[National Review Online; June 22, 2012]
As I watched the trailer for Brave I had a sinking feeling. It’s funny, of course, and the images and characters are brightly appealing. But the plot … hmm. A feisty young princess is to learn which of three princes — who range from wimpy to oafish — will be her future husband. They will compete with each other in feats of archery, with the winner to wed the princess. But she refuses her socially assigned fate; taking up the bow herself, she easily bests the suitors and wins her own hand.
The trailer is a nicely done minute or two of filmmaking. But it points to a disappointingly predictable story line, for a studio as original as Pixar. You know, the movie company that gave us an old man walking his house (held aloft by balloons) through the mountains of Peru (Up). The company that gave us a French rat who longs to be a chef (Ratatouille). Or the superheroes compelled to retirement by an excess of lawsuits, who work in cubicles and dream of their glory days (The Incredibles). Or the monsters who clock in at a factory every night, then go to work scaring children (Monsters Inc.; and by the way, the prequel, Monsters University, looks great, judging from the trailer; it is scheduled for release in June 2013).
How to sum up? This is the company that has produced the most original and intriguing children’s movies in film history.
But Brave? It didn’t look very promising. A tomboy princess who resists marriage is, by now, almost as predictable and conventional as the more sedentary princesses of earlier times. It looks as if the trailer tells the entire story, so what more could there be to find out?
A lot, it turns out. The trailer only sets up the characters. It’s after the archery contest that the real story gets under way. And how much of that story to tell is a reviewer’s dilemma. Before I attended the screening I received an e-mail from another reviewer pleading with all the critics on his mailing list not to reveal anything about the unexpected plot direction. He emphasized the value of seeing a movie unfold as the director intended, and not having any idea what is coming next. So strongly does he feel about this that his review of Up did not contain the word “balloon.”
Personally, I’m not as insistent on stomping out spoilers (much of the time, I think I get more out of a movie if I know what’s going to happen). And in a case like this, if the entire plot is declared off limits, not much could be said in the way of a review. So I’ll try to reveal as little as I can, while sketching in the general theme.
To put it broadly, the film’s subsequent story line centers on the relationship between the princess, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), and her mother, Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson). Merida takes after her dad, the outsized and jovial King Fergus. When she was still a little girl he gave her a bow for her birthday, and she practiced eagerly throughout her childhood, becoming an expert shot. But Queen Elinor knows Merida must be prepared to be a queen herself one day. She isn’t horrified at Merida’s tomboy ways, but insists that she learn good manners and queenly deportment as well. Elinor is not a bad guy, not prissy or scolding. In fact, she’s more down-to-earth than her husband, more reasonable and practical, and perhaps more intelligent too.
Merida and Elinor have a loud encounter after the princess wins the archery tournament. Elinor pleads with Merida to consider that her refusal to accept a spouse is likely to provoke war among the lairds. Merida yells at her mom, “I’d rather die than be like you!” Seizing a handy sword, she slashes through a tapestry that shows her mother and herself holding hands, rending them apart, and then runs away.
The theme continually sounded through the movie is “fate”; can a person change her destiny, her fate, and choose to take her life in an entirely new direction? It seems to me there is some verbal confusion here, in that “fate” and “destiny” usually indicate, in themselves, an unalterable conclusion; the condition of unchangeability is embedded in the words. So for some time I wondered what Merida’s “fate” was, and what destiny she would be compelled to escape. It seems, though, that by “fate” the movie means only the existing cultural expectation that the princess will wed a prince. This is more like a tradition than a fate. And if the question is, Can a lively young princess-tomboy escape traditional expectations?, then nothing in the story arc is surprising.
The plot turns on the broken relationship between Merida and her mother, and the eventual and costly restoration of that relationship. The overall message is that parental love is strong and long-suffering, and ready for more self-sacrifice than a child might think. Many of the Pixar movies treat this theme, in which sympathetic parent or parent-stand-in characters go to great lengths to protect a child (Nemo’s daddy, Andy’s toys, Boo’s monsters). It’s a twist, because you’d expect a children’s movie to be about children. Many child-entertainment products these days go to great lengths to present the central child character as cool and competent, and peripheral parent figures as repressive and dumb. Pixar has brought out a number of movies that offer the parent figure as the main character instead. It can now add to that list Brave and the indubitably brave Queen Elinor, who would instantly risk her life to save her daughter.
I’m grateful for that, and only wish this had been a better movie. I regret its predictability even more because this is likely to be the only girl heroine we will ever get out of Pixar. She’s an older girl, too, adolescent and mildly shapely, unlike the little kids in Pixar’s other movies (from pre-verbal Boo to grade-school Nemo to Boy Scout Russell). Is there really no story line for a girl who is still a child? Is the only story to be told about girls one that is triggered by a mating-and-marriage dilemma?
Also regrettable is that Merida and Elinor are less complex — why not say it? less interesting — than the minor characters who surround them. Breezing by too quickly are the lairds of the three neighboring clans and their deficient sons. These men look to have rich backstories, but their dialogue goes by fast and heavily accented. It’s a problem that results from the custom of having only one or two females in a movie. Male characters, on the other hand, proliferate wildly, and each needs to be differentiated from the rest, and so their stories are more complex. I do appreciate that Elinor was not drawn as an unsympathetic character; that, at least, breaks the mold. But, beyond that, there is not much original about her. Merida, too, is a type — an entertaining and watchable type, but nothing much in terms of originality.
And there’s the problem that praising a girl for acting like a boy, commonplace as it has become, is not really the same thing as identifying and praising what distinctively belongs to girls. Reviewer Roger Ebert puts it brilliantly when he says that Brave “seems at a loss to deal with her as a girl and makes her a sort of honorary boy.”
Since Brave is a girl-centered movie, it might just sink from sight (I think of WALL-E: It included some astonishingly good ideas, but kids sure don’t clamor to re-watch it year after year, as they do some of the other Pixar greats). Possibilities for toy merchandise would seem limited to Merida and her horse. At the screening I attended, the film was preceded by a trailer for Wreck-It Ralph (opening November 2), and well into the movie my grandson was still asking me questions about the trailer; Brave was not proving sufficiently attention-grabbing for him.
Having said that, I should say a word about the cartoon preceding the feature film, titled La Luna. One of Pixar’s wordless shorts, this story of a boy, his dad, and his granddad engaged in some surreal “street-sweeping” is truly lovely. In a way, it lingers more than Brave does.
Now that I’ve mentioned a number of reasons for being disappointed in Brave, I have to admit that I cried at one point – I was not just misty-eyed, but actual tears rolled down. Perhaps a true test of a work of art is whether it hits us in places other than our superficial “like/don’t like” level. If Brave has flaws, it’s still better than almost any non-Pixar kids’ movie you can name. You won’t regret going to see it, and may find that it carries hidden meanings, and achieves a deeper impact, than you ever expected.