The further Pixar gets from animated toys, the less they seem to understand how to tell a compelling character drama. This is not altogether a unique issue for storytellers. Telling character stories about toys or animate cars or intelligent fish involves a certain degree of translation. The characters in these stories are analogues to humans but not actually human, so any confusing actions or situations are brushed off by the unfamiliar situation.
Generally speaking, this is the trend with the recent Pixar films. Specifically, though, Brave is a mess.
Oh, it’s charmingly bright, brilliantly rendered, and animated with aplomb, but beyond the technical and artistic achievements, the story is just too sloppy to appease me.
As usual for movies that disappoint me, there are some spoilers ahead.
Merida – who is the tip of the absurdly named iceberg – is a ‘princess’ of a Scottish Highlands kingdom in the sense that she is being offered as a prize to the heirs of the three clans to determine who will succeed the current ‘king’, Fergus.
Fergus is a beast of man who dwarfs his wife, Queen Elinor, by at least a factor of five. For some reason it is tradition to offer his daughter to the most worthy suitor as defined by a test of ability chosen by Merida. He seems generally okay with this at least as so far as it is expected of him, but he doesn’t appare to have any real devotion to the tradition as he will joke and complain about it later in the film.
Queen Elinor absolutely adheres to the tradition with a strictly defined position on how things should proceed, how her daughter should act, and the level of (to be honest, BRITISH-inspired) manners her family should exhibit. There is NO REAL PROOF that any Queen prior to her behaved in this manner. We are led to believe by the film that this is a unique aspect of Elinor’s personality and she is forcing it down on everyone else. Never in the film are any other female characters shown with Elinor’s decorum. She is an anomaly in a universe of rude, frequently moronic, warriors.
Well, except for Merida. She hates what her mother pushes on her, but has found ways to let loose and ease the tension. At least until the Queen tells her it’s time to marry… per tradition. From this point forward, everything between them is a fight. One which the Queen relents nothing while Merida persistently tries new way to explain her beliefs and desires to no avail. As a result, Merida does the classic family-movie regret move and tells her mother she hates her and runs away.
The movie then shows the Queen sad and in despair that she has lost her daughter. Except… well, the movie has made ALMOST no effort to generate affection for the Queen. There is a early scene in the movie where we see they used to be close when they were young, but all the adult scenes show the Queen being very strict with Merida, and almost (but not quite) as pedantic with Fergus, the King. The Queen’s relentless line is about tradition but there is little explanation as to how it got that way. There are threats that the other clans might start war if Merida isn’t married, but it’s not clear on how the King factors into that. Presumably Fergus was once a member of one of the clans, but he clearly lives separately from them now.
After the fight, Merida runs away and finds a few over the top characters that serve no clear purpose other than to provide the catalyst for continuing the plot. The characters appear in the scene they are needed in and then do not reappear again (except for a post-credits joke). And two of these three characters are purely joke characters with no role at all. The third character is the one who initiates the next plot complication but soaks up way too much screen time just for a few silly jokes.
Eventually, after much silliness, the complication is resolved and we all learn a valuable lesson: Merida was right and the Queen was wrong.
Oh, sure, there is some heavy handedness about the bonds between mother and daughter, but in the end, the Queen becomes more like Merida, and Merida… uh, loves her mother. Which she already did at the start of the movie. I suppose Merida learns a bit more about how important her role is to the rest of the clans, but she still uses that knowledge to dispense with the traditions that she disliked.
Meanwhile, there some ancient story reaching back to the founding of the kingdom is touched upon, but it was by far unnecessary. We are not ever given enough information about this kingdom to care about its fate beyond the main characters, so it is absurd that we would care about the fate of a long-ago prince.
Also, Merida has three brothers, who are triplets. They are used for jokes. They do not contribute meaningfully to the central message of love and family between mother and daughter. I do not know why they are there if they are only to be McGuffins during an escape scene.
Oh, right, the names. So, Merida is a city in South America. But, fine, we’ll accept dramatic license for naming in a Disney/PIXAR movie. But the three clans are named: Macintosh (an apple), MacGuffin (another word for a plot contrivance), and Dingwall. And guess which clan leader shows off his junk to the other leaders? Yeah. Dingwall.
I’m not sure where to place blame for my disappointment about this film. Is it because I expect more from Pixar? Is the because everyone has been making a huge deal out of the first female PIXAR protagonist? Maybe both of these things? But it’s clear that this movie did not live up to my expectations. It looks beautiful, sounds great, and is the standard bearer for computer animation. But all these things combined can’t fix a badly told story, and that’s what happened here.