Film Review: Brave

Brave HeaderPixar’s latest entry, Brave, is a reimagining of the damsel driven fairy tale and Brave finds success outside its title not making a whole lot of sense and the connective tissues of the plot not being terribly well earned.

The plot of Brave follows a young Princess, Merida, who has never really conformed to the mold her mother has tried to put her in. Merida is a free spirit and a daddy’s girl that is both adventurous and an excellent markswoman with a bow.  So when it comes time for Merida to be betrothed to another clan’s leader’s son, she obviously doesn’t take the news well and runs off into the wilderness in despair.  Merida runs into a mysterious woman who promises to change her mother if Merida so wishes, but as you can imagine, things don’t go as planned.  Merida must then work with her mother to right the wrong that comes from Merida’s misstep and the two will hopefully find a common bond with their time together.

The film isn’t without issues and is not Pixar’s sharpest effort by any means.  First off, the film relies way too much on rather “blue” sight/physical gags and we have come to expect more from Pixar who rarely goes for the lowest common denominator (though, I will say that a certain gag involving a kilt rope made me laugh quite a bit.).  The film has solid humor outside that, the film’s second act being the most successful, but I can’t help but wish the film took a more intelligent route to its laughter.

The film’s plot is also quite random and relies on a few too many conveniences.  While I appreciate the fresh take on the fairy tale I feel like we needed a bit more of grounding to the world they built.  It is hard to believe that there isn’t much of her kingdom that Merida hasn’t explored yet we are asked to believe she is completely caught off guard by a place that is such a short horse ride from her castle. The magic they introduce into the picture also doesn’t make all that much sense and it left me scratching my head more than putting me into wonder; the blue wisps were cool.  Now I know picking on the logic of magic is a bit of taking the fun out it, but this magical monument that they keep getting spit out into is just confounding; made even more so when everyone finds their way there in the finale.

None of this is detrimental to the film, but it was all a bit too distracting.  The most distracting bit in the film comes when our heroine returns to see the mysterious woman and we are given this riff on an automated phone service that feels completely out of the place in a period film.  I mean, really Pixar?  Nothing has felt so out of place in one of their films as it completely betrays the world they are building.  It felt like early DreamWorks shtick.

If anything might be detrimental to the film making sense it is that the solution to Merida’s problems isn’t ever really clear and they introduce this red herring that makes no sense yet Merida buys into it for some reason.  Also to this point, the film’s climactic moment hinges on a realization between our heroine and her mother that I feel already happened a good twenty minutes earlier in the film.  The moment is emotionally well put together, but when the catharsis feels like it already happened the moment doesn’t have the punch it should.  If they let the catharsis happen when it happened then we wouldn’t have had a big finale, so it doesn’t, and choosing to ignore the progress our characters make is bad storytelling.

The film is a slim 90 minutes, but the first act does drag a bit at times.  I understand we need to build up the characters, but Pixar is usually capable of delivering important character beats in fun an interesting ways.  The film also shoehorns in the “villain” of the film and never tries to prioritize it as the film’s central threat.  The real struggle of the film is between Merida and her mother and there are enough interesting elements surrounding their relationship that they could have created a compelling climax out of that.  This would have felt far more natural than the added threat of the shoehorned villain as the stakes were high enough already without them.

I don’t know who is exactly to blame for the film’s shortcomings as there are three credited directors and apparently Brave has had one of the most turmoil filled productions in the studio’s history.  Regardless, Mark Andrews seems to have been able to pull things together even with the aforementioned issues.

All problems aside, the film is gorgeous to look at and there are a couple of rather creative set pieces sprinkled throughout.  Pixar brings the wilderness of Scotland to life beautifully, but I am not going to lie that the character design left something to be desired.  Merida’s hair is an incredible feat of animation, but the humans that populate this film are all rather dull looking; Merida’s father excluded.  ILM set the bar for animation, I feel, last year with Rango and their character work in particular was phenomenal.  Every character was an original creation, and Pixar is usually pretty great at these themselves (see Toy Story 3’s playroom), but Brave felt like they used a clone tool in their animation system.

The main characters are what really work in the film.  Merida is fantastically brought to life by Kelly Macdonald who is as unique and original of hero I have seen in any Pixar film.  She is awesome in so many ways, whether she is standing up for her right to have a choice or shooting arrows, and she is an excellent role model for the many young girls and boys who will see the film.  Her relationship with her parents is also wonderfully realized and they easily walk the line of making her mother being a stern leader and being a B.  Things easily could have tipped over to just making the mom some overbearing terror, but not once did I feel like Merida’s mother, Elinor, didn’t ring true.  Elinor is voiced by the always great Emma Thompson and she has wonderful chemistry with Billy Connolly who plays the film’s King.  Connolly was also the funniest element of the film and watching him trying to tame his fellow clan leaders was rather entertaining.  The only weak element of the film, character wise, were Merida’s three brothers who are basically blank slates used for comedic relief/plot devices.  For having the rest of the family being so fleshed out it is a shame the brothers are completely soulless mischief makers.  The mischief can be entertaining, but why can’t they have a story as well?  Also, the three other Clan Leaders didn’t really have anything distinguishing about them, besides accents and war paint, and I felt like that was a real missed opportunity.

Brave is an enjoyable fairy tale, but not one without problems.  The level of technical detail you expect from Pixar is here, as are the a few winning characters, but the plot seems to be a pile of half baked and hodgepodge ideas thrown together.  There is enough connective glue to keep everything together, but things barely hold in a few important areas.  Luckily, at its heart, Brave is about Merida and her mother and they are both wonderfully realized and their relationship is very affective.  Their story is sweet, honest, and totally worth the price of admission.  Brave might not be Pixar’s greatest effort, but it is still a gorgeous and winning tale of family that provides a worthy heroine in Merida for girls and boys of all ages.

Brave is a B-

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