Brave Part I: Art and Character

I don’t have time to write a full review of Brave, but I do want to comment on it. I’m a huge fan of Pixar, and Brave has a number of strong elements that vividly demonstrate those areas where Pixar’s films are truly superior. Unfortunately, the film also has some significant weaknesses, mostly in areas where Pixar’s films used to be truly superior. This makes it a great film to analyze, so here are some quick, unorganized thoughts, with deeper analysis to come next week. This post will contain heavy criticism and spoilers, so be warned.

In short, the story is pretty simple. The tomboyish daughter of a boorish king is constantly fighting with her prim and proper mother, ruling queen of the realm. As she kicks against this overbearing child-training from her admittedly loving parents, she destroys the trust that they have placed in her. Then she tries to solve this rift with a hastily-purchased witch’s spell, but this backfires when her mother is magicked into a bear. Her distraught father attempts to kill this bear, which he thinks killed his wife, and so mother and daughter flee into the woods. While hiding out together, they bond, and eventually everyone sees everyone else’s side, the spell is lifted, and everything goes back to normal.

Brave vs. How to Train Your Dragon
There are a lot of obvious similarities to the 2010 Dreamworks film How to Train Your Dragon, and if Brave hadn’t experienced so many delays during its seven(!) years of production development, they might even have gone head to head at the box office. It reminds me of the old days when Pixar and Dreamworks would compete with similarly themed films (Antz vs. Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo vs. Shark Tale, Monsters, Inc. vs. Monsters vs. Aliens, etc.), and the pop-culture, gag-based, teen-centered Dreamworks movies never could match the methodical, story-driven, family-centered craftsmanship of Pixar.

Things are different now, though. The Dreamworks Animation team have vastly improved their story departments and art direction, and while the tired Shrek and Madagascar franchises still rely on celebrity voices and raunchy jokes, How to Train Your Dragon featured an ex-Disney director (more on that later), great structure, good art, and lots of fun. Meanwhile, Pixar’s recent films have been slipping in many ways… so how do these two movies compare?

Dragon’s Scottish Vikings and Brave’s Scottish Scots share a lot of production design and musical inspiration and even a few voice actors. However, the Dreamworks characters are simpler, squarer, and have limited movement, not just individually, but collectively; all Dragon adults are wider than they are tall, and speak with heavy Scottish brogues, and differ only in their accessories. They are like Lego men. The kids are smaller, have whiny American teen voices, but also totally different face shapes, almost as if they are a different species. Since Dragon’s primary conflict becomes old vs. young, this distinction is subtle but powerful.

Brave’s Scots are all Scottish, with a huge variety of body types and face shapes, regardless of age. A lot more work has gone into making the different characters in the different clans distinctive, even if the story ends up not needing them all. Furthermore, the Pixar characters are very fluid and expressive. Stoic’s face is built to communicate stoicism and anger and determination, and it does these things well. Fergus’s face is built to communicate anything, and it is rigged for far greater subtly of motion and far more extreme emotion than any of the Dragon leads. At a glance, the simple shapes of the Dreamworks characters are more fun to look at, but over a ninety minute film, the Pixar characters are more engaging to watch.

The environments are also similar; big stretches of rugged north European wilderness, with dramatic snow-capped mountains, jagged cliffs, and dark forests. Dragon pushes this to the limit, with tiny Viking huts perched vertically on crazily tilted islands and natural rock arches rising out of a wild sea. Brave focuses on more realistic inland detail, with huge forests shrouded in mist and buried in moss and lichens (and a very cool new non-linear motion blur). Each film capitalizes on firelit halls of rustic hewn wood and heavily carved stone, but each has a different goal.

Dragon sets up these locations for sheer fun and adventure, and then takes the audiences on thrilling dragon rides through these sets at breakneck speeds. The sets are a backdrop for fiery aerial battles between Vikings and dragons, but the Brave locations surround the story and audience. They are more immersive and more evocative, but not as exciting. Princess Merida galloping up the airy mountain and down the rushy glen on her Clydesdale doesn’t have the same visual pizzaz of explosive dragon dogfights, but it does communicate more gravity.

In the same way, the Dragon score uses huge choirs and orchestral arrangements in addition to traditional Celtic instruments, and is not only more fun to listen to, but makes the movie feel bigger and more important than it really was. In Brave, Paddy Doyle’s Gaelic music is very accurate and very fitting (and very good), but slower and quieter, so it ends up feeling much smaller than the sound and mood that John Powell created for Dragon, and then is further undercut by some Disneyfied pop ballad montages that make the film seem much smaller and much less important.

Brave vs. Disney
So, is this Pixar’s first princess film, or Disney’s eleventh princess film? In my opinion, it’s just Disney’s thirteenth Pixar film, one of the last that began development before the Walt Disney corporation acquired Pixar in 2006. Since then, Pixar’s top men have been splitting their time between the two studios. Ed Catmull is now president of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, and John Lasseter is the CCO of both companies as well as Principal Creative Adviser at all the theme parks. Andrew Stanton, who served as the executive producer of Brave spent many of its development years directing the live-action Disney film John Carter of Mars.

Brave is the first of their films not to have any of the original Pixar alumni in a major creative leadership role, but it does have a lot of great Pixar artists involved, which is why some aspects of the film feel like pure Pixar, and others feel like generic modern Disney. Visually, it is stunning. The art direction is not only more internally consistent than Dragon, and more beautiful than Tangled, but it’s fresh and unique and interesting.

The story, on the other hand, is surprisingly old hat. Merida may be the first Disney heroine to be raised by two living parents, but her father is the same dopey dad we’ve seen in countless animated films. Her mom is a much more rounded character, but there’s still a lot of standard-issue evil-stepmother in her. Merida’s teen rebellion copies Little Mermaid, her outdoorsy nature-girl montages are cribbed from Pocahontas, her tomboyish hobbies echo Mulan, the inciting incident comes from Aladdin, and the twist is the plot of Brother Bear.

Director Mark Andrews tries to explain that this film is gutsy and groundbreaking: “We didn’t want to make a character that was questing for ‘happily ever after.’ That’s why at the beginning of the film we have all of those rules about ‘a princess is this and a princess is that’ and Merida breaks all of those rules. We’re saying to the audience, we’re breaking the rules. We are not Disney.”

Of course, there are only so many story elements that exist, so it’s inevitable that some comparisons to Beauty and the Beast or Tangled be made… but it feels like Pixar’s story department was trying harder to fit into the existing Disney® Princess™ Franchise© canon than create something new. It sure didn’t feel like they broke any rules. The only actually new thing about this princess is that she has no prince and no happy ending. Everything else has been done before.

Which is a real shame, since visually speaking, Merida does break the Disney princess mold, and her curly hair is a technical and artistic triumph for Pixar’s color and code artists, and she’s voiced by a real Scot instead of a valley girl starlet. In other ways though, she is shockingly unoriginal. Part of the problem is that she’s been pitched as a brand new feminist hero, Pixar’s first female lead, their first princess, something never before seen on screen, and above all, defined as brave. It’s a lot of hype to live up to.

For someone who is supposed to be a defined by fearlessly fighting against tradition, it’s awkward that she is the tired cliché in a fresh and interesting world. We’re supposed be believe that she’s being oppressed for cultivating masculine combat skills, but everyone in the kingdom is fine with this, except her mom. Audiences can’t possibly be surprised by such daring; the warrior princess has been the new norm for a while. Both of this year’s Snow White reboots and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland turned older Disney princesses into sword-swinging combatants like Mulan.

Unlike Merida, however, Mulan builds her actual fighting skills for the purpose of national defense .The stupidity of that movie’s plot and supporting characters aside, this is a practical, selfless thing. Merida shoots arrows, climbs rocks, and rides her horse purely for fun. She never demonstrates any useful application of these skills at all. She doesn’t hunt, gather food, or serve the needs of anyone (until she’s actually on the lam in the woods). These activities are just hobbies for her. Personal self-expression at best.

It’s no wonder that her mother thinks her time would be better spent preparing to be the ruling queen of the realm, and it’s really hard to disagree. Also, it is impossible for me to have any sympathy for a character who screams “It just isn’t fair” when presented with an opportunity to be a leader or save a kingdom. That’s not heroic or interesting.

But Merida is the main character, and rather than strengthen her integrity and arc to increase her importance, the writers have taken the easy way out and simply decreased the importance of the other characters and elements. She doesn’t even have a “save the cat” moment, but Merida becomes everything in this movie. She supplies all the conflict, the inciting incident, the B plot, the obstacles, and most of the resolution.

Because of this, we have secondary characters who contribute very little, and because of that we don’t know them very well. This means there are tons of unanswered question about this movie. Does the Dad want his daughter to get married or not? Who is the witch, and is she good or bad or crazy? What does Queen Elinor really want for the kingdom? It is very difficult to root for Merida’s specific tasks, because she dives into them before we (or she) can understand the consequences, and suddenly the rules change.

It is also hard to get behind her main goal, because we don’t know what she’s fighting against. Her desire line is so weak that we really need a clear antithesis to choose sides. It’s hard to wholeheartedly support someone who is fighting solely for herself. Sometimes, fighting for personal freedom is noble, but it has to be real freedom against real tyranny. There’s a lot of moral courage in saying “I will do what’s right, no matter what.” There isn’t any in saying “I will do whatever I want, no matter what.” When Merida stands up to her mother, she isn’t fighting for truth, or justice, or other people. She is fighting for her hobbies.

Brave vs. Pixar
There are still a lot of differences between this movie and a Disney movie. For example, Rapunzel’s dress was designed to be easily reproduced as a Halloween costume, and stays perfectly intact through the entire film; people in Brave have clothes that get torn and dirty, and they look like real silk and real wool. Tangled looks like a golden pink sugar high, where even the moonlight sparkles; Merida has to trudge through mist and gloom and thunderstorms, but there’s a lot more natural beauty on display.

In the same way that Ratatouille felt like a fairly generic follow-your-heart dish smothered in delicious Pixar sauce, this movie has some great Pixar trimmings on the stale premise. With every film, however, it seems like more Disney ingredients dilute the Pixar formula. For example, recent Disney films have all played with adult humor and worldliness that Pixar movies tend to avoid. In Tangled, the characters visit a leather bar and find that the hairy guys inside are all sensitive Broadway-singin’ pianists, interior decorators, and porcelain collectors.

It’s extremely disturbing how crude some of the jokes in Brave are, and even though none of the male Scots end up as lipstick-wearing mimes, there’s a level of coarseness and even nudity in this film that doesn’t line up with the tone of earlier films. Slashfilm published an interesting article called 15 Reasons ‘Brave’ Doesn’t Feel Like a Pixar Film, and they’re hard to argue with.

Some of Brave’s weaknesses, like Ratatouille’s, are probably caused by changing directors halfway through production. When John Lasseter fired Chris Sanders from American Dog, the project was completely rebuilt to become Bolt (and Sanders went on to direct How to Train Your Dragon). When Brenda Chapman was fired from Brave, Mark Andrews stepped in to finish it. There were significant changes, but it wasn’t rebuilt from scratch to accommodate the new direction.

This explains a number of setups that never pay off, and probably a number of payoffs that never get set up. For example, when Merida and her mother Elinor start their big shouting match in the beginning of Act 2, Elinor angrily throws Merida’s beloved bow into the fire. This bow is her most important possession, which she and her mother have already fought over in the film. Merida runs sobbing from the room, and Elinor, shocked, quickly pulls the bow out of the fire. Is it damaged? Is it ruined?

We spend a lot of time watching Elinor rescuing the bow and tearfully kneeling over it as she asks herself what she has done. It feels like a really important moment, and it would have been a great setup for Merida finding it later and beginning to change her attitude towards her mother, but no. This bow is never mentioned again. Merida has a bow later, and when she goes back to that room in Act 3 the bow is gone, but nothing is ever said about it. I guarantee that some point in Brave’s seven year history, this was addressed on someone’s storyboards, and it could have been a powerful scene.

But the deeper story issues can’t be blamed on a change of direction. They were obviously there from the start, and production clearly began before the script was really ready. To me, this feels like Pixar’s shortest and slowest film, and if you stack it up against their own 22 Rules of Storytelling, it doesn’t hold up well.

There are some neat story concepts that come up in references to the characters’ recent history; evil tyrants splitting the kingdom, invasions of Viking longboats and Roman legions, and epic battles that united the clans. Any of these events would have been a great addition to the plot, or even a superior replacement to the family feud between the brat and the bear, and it’s the first time that in the middle of a Pixar movie I found myself wishing the film had taken a different direction.

But in addition to the technical weaknesses in story, the there are some very strange inconstancies in the messages that the film teaches (and there a number of strange messages, as well). How does its worldview compare with recent Disney films, and what is Brave’s over-arching theme?

Check out Part II of this review here.

  1. Excited for Monday! I found this film very disappointing, and now I’m thankful for some ideas as to why. What do you think of this upcoming Wreck it Ralph?

  2. Just some short thoughts… …a 2672 word comment. :)

    I agree. And I haven’t seen the film yet.
    The trailer showed just about all the weak points. In fact I didn’t think of it as a pixar film until it said it was. The crud jokes and confusing story line just in the trailer were evident.
    Interesting I didn’t know that Disney bought Pixar.

    Looking forward to your Monday review.

    P.S. It’s nice to have you blogging again. Were have you been? Are you all working on another History project?

    - John-Mark
  3. Yeah, I didn’t have the time to write a short review.

    Wreck I Ralph is a clever premise. It’s also a smart marketing angle, because former arcade gamers are now parents (the Atari 2600 is coming up on its 35th anniversary), so it’s good multi-quadrant film. However, it looks like a relativistic “Bad guys aren’t really bad guys” kind of film that relies on annoying celebrity comediennes. Will be it be as engaging a world as Monsters, Inc? Doubtful, but if their genre-jumping is clever enough it should do well.

  4. Correction:
    “At 95 minutes, this is Pixar’s shortest…” movie since Monster’s Inc. at 93 min. And Toy Story was 77 min. And Toy Story 2 was 80 min. Granted, Finding Nemo is 100 min., The Incredibles at 116 min., Cars at 116 min., Ratatouille at 112 min., Toy Story 3 at 103 min., Cars 2 at 106 min. But Wall-E is just a few minutes longer at 98 min, and our beloved UP! is only a minute longer at 96 min. In fact the average length of a Pixar film is only 99 min.

    Ok, so maybe I’m out of bounds. This was a quick critique, and maybe I’m a little overboard on that line like it’s a little overboard on Brave’s duration. You (and Laremy Legel) are making the point that the movie felt longer than Pixar films normally do. (Monsters Inc. ironically felt longer than it’s 93 min., because it felt like more events had happened, a greater journey had been traversed.)

    However, the review you just posted, makes up for the duration aside above. I tip my hat in grave deference… if that makes up for my above skewering of the only blatant mistake in this review.

    Oh, btw, Brave ties with A Bug’s Life at…

  5. Whoops! Thanks for pointing that out, Matthew. I got those runtimes from a site that was clearly wrong and did not fact check (like me). In fact, IMDB lists Brave at 100 minutes, but I think that might be including the credits, since there’s a post-credits scene. I have fixed the error, but I stand by my feeling that it kinda dragged. And yes, I agree, Monsters feels like the fastest of their films, and I think more exposition and more scenes happen in that one.

  6. Loved the movie! It seems to me she learned her lesson!! I never thought once that she NEVER wanted to get married. She said she wasn’t ready for marriage. So, what you are saying is that young women have no say so, no brain, can’t make wise decisions and that the parents have to make them all for her.

    - Leah
    1. I agree that she learned not to turn people into bears (even though her brothers preferred it), and I wholeheartedly agree that she wasn’t ready to be married (even though I have no idea what age she was). However, I never said anything about marriage in this half of the review, so you’re making some pretty wild (and wrong) assumptions about my position. If you want to know what I think about the completely superfluous betrothal subplot of the film, you should read the second part of this review, over here.

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