Too bad there's not more to it.

    1. I actually don't have a lot of use for the brothers. I did end up liking the three suitors and I agree I'd have liked to have seen them used more.

      Merida is the real reason to watch this. If only she'd had a better movie.

  3. It doesn't help that "Merida," pronounced with a tongue-rolling Scottish accent, sounds dangerously close to the Italian word for "shit." I really have to wonder whether the Italian-dubbed version of this movie significantly alters the pronunciation of the protag's name.

    I second you and Ipecac in saying this isn't one of Pixar's best efforts. To me, it felt like a series of wasted opportunities, mainly based on the high hopes I'd had after having watched the preview trailer, which looked incredible. The floating blue sprites, alas, were positively annoying—as were the triplets—and I agree that a better story could have been told without using any magic at all. (It was the magic, in fact, that felt most like a waste of time to me.)

    1. Right--that's kind of my point. There's definitely a story to tell here about a girl learning to accept her mother and a mother learning to accept her daughter. Using magic to tell the story feels like a cheat. There was a more honest way to do this story, and we didn't get it. That's perhaps expected in a lot of situations, but it's not what I expect from Pixar.

      Incidentally, according to IMDB, "Merida" is Hebrew for "to rebel."

    2. Incidentally, according to IMDB, "Merida" is Hebrew for "to rebel."

      From one language lover to another. Thanks.

  4. I like this better than the two Cars movies, but that's about it. I agree on her hair.

    Now you can see where I was coming from when I said the ending of Frozen used the same device as that of Brave - a play on words on what needs to happen to resolve the issue. That's why Frozen's ending didn't do that much for me, since I already saw it coming a mile away because Brave did it sooner.

    My biggest complaint with Brave is that it goes too far the other way in the roles. It presents a girl who's more fleshed out than in many Disney films...but then they make all the men operate in one of two modes - hugely angry or clownishly idiotic. A movie can elevate the roles of women without denigrating those of the men - it's just requires more work. Pixar took the easy way out.

    1. Right--there's a huge similarity between where this goes and where Frozen goes. That said, I think Frozen did it a lot better and had it work with the story more naturally than did Brave.

      And you're right about the cartoonishness of the men in this film. It's a standard objection I have for fathers in animated movies in general. It's one of the reasons I appreciate films like The Incredibles as much as I do--the dad isn't a caricature but a real guy. The same is true of the Despicable Me films, since we're presented with a father who truly loves his kids and wants the best for them. As a father, I object to the way fathers tend to be portrayed in animated movies, and Brave didn't help that impression.

    2. I agree Frozen is better than Brave, and I agree on how fathers are often negatively portrayed in films, and not just animated ones. It's sad that when I encounter a movie where a father isn't abusive or distant or a molester or a child himself that it stands out as being out of the ordinary (i.e. Fly Away Home, along with the ones you mentioned.)

    3. That's true, but in animated films, they're far more likely to be the caricatures you describe above. Animated movie fathers aren't necessarily malicious, but they do tend to be dumb, ineffectual, or easily angered.