Disney/Pixar’s Brave. I’ve seen it, you’ve seen it (well, maybe) and all I really have to say about my experience is, “well, it wasn’t terrible.” That’s not very high praise for what’s intended to be a major tentpole movie for the summer, though it’s already made something like $174 million in two weeks off of the parents-getting-dragged-to-the-movies crowd; it will probably go on to be moderately successful but I don’t see the film having the same kind of cross-generational appeal as other, better Pixar movies, like Up or Wall-E, because it simply doesn’t take enough risks with its storytelling.
I’m sure that seems like a strange statement to make to some of you, considering how the ussual plot of a Disney princess movie involves the main character falling in love with someone by the fourth act. It’s true that Merida, the film’s heroine, follows in the footsteps of other more contemporary Disney princesses like Belle, Ariel, Jasmine, Mulan, Rapunzel, and Pocahontas in that she’s the main character and it’s her actions that drive the plot forward, but Merida is substantially different than these other heroines because it is Merida’s refusal to align herself to this typical romantic plot point that makes for an interesting postmodern take on your typical Disney princess. It’s important for a generation of children to have stories available to them that depict protagonists as other than straight white guys in their late 20s or early 30s, and with Merida boldly announcing that she has no intention of being carted off as a trophy wife to the highest bidder but will instead compete for her own hand shows independence and courage, and the parts where she’s exerting her independence are the best parts of the film.
Unfortunately this peak comes very early in the film. The rest of the narrative is devoted to the conflict between Merida and her mother, the queen, who wants her daughter married off into one of the neighboring clans in order to preserve the rule of the king (played by an underutilized Billy Connolly that spends most of the film falling over and shouting). Merida rushes off into the woods in a huff, finds a witch, and brokers a magic spell to change her mother’s mind about the arranged marriage – and, like clockwork, the spell has unintended consequences, throwing Merida and her mother together in a race to lift the spell before it becomes permanent. The girl and her mother bond, learn about one another’s strengths and weaknesses and gain a deeper understanding of their relationship, overcome danger together, and the special bond of not only mutual love but respect that they develop turns out to be the key to breaking the spell just in time – and it’s about as interesting as a Lifetime Original Movie.
Sure, the cinematography and artistic prowess of Pixar’s computer animators is supreme and is put to the test throughout the entire film, and for any cinema nuts out there, Brave is worth seeing just for the nearly 112,000 strands of individually rendered hair on Merida’s head, but don’t expect anything more groundbreaking as far as the actual story goes; advanced follicle physics alone is worth the price of admission for animation fans, but I was left wanting more nuanced storytelling and better character development as well as breathtaking art design and riveting action set pieces. Pixar can and has delivered this sort of experience several times in the past, and I can only wonder what happened here that has them missing the mark that they’ve been able to hit almost every single time; it is strange to see Mark Andrews, the long-time Pixar writer and artist that was involved in some of the more popular Pixar movies such as The Incredibles and Ratatouille as a story supervisor, failing so hard with Brave, which he both wrote the screenplay for and directed. Interestingly enough, Andrews was also the second unit director and screenwriter for John Carter, another Disney-distributed movie that came out this year and had some serious, serious issues – I found it nowhere near ideal but ultimately enjoyable, (much as I found Brave) and it seems that being involved in directing films with a good premise but lacking in execution are becoming a bit of a pattern for Andrews; sure, Brave will probably go on to make a boatload of cash and thus making up for John Carter‘s abysmal crash-and-burn failure, but I have serious doubts that it’s going to make anyone’s top-ten list.
So if you like watching Billy Connolly get his leg eaten by a bear and then spend the next two hours falling over his own peg leg while a teenage girl with a ginger afro shoots arrows from horseback, go on out and see Brave. Just don’t say that I didn’t warn you.