Pixar Animation Studios’ most recent release, Brave, is a marked improvement from their 2011 release, Cars 2, in that the movie doesn’t feel like a ripoff of various action franchises and doesn’t seem nearly as inappropriate for children. The story itself, however, unfortunately wavers between being mediocre and being quite good because of poor development, even though the movie maintains the best of intentions from start to finish.
The story starts off very briskly, with the first minutes of the movie showcasing the adorably cute and self-determined Merida, a young princess who enjoys playing with her latest gift, which happens to be her very own bow, given to her by her father, possibly to address any expectations of a film about patriarchal gender roles, which aren’t really brought up; meanwhile her mother is the one who wants her to act like a lady.
She then explores a forest and meets magical, floating lights known as wisps. These form a trail to guide her back to her family, and it is here that she and the viewer are taught about the concept of fate, which forms the basis for the movie’s plot. Then a bear attacks, and Merida and her mother escape on horseback while her father fights back. (If that sounds random, that really is how the movie begins. I had to watch the opening more than once to make sure I hadn’t missed anything.)
Several years pass, wherein Merida acts as temporary narrator and asks some interesting questions about the nature of fate, which the rest of the story doesn’t really bother to address. While magic does exist within the context of the story, there’s little explanation of the factors, magical and non-magical, that govern a large part of the characters’ lives, and this omission becomes an issue fairly early on.
Merida, now a beautiful young girl and the elder sister of several equally energetic and red-haired brothers, is largely powerless to escape her station in her given society: that of a princess, who does not make trouble, raise her voice, climb on rocks, or shoot a bow. Naturally she proceeds to do all of these things in accordance with her free-spirited personality, and the following scene provides Pixar more than enough of an excuse to show off its excellent environmental design. (At this point I do wonder whether Merida gets her impressive climbing skills from someone else, or if she is self-taught.)
Her royal parents are making preparations to present her for betrothal to any of several foolish or otherwise incompetent man-children, the very idea of which Merida greatly dislikes; her own life goals and desires aren’t particularly detailed outside of wanting “freedom,” but her main complaint is one of fairness. This in itself is not unreasonable: the story sets up themes such as royals using their daughters as marital bargaining chips, but no answers are given for how and why such traditions come to be, and where they came from. Are they society’s fault, or the fault of the fate mechanic that was established and toyed with early on?
(The idea of changing one’s fate is understandably presented as both possible and attractive. Imagine if Merida had been born into a society where women were treated as being worthless through no fault of their own. Would she have been wrong to want change, even though her means of seeking it aren’t always justified?)
The setting’s lore is rather thin, outside of a legend intended to serve as both history and parable, and a real answer to this question would have made the story much more interesting, particularly if aspects of fate and culture were combined–imagine a villain manipulating both destiny and societal traditions toward malicious ends in order to take advantage of a culture that refuses to change at any cost.
Merida eventually makes a mistake that leads to a significant plot twist, and while this twist may be predictable for those who followed the movie’s production, it’s still put to use in some humorous and unexpected ways. The film’s quality improves noticeably as it becomes more of an extended portrait of mother-daughter bonding, and while a movie built around that concept might have been more difficult to market to a wide audience, it’s during these sequences that the story is at its best.
This all leads up to an interesting and rather poignant variation on the Pixar-standard chase scene, complete with some unusual stealth elements (Cars 2 desperately needed such creativity with the story and characters, never mind the action scenes), which in turn leads up to, unfortunately, a rather simplistic resolution to the plot. The story also contains a rather unnecessary magical metaphor that serves to only waste time both for the plot and for the characters, who would have avoided many of their stresses by making smart decisions earlier.
There’s still plenty to admire about the presentation, however. While the narrative seems to serve only to establish a rather familiar message, one that the rest of the film seems to portray rather negatively anyway, Pixar’s storytelling methods themselves become excellent in unexpected ways when the writers most severely challenge themselves: one major character has to communicate without being able to speak, and this character’s body language alone is more than up to the task. The shift from the Cars setting back to one with human characters does wonders for Pixar’s ability to model expression, with a last-minute burst of emotion serving easily as one of the company’s finest technical and artistic achievements in years.
Pixar’s latest film is not its finest (Ratatouille has my vote there), but it’s a step in the right direction toward returning to the company’s signature brand of ingenuity. Pixar’s done family-relations dramas before, though I will say that unlike with The Incredibles, I did enjoy how Brave didn’t have quite as much over-the-top bickering, particularly toward the end of the film. While the lighting during a number of the nighttime and overcast scenes made some sections of the movie difficult to follow, the color palettes were otherwise very bright, and the environments were lovely. There wasn’t really a whole lot of “action,” as far as scenes of physical conflict go, but the movie did maintain a lively pacing (even if the narrative didn’t) and never felt truly boring in spite of the unfocused story.
The character models and their distinct mannerisms are excellently rendered, even though Merida’s mother’s hair seems somewhat blocky and expressively lacking compared to Merida’s own, which would be a wonderfully colorful sight even if it weren’t animated half as smoothly as it is. One elderly character’s stylized facial structure brings to mind strong memories of Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece Spirited Away. Visual gags are distributed heavily and evenly throughout the entire movie, and they go a long way toward making the simple characters’ relationships feel that much more convincing.
Brave is a film I consider to be good but not great, but with characters that are very likable on the whole (except for Merida’s tendency to sometimes lie and disobey to get her way), along with gorgeous music and scenery, it has plenty of potential for improvement. The setting just deserves a better story than what it’s been given.