Since the late eighties, moviegoers have had to sit through film after film about girls who want to “marry for love” instead of following their social norms. “I don’t want financial assurance, healthy children, or food on the table. I want love and adventure in the great wide somewhere!” This story has gotten uglier and uglier since its genesis in The Little Mermaid. It was great in Beauty and the Beast, but has become more and more tiresome ever since. This tired old rag of a plot finally reaches a big ugly white head in all its paltriness and audacity in Pixar’s Brave. Apparently, the writers of Brave believe their audience to be either completely unversed in animated filmmaking or too stupid to remember the countless times this feminist yarn has been spun. They’ve cobbled together bits and pieces of other like-minded films, creating a gargantuan exercise machine of conventionality. I understand when movies copy from each other. It’s inevitable. But I am personally insulted when I can predict every single significant plot point from Braveheart-style opening to deus ex machina ending.
The film concerns Merida, a Scottish princess who coincidentally loves to shoot archery, ride horses, and let her luscious red hair flow in the wind. All things no princess should do. Her fanciful life comes to a close when her mother Eleanor tells her that the various clans are presenting each of their firstborn heirs to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage. Enraged at this, Merida rides off into the forest. Here she is lead by little blue floaters called will-o’-the-wisps (functional copies of Princess Mononoke’s tree spirits) to an old witch. And guess what! Merida buys a spell from her to change her fate. At this point the movie has been conventional, yet tolerable. But then the film changes tone so suddenly that from then on it just takes a nose dive toward the very VERY predictable.
The spell turns Merida’s mother into a bear. This bizarre twist in events sends the story spinning into slapstick nonsense. Mid-movie twists have been managed before, to great effect. Barton Fink comes to mind. But the directors of Brave are not the Coen Brothers. The second half of the movie is spent trying to undo this devilry by any means possible as long as its been done before. I don’t think it’s a spoiler that Brave has a happy ending and all ends up right in the world. At least they don’t break out into that deplorable family film rhapsody We Are Family.
I suppose there is a message of forgiveness and theosis running through the movie. Merida and her mother are only redeemed through suffering and struggling, and this appeals greatly to my Athanasian sensibilities. However sound theology a good film does not make, and the only unambiguous moral message of the movie is a version of that Old Testament proverb, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Very noble advice in this context. The best parts of the movie involve Merida’s father Fargus, who serves the purpose of comic relief. He’s a bombastic buffoon whom we know always has a smart aside in any situation. Imagine his surprise when his daughter stands up to compete for her own hand in marriage. Something tells me he was mildly amused that his girl wanted to be the next Sue Sylvester.
Brave breaks no new ground in the world of animation. Nor does it live up to its legacy. Pixar has been ailing for some time now. Ever since its magnum opus Up from 2009. Toy Story 3 was good enough, but Cars 2 was dreary. Brave is perhaps an even worse failure than Cars 2, because we knew and expected Cars 2 to be bad. Brave should have been Pixar’s return to glory, its next Up or Finding Nemo. Instead it stoops to the level of Disney channel TV fair, with Merida and her mother riding around on horseback to the tune of a Mumford & Sons track. How odious. The words shoved in these characters’ mouths are similarly juvenile. The dialogue flows like the clunky banter from the Star Wars prequels. During the film’s climax, when Merida delivers an interminable speech (about what I didn’t bother to pay attention. I assume about family or tradition or love or some vomitus conglomeration thereof) I couldn’t help thinking of that lusciously stupid scene in The Phantom Menace where Natalie Portman rather grandiosely requests the help of the Gungan in their war against the Trade Federation. There’s no excuse for bad dialogue in a movie with Scottish accents.
This is an embarrassing little movie for Disney I imagine, which hasn’t pimped merchandise back and forth as they usually do for a big Pixar release. Something tells me this will be written out of history and enjoy the same fate as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, Brave will actually deserve that reprobation. As an aside, the film is anteceded by a wonderful short cartoon entitled “La Luna”. This simple, aesthetic, quiet little movie is what we love about Pixar. The ability to conjure emotions with little dialogue and beautiful images. The film following “La Luna” is not representative of that.