Pixar is perhaps one of the greatest film studios in existence. Every single one of their films are thoroughly enjoyable. Ridiculously enjoyable. Not only are they usually hysterical but they’re also emotionally involving that manage to invoke tears in pretty much everyone. If you didn’t cry watching this scene from Up, you are a god damn robot:
Their masterpieces of Toy Story 3 and Up have set the bar so damn high that I’m not sure that Pixar will ever be able to surpass it (but then that’s what I thought about Toy Story 1 and 2.) I kept this in mind when I went to go see Brave this week, I kept telling myself that this movie was going to disappoint me if I went in expecting another Up. I was completely correct too, Brave in no way lives up to Toy Story or Up (though it beats out Cars, but then what doesn’t?). In fact, Brave is perhaps one of the worst Pixar movie ever made.
Brave is still the best movie I’ve seen this year, and easily beats out dozens of other films I’ve endured. It’s an impressive feat that even the worst Pixar film is better than 90% of other movies that come out, though it’s also sad that Hollywood is so bereft of originality and creativity that Pixar can so easily stand out from the crowd. That said though, Brave is a good movie and I recommend everyone who enjoys Pixar movies to go see this one as well. Then come back and read this, because I’m going to highlight where this movie goes wrong.
If you don’t want me to spoil this movie for you, then turn back now.
No really, I mean it!
Don’t come any further!
Oh for Christ’s sake, fine. Have it your way!
Brave: A Storytelling Review
The key problem with Brave is that it’s a single movie trying to tell two distinct and completely separate stories at the same time using the same characters. The first story is a deep, emotionally involving, character-driven narrative that shows off all the passion and creativity that make Pixar such an amazing studio. The second story is an entertaining but ultimately forgettable plot-driven story that manages to hijack that movie and drown out the first, more important story, completely.
So we begin in Scotland, which is a refreshing change of pace since all former Pixar movies seem to take place in fantasy world. It even finds its inspiration in actual historical events, taking place somewhere between 800-1000AD, when the various Viking invasions of Scotland destroyed the Pict kingdom and various small independent Scot kingdoms began to form. This is when Norse and Scot cultures were beginning to intertwine into the now famous culture we all know and love, and Pixar shows some very good attention to detail in this area, with all the characters featuring items from both cultures. Kilts, longboats, and even a Gaelic speaking character are on display here. I mention this because using history is often a great way to inspire a good story, it’s why many of Shakespeare’s plays featured major historical characters, and I’ll probably cover history and stories in a later post.
Merida, our lead character, is the eldest child and daughter of King Fergus, who leads a newly founded kingdom composed of four clans that formed an alliance following a victorious battle over invading Vikings from the North. Like all western feudal kingdoms, Merida is destined to be trapped in a prearranged marriage and she doesn’t like this prospect at all. Merida is a good example of a strong female lead that doesn’t fall into the trap of becoming an emotionless automaton or a shameless sex symbol; she’s independent, strong willed, and an expert archer. She’s also incredibly afraid of getting married, to the point where she’s willing to risk breaking apart this fragile new kingdom by openly defying tradition. Highland games are held as a way for the three suitors from the other clans to compete for the right to marry Merida, only for Merida to compete for herself and completely mop the floor with all three of the bizarre looking characters. She succeeds not only in breaking with tradition, but in humiliating the other Clans in a very public display.
At this point I was ready for Pixar to once again amaze me with their storytelling abilities. The idea of a girl fighting against a sexist, misogynistic society isn’t a new one, but this one was unique in that it was showing us the long reaching consequences of her wish for freedom. Most of these kinds of stories only end up affecting the family of the girl in question. Pride and Prejudice is a good example, the main character wants to be independent but her defiance of tradition only really affects her family. Merida’s defiance, however, is threatening to start a war that could destroy a kingdom and possibly leave thousands dead as the clans rip each other apart. As a huge believer in equal rights for everyone, I’ve always rooted for characters like Merida, and yet even I was conflicted about what she should do: on one hand she should have the right to choose for herself, and on the other is her happiness worth starting a war over?
That was the question that I thought Brave was setting out to answer. I was ready for an epic, heart wrenching story that would show us the consequences of her actions. This had all the hallmarks of a brilliant story.
Hear that sound? That’s the sound of Brave violently shifting to its second story, like an old clunker whose transmission threatens to break apart with each gear shift.
Suddenly I found myself watching a totally different movie. It was about a girl who finds a witch in the woods, and grants her a potion to change her fate, not through her own choices and convictions, but through making the girl’s mother turn into a bear.
The trouble isn’t that the mother turns into a bear, it’s that the fact that her turning to a bear has no real bearing (GET IT!?) on the story itself. Back in my Keep it Simple post, I said that if something doesn’t add to or otherwise advance a story, then it doesn’t need to be there. That’s exactly the problem with the Bear plot, it doesn’t add to the story, in fact it just gets in the way. On top of that, the bear plot also integrates something from a totally different movie by introducing another bear who is actually a former King who turned on his brothers and destroyed an ancient kingdom a hundred years ago. Now, it makes sense that this evil King turned into a bear because his wish was specifically “to have the strength of ten men”, and I can see a snarky witch twisting that wish and turning him into a bear; who do in fact have the strength of ten men. It doesn’t make sense that Merida’s mother turns into a bear, what does that have to do with changing fate? Nothing. Not a single part of this storyline has anything to do with our initial story.
So after an admittedly hilarious escape from the castle, Merida and her mother travel into the woods to try and find the witch. This is where they desperately try to integrate the two stories by making Merida and her mother interact and learn about each other while they journey through the woods. Her mother begins to understand Merida’s attitude by watching her daughter survive in the wild and learning how to survive herself (albeit as a bear). Here’s the thing though: they could have had this scene without ever needing to have the mother turn into a bear. In fact these scenes could have been much more poignant had the mother actually been able to speak instead of just growl and mime. These scenes could easily have been an extension of Merida’s actions, her humiliation of the other clans sparks a conflict in the castle and Merida and her mother are forced to flee into the woods.
Anyway, the witch is gone but left a ominous message telling Merida that she has two days before the spell is permanent. She reveals that Merida has to “mend the bond” in order to restore her mother to normal.
When they fail to find the witch, Merida and her mother travel deeper into the woods where they find the destroyed castle of the evil King Bear. This scene is probably the worst in terms of story because it’s so disconnected from the rest of the story that it almost feels like we’ve left Brave all together and somehow wound up on the set of a different movie all together. It serves no other purpose than to reveal the fate of the Evil King and piss off the Evil bear he became so he can reappear later in the film. It is the worst kind of contrived danger you can shove into a story.
Oh look at that, the movie decides to quickly shift back to the more important story. Deciding that repairing a torn tapestry can restore the mother to her former self, Merida sneaks her mother into the castle. There they find that the four clans are on the verge of war, turning the banquet room into a makeshift battlefield, each withdrawn behind a makeshift barricade of tables waiting for the moment one side will finally snap and attack. This is the result of Merida’s actions, four allies about to destroy each other. This is where Merida has to make a decision: to marry and make peace, sacrificing her freedom and happiness. Or to make a stand, and let the others follow their destructive path. In an epic and moving speech, Merida convinces the clans to back down. She reminds them of the alliance that was forged in blood and steel, as they all saved each others lives from the rampage of the northern invaders. She’s just about to concede to getting married and then –
And we’re back to story #2. What the hell Pixar? Make up your mind, what story are you trying to tell me?
So in the back of the banquet hall, Merida’s mother (posing as a stuffed trophy bear), mimes to her daughter that she doesn’t have to married. Then all three competing suitors agree. Well that was easy wasn’t it? Merida didn’t have to make any sacrifices or choices, she didn’t have to convince them through her actions and convictions, she doesn’t even have to break a sweat. She’s saved because the three suitors have to agree for the sake of the plot. It’s really shame, because this is what should have been the concluding scene of the movie: Merida stepping between four warring clans and bravely making a sacrifice for the greater good. She decides to marry someone she doesn’t love. And maybe through that bravery, the other Clans will recognize that Merida deserves to choose her own path, her own fate. Unfortunately this scene seems more like a minor detour rather than the heart wrenching conclusion. As if one day Merida will look back and say to her grandchildren:
“Yes, I stopped my mother turning into a bear! Oh, and I might have averted some war thing that threatened to destroy our way of life as well, but I don’t remember. Anyway, that’s not important!”
This is still Pixar though, and the conclusion is still pretty damn epic. King Fergus finds Merida’s Mother wandering around the castle and immediately tries to kill her, not knowing it that it’s really his transformed wife. They chase her into the woods and a strange circle of stones reminiscent of Stone Henge. Just as King Fergus is about to land the killing blow, Merida finally gets to show off the archery skills that the movie has been painfully reminding us of the entire time and yet never actually used in the story. She even engages the King in a sword fight, holding off the hulking monstrosity of a man. We can assume she wins this because her father doesn’t want to kill her, but even so, she makes quite an impressive display.
And then the Evil King Bear arrives and promptly starts kicking ass.
This is Pixar people and even though this scene has nothing to do with the story I really wanted to watch, I still cried during these last few minutes. When finally the demon bear is crushed beneath a stone, the spirit of the evil king rises up from the corpse, I cried. There’s just something about this scene: the way the evil king’s spirit bows in thanks, the sad way in which his spirit drifts off and fades into the night, the way the whole band falls silent as they watch. It all sent a shiver up my spine.
And then there’s the conclusion of this odd bear story, in a twist I do actually like, the stupid torn tapestry didn’t have a god damn thing to do with the curse. “Mend the Bond” didn’t refer to some stupid piece of fabric, it referred to the bond of trust and love that binds family together. When Merida thinks she’s failed there are a few minutes there where the whole assembled group of bearded, axe wielding and lumber-eating Scotsmen look like they’re going to cry. And I was right there with them. Then Merida’s mother is restored and the story ends with a happy ending, as always.
Yet it wasn’t the end of the story we wanted to see, it was the end of a secondary, dispensable subplot that somehow usurped the actual plot. Still, there’s so much brilliance on display that I have this nagging feeling it’s not Pixar’s fault. No, there is one very simple reason for why a second story was shoehorned into the movie and it can be summed up in a single word.
Did you know that when Up! was released, their stockprice actually dropped? Yeah, apparently a critically acclaimed film that touches people on a very personal level just doesn’t equate with investor security. The reason the stockprice dropped is because investors didn’t think the merchandise would sell. If you subtract the bears from the plot of Brave, you get a movie very much like Up!, one featuring only a handful of characters that could translate into stuffed animals. Who would want a stuffed version of King Fergus? No kid wants to snuggle up to a giant, hairy, axe-wielding Viking warrior at night. Are they going to sell kilts? Mugs with “Got Scot?” on the front? Some T-shirts?
There was a brilliant story to be told in Brave, but there wasn’t merchandising. So some investors pulled strings, or the head honchos at Disney intervened and said “bears. We need bears in this move. More bears!” And Voila!
So there you have it. Brave: A good movie that could have been so much more. I still love Pixar though and I’m totally applying for this job even though I don’t have a chance in hell of getting it!