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I Saw Brave
July 2, 2012Posted by on
Last weekend I ventured into the theater to check out the latest by Disney/Pixar, Brave. It is something of a summer rite to check out the latest in Pixar animation. With the exception of the two Cars films (which I don’t care to watch) and Ratatouille (which I missed in theaters due to it 2007 being the year of the butt-numbing movie), I have gone to see Toy Story 3, Up, Wall-E, and Finding Nemo all during the summer. Each of these films were summer highlights, especially Up which I considered to be one of the best films of 2009. Brave doesn’t match these previous highlights, but it works well enough, and elements of this film stand up pretty well on their own.
Brave is the story of Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a tomboyish princess who doesn’t want to assume the respected, elevated role she will one day inherit from her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Her father, King Fergus (an excellent Billy Connolly), is a hardened warrior but a total softy when it comes to his daughter and young triplet sons, so the queen organizes a tournament among the four leading tribes of Scotland in order to find an acceptable suitor for Merida. It is here where the plot sets in motion, as Merida battles with her mother and the traditional roles set aside for her once she eventually marries one of her suitors and becomes queen. A second act twist that can either be considering “intriguing” or “stupid” depending on one’s point of view further complicates the plot. Merida and her mother must ultimately reconcile their differences and accept each other for who they are, or the kingdom may lay in peril or something perhaps.
There is a lot to like in Brave. With the exception of Cars 2, Pixar has set out to make extremely complicated and mature films for audiences of all ages. Up and Toy Story 3 may be the most telling examples of this, but Brave makes its case to be included, for better or for worse (we’ll get to Brave’s problems soon). This is a pretty film, for sure, but it is also uncompromising, dark, and terrifying in certain places, contributing to the medieval feeling of the film, as well as to certain aspects Merida’s world viewpoint. The music is another highlight, with Scottish composer Patrick Doyle composing the excellent score. Billy Connolly, noted as a standout earlier, is perfect as Fergus, and Macdonald is pretty great as well. Merida is a complicated character and it could have been easy for the voice actor to mess her up, but Macdonald gives life to the character. It has been well noted that Pixar spent a considerable amount of time developing new animation techniques for this film, and it shows immensely. Brave is the best-looking Pixar film to date. It is fun just watching something like Merida’s hair fall all over the place.
The problems with Brave are not numerous, but they do persist throughout the film. We the audience are never really given clear reasons for Merida’s defiance. While it makes sense for children to rebel against their parents, Merida, other than her noted tomboyish tendencies, seems to be a model daughter in many other ways. She’s smart and strong-willed and seems to be obviously a great choice to be queen some day. She still finds time to ride her horse, shoot her arrows, and explore the far off reaches of the kingdom. But her outright disrespect of her mother as well as her refuse to accept her heritage is never entirely believable. A significant part of Brave is devoted to Merida finding her place in the world and coming to respect her mother, but the decisions she ultimately makes that set off the second-act “twist” in this film just don’t quite work for me. Eventually, yes, Merida does learn her lesson and accept her position in society without totally compromising her admittedly strong and admirable set of values, but isn’t this supposed to happen no matter what? Additionally, there is a plot point near the beginning of the film that never comes up again, despite being set up as something potentially important. King Fergus is described by his wife as a skeptic of magic, but this was nonchalantly dropped and never mentioned again, even after the jarring second-act twist, a twist that involved no small amount of magic. Chekov’s skepticism never pays off, and that’s kind of a disappointment. In a way, it’s kind of a disappointment that Brave has to resort to magic at all, considering the film could have easily been set in a more believable world without taking away anything from the plot.
Ultimately, Brave is a beautiful film to look at (surely Pixar’s finest moment in animation) with some impressive voice work, particularly Kelly Macdonald and Billy Connolly. The second act problems and character inconsistencies keep it from reaching the absolute heights of previous watershed moments in Pixar history however. The behind the scenes issues with Brave may have contributed to this (original director Brenda Chapman was later replaced by long-time Pixar story collaborator Mark Andrews), as it is difficult to believe that Pixar would suffer two consecutive blows with Cars 2 disappointing critics and audiences last year. There are just too many creative forces in that studio to think this is something of a trend. Brave may not have ended up being the perfect summer highlight film, but it was a decent enough distraction.