Saturday, July 7, 2012

"Brave": A Tale of a Bear and a Bow

Disney/Pixar's "Brave" (2012)

Written by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, and Irene Mecchi
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Co-directed by Steve Purcell.

"Brave" is a great movie. Let's just start with that.

It's also a first for Pixar Animation Studios. It's the studio's first film featuring a female lead and a story written with a classic fairytale twist. Showcasing innovative animation in an age when femininity graces the screen with more power and dignity than ever before, "Brave" triumphantly utilizes its female characters and embraces its supernatural elements.

A film that captures a magical essence present in most of the studio's previous twelve films, "Brave" also sets out to distinguish itself from the rest of Pixar's filmography by emphasizing its unique qualities.

The story at the heart of "Brave" focuses on Princess Merida (voiced by a charming Kelly Macdonald), a spirited member of a royal Scottish family and Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson), Merida's mother and fellow protagonist. The main conflict develops between the two when the later wants only to see her daughter carry on the responsibilities of a future queen and be married off, a plan to which Merida strongly objects.

Merida is strong and independent and practiced in horseback riding and archery. However, I struggle to use the term "tomboy" to describe her, even if she is the typical "daddy's girl" teenager that we oftentimes see in movies that portray rough and rugged female protagonists. She is a well-balanced character. She has some growing to do throughout the movie, but she's a nice blend of wit and charm; she's darling and downright gorgeous. Just look at her hair! If you watched the movie, you probably didn't realize how much you were staring at her wild, ginger locks until a regal ensemble covers them up. For those who haven't seen the film, don't worry, they don't stay tamed for long. In fact, the physical traits of Merida's hair serve as a visual representation of her character; beautiful, free-spirited, and at times, unmanageable. 

The writing does a fine job of establishing the bond between mother and daughter in the opening and the subsequent scenes that set up the initial confrontation; the two characters are a pair whose relationship has struggled to endure the test of time. Merida wishes to be her own person apart from her mother's expectations of her, but their attempts at  communication lead to hurt as they fail to bridge the gap and resolve their dispute. Queen Elinor is just as much a leading character as Merida. This is, after all, a movie about a mother/daughter relationship.

 The concept of "fate" is extensively highlighted in the narrative. Merida's decision to unleash a magical spell not only changes her fate, but it ultimately changes the fate of her loved ones as well. However, it is the value she places on her relationship with her mother that forces her meet to her mother's expectations as a strong woman who must take responsibility for her actions and present herself as a model for her kingdom. She already is a brave person, as evidenced early on during the well-known archery sequence in which Merida boldly breaks tradition by competing for the prize of choosing her own fate . Queen Elinor is not without her own journey, however. She grows alongside Merida by learning to accept her daughter's passion for adventure and embrace it. The movie plays out more as a family counseling video than a self-help tutorial. Does it over-reach? No. But it misses the point of its own lesson by ignoring the fact that this isn't about being who you are; it's about compromising for the sake of fellowship. 

So I have to ask, why change the title? Originally titled "The Bear and the Bow", "Brave" came across to me as a movie that illustrates the importance of preserving relationships more than it is about getting what you want by working hard or choosing your own path, and the previous title better reflects that.

"Brave" manages to integrate humor with heart very well by casting great supporting characters. Billy Connolly voices King Fergus, the loving but oblivious patriarch of the castle. He is joined in his role as comedic relief by Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, and Kevin KcKidd who voice the three lords of the kingdom whose sons "compete" for Merida's hand. Merida's triplet brothers are a fine addition to the action, serving mostly to humor than to provide any valuable dialogue, because they have none. They nary make a peep. That bothers me. But there are more important nits to pick.

 Take the witch, for instance. Many villains from Disney or Pixar films use magic as a means of accomplishing their goals. This witch, however, is neither a villain nor does she have any motive for helping Merida other than drumming up business for her struggling wood shop. Being the main source of magic that supports the whole plot, she's cute and quirky but hardly in this thing! She comes. She goes. That's it. I thought for sure the post-credits scene would mend the mistake of taking her character for granted. But alas, another lost opportunity.

The animation in "Brave" is top-notch, but what else would you expect from Pixar? I was mesmerized by everything- from the characters to the exquisite backdrops- so much that I allowed myself to disregard any of the film's shortcomings while seated and fully immersed in another one of Pixar's magical worlds. It's easy to look at this film like a kid in a candy store stocked floor-to-ceiling with vibrant displays. That is to say, any problems I had with the story are completely inconsequential to my overall enjoyment of the film. I highly recommend it. See it in theaters, 2D if you can, and join me in anticipation as we wait for its glorious release on Blu-Ray. It is so delightful; I can not wait to watch it over and over again. I am overcome with admiration for the writers who gave this story a beating heart and the artists who more than succeeded in their efforts to make this film a visual masterpiece.


George Taylor said...

Great review!

I wondered what an animator would think about the film and the story.

What about the scary parts? Did you think the movie was too violent compared to other Pixar films?

The fact that cars were tortured and killed in Cars 2 always bothered me. And really, was Brave any more frightening than the wolf attack in Beauty and the Beast or the forest scene in Snow White?

Amanda Williams said...

I had addressed the darker elements on twitter, so I figured that I could omit any reiteration in the review for the sake of brevity. Looking at it now, though, I realize it would have been best to add something concerning the climactic battles.

I tried not to compare it to other Pixar films, but with a history that spans over 20 years, Pixar has made such a name for itself that it really is hard not to compare. I believe 'Cars 2' could have been more tactful in the way they presented their spy thriller violence; the action goes overboard in several instances. Knowing that we're supposed to interpret these characters as stand-ins for humans, it makes the violence all the more intimidating for the younger audience. Though the action in 'Brave' does include humans, it didn't come across as scary as it does in many classic Disney films primarily because it is so brief. Being unfamiliar territory for Pixar, I can't say that I blame them for trying to magnify the emotional response people would get from watching it take place on screen. I saw it with a 4-year-old, an 8-year-old, and a 10-year-old, all of whom really enjoyed the movie, but the 4-year-old was somewhat disturbed by the last battle, which was expected. Robert Velarde of The Wisdom of Pixar had an interesting strand of tweets explaining his reasoning for taking his kids. You have to know what your child can handle. Each person reacts differently to different visual elements, and I think the parents should be able to make the call, rather than reprimand Pixar for being controversially daring in their storytelling.