Brave from Pixar – How Good is Good Enough?

Pixar_Brave_1I saw Brave this weekend along with a surging box office crowd.  It’s Pixar after all and their first film with a female protagonist in the studio’s 17 year history.

Settling down in the theater seat I saw what seemed like a dozen trailers for upcoming animated films. There is a lot of competition out there!

All of the visuals for the coming attractions looked great, and so does Brave.  Every review of Brave (even the bad ones) wax poetic about  the lush scenery, the gorgeous colors, the spectacular hair, the realistic fur, and the impressive claws!

Folks, I’m here to tell you– The technology war is OVER. How much more realistic can you make rippling water, wind-whipped tresses, galloping horses, and  sleek bear pelts?  Great visuals are now the norm. Every animated studio film has them and the incremental improvements, unless they are game-changing, don’t add up to very much in my book. Are technological advances in fur, hair, and water really the reason why we go to movies? Is it to watch a fabulous moving painting?

We go to movies for the same reason people sat around the castle hearth in 10th century Scotland– for a great story filled with memorable characters! Brave, set in that very time and place, repeats over and over “Legends are lessons.” That is true of the best stories. They tell us what it is to be human in all our fragility and strength, blindness and insight, and selfishness and transcendence.

What story exactly is Brave telling? What is the lesson in this legend? The film’s very muddled narrative adds up to a lack of complexity and not enough heart. If the film’s visuals were on a par with the story we’d be watching stick figures.

I knew Brave was in trouble from the first few words spoken in voice over as the film began. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) uses the words “fate” and “destiny” interchangeably.  This muddle-headedness is at the heart of the film’s problem.

What’s the difference between fate and destiny? Philosophers through the ages have distinguished the two based on choice. Fate is something that happens TO you. Destiny is something that happens BECAUSE of you.

Fate is at the root of such words as “fatal” and “fatalistic.” It implies LACK of choice. Philosopher Rollo May says fate is what we are born into, something that cannot be changed and that we have no control over, such as race.

May says destiny is what we create based on what we were given. Destiny is all about CHOICE. It’s what we choose to do with what we have.

imagesMerida is born a princess. She can’t change that. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), is grooming Merida for a role as future queen. After a long series of wars King Fergus (Billy Connolly) has united the four clans. Merida’s duty is to help keep the clans unified though a judicious marriage.

Merida is a wild rebellious child with special talent as a rider and archer. The demonstrations of her skills are absolutely breath-taking.  She is unique and extraordinary and initially looks very much like a Power of Idealism character.

These kinds of characters are driven by their passion. They abhor what they consider to be a mundane, boring, or mediocre life. They want to seize some grand destiny that is uniquely theirs.

The film starts out like a Power of Idealism Coming of Age story. The deeper human questions at the heart of these stories are: How can I be true to myself and find my rightful place in the world? What is my own special destiny?

Well drawn female protagonists in this vein are:

Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in Whale Rider. This film, for those who haven’t seen it is described on IMDB as “A contemporary story of (family) love, rejection and triumph as a young Maori girl fights to fulfill a destiny her grandfather refuses to recognize.”

Jess Kaur Bhamra (Parminder Nagra) in Bend it Like Beckham is another example. IMDB states the film’s log line as “The (talented) daughter of an orthodox Sikh rebels against her parents’ traditionalism by running off to Germany to play with a girl’s football team (soccer in America).”

Unlike Paikea or Jess, Merida doesn’t fight for what she believes is HER destiny. Merida, instead, decides to change her mother!  Perhaps this is because Merida has no clue about what she is really called to do.

tdy-120613-brave.380Now the story gets even muddier. With the help of an old witch’s spell Merida does indeed change her mother — into a bear.

Instead of figuring out who she is and what she uniquely is called to do, Merida must again deal with who her mother is. In the struggle over the middle part of Brave, Queen Elinor becomes the protagonist.

The definition of a protagonist, in my book, is the person who makes the biggest emotional sacrifice in the story. It is the person who undergoes the most profound transformation. This is clearly Elinor on every front.

Queen Elinor is a Power of Conscience character. She is a strict and demanding taskmaster, a perfectionist, and is driven by a strong sense of tradition and duty. Over the course of the story she recognizes her daughter’s uniqueness and fully appreciates Merida for who she is.

The first important glimpse of Elinor’s change of heart is the brawl in the great hall after Merida has disappeared.  When Merida strides back into the hall it is Elinor who puts words in Merida’s mouth. Elinor speaks through her surrogate about going against tradition and marrying for love. It is Elinor who makes an eloquent plea for choice and following one’s heart. Merida is just her passive interpreter. At the end of the film Elinor is willing to sacrifice her own life in a battle with the ancient cursed bear, who one would assume, was the monster who took off her husband’s leg. Or not? Who knows?

Even more confusingly this monster turns out to be the legendary brother, it would seem, who destroyed the ancient kingdom so long ago because of his pride and selfishness.  How did he turn into a bear? Was it mother love or something else that breaks his curse?

When a legend and curse is set up so carefully it should have a pay-off having to do with Merida or her destiny– if the film is really about Merida.

And what does Merida do that is so brave?  She scurries around looking for the witch’s house after her mother turns into a bear.  She stitches up (with big clumsy childish stitches) the tapestry she slashed separating her from her mother.  She does a lot of running away and running around. She is ineffective in battling the monstrous cursed bear. And she collapses in tears remembering her mother’s loving kindness as the second sunrise threatens to make her mother’s bear curse permanent. In other words, she acts like a child– or worse a girl.

At the end of the film, Elinor has changed but not Merida.  Merida is the same galloping wild child as she was in the beginning.  This refusal to accept restrictions, grow up, or take responsibility is Power of Excitement territory. It is a sinking back into childhood rather than striding toward an adulthood based both on duty and and an individualistic sense of self. If you are a young woman, what is the lesson here?

Brave offers no alternative vision of how Merida might help unify the clan in some way that is uniquely hers. It provides a very unsatisfying resolution. How has Merida changed or grown? What happens when King Fergus and Queen Elinor are too old to rule? What is Merida’s role going forward?

MANOHLA DARGIS NY TIMES–  discouragingly uninspired script by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi. (Ms. Chapman, the first woman hired to direct a Pixar feature, either left or was removed from “Brave” and now shares directing credit with Mr. Andrews.)
The association of Merida with the natural world accounts for some of the movie’s most beautifully animated sequences, and in other, smarter or maybe just braver, hands it might have also inspired new thinking about women, men, nature and culture. Here, however, the nature-culture divide is drawn along traditional gender

There is so much missed opportunity in Brave.  Manohla Dargis writing in The New York Times laments:  “The association of Merida with the natural world accounts for some of the movie’s most beautifully animated sequences, and in other, smarter or maybe just braver, hands it might have also inspired new thinking about women, men, nature and culture.”

BraveThe story thuds along on the surface. None of the characters in Brave is particularly complex or have much emotional depth. Although Elinor and King Fergus are a love match now, theirs was an arranged marriage. Did either ever love another? How does either feel about the fact neither might have chosen the other if it was up to choice? How did they eventually find love together? That is rich emotional territory that never factors into the story– or in Elinor’s advice or lessons to Merida. It seems incredible that a loving mother wouldn’t speak of her own experience on the eve of arranged betrothal, especially if it was a struggle that ultimately lead to happiness.

King Fergus himself, is a simple lovable loud-mouth lout. He is the very broadest brush-stroke Power of Will character. He’s a big, larger than life presence. He is a man of lusty appetite– for food, wine, and brawling.

Merida’s three suitors are a joke. None of them is remotely appealing.  This is a huge mistake and gives Merida no pause for thought nor any temptation to chose a different path.  It removes essential inner conflict for her. All the conflict in the story is the simplest external conflict. No one has self-doubts. No one struggles within themselves.

How did the film go so wrong, except for the visuals?  Joe Morgenstern writing in The Wall Street Journal reports: “Brave was a notoriously troubled production, with a change of directors that clearly led to a change of narrative direction. (The complexity of the final credits reflects the tortuous history: directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman and co-directed by Steve Purcell, from a script written by Messrs. Andrews and Purcell, Ms. Chapman and Irene Mecchi.)

Colin Covert writing for The Minneapolis Star Tribune pretty much sums it up: “The standout characters, exciting set pieces and memorable songs that we’ve come to expect are absent. The truest advertising tagline would be, “From the studio that brought you ‘Cars 2.’

16 Comments

  1. Reply Farnoush Tooma 2nd July 2012

    I must say, this was the best analysis of why this movie went all wrong! I took my four year old daughter to see this and we were both so excited. First of all, too scary for children, but it was also scary for me because of the reasons mentioned above. I did not realize why I absolutely did not like this movie, but thanks to Laurie, now I understand!

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 21st August 2012

      Thanks Farnoush!

  2. Reply Laurie Stoner 2nd July 2012

    How unfortunate to waste what could have been a great female protagonist. The Pixar story rule #2 ironically states: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
    I can certainly identify with their intent. I long to turn one of my favorite fairy tales, which also has a bear under a spell in it, into a modern retelling but I can’t get to the core of what fascinated me as a child so until then, it will remain a “maybe some day” script.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 2nd July 2012

      Thanks for writing Laurie– I agree it is a terrible waste of a potentially strong spunky young woman!

  3. Reply George Thomas Jr. 8th July 2012

    Having not yet seen “Cars 2,” I was thoroughly disappointed by “Brave.” After reading Jonah Lehrer’s “Imagine,” in which he details the passionate effort within Pixar to salvage “Toy Story 2,” it is astonishing Pixar wasted so many valuable resources on the ensuing disaster that evolved into “Brave.” With so many smart, passionate employees at Pixar it is hard to believe they all jumped on the bandwagon of sub-par filmmaking. Your analysis is spot on, and I hope everyone at Pixar, Disney, and any other production company reads it.

  4. Reply Dorcas Utkovic 11th July 2012

    Hi Laurie,

    I really enjoy your insight and expertise as a student of writing and an aspiring scriptwriter.

    We (my 3 yr old son, a friend and I) snuck into Brave after he got too scared during Spiderman movie 🙂
    I must say that the prospect of watching a female protagonist (especially a young girl) was incredibly fascinating. I wondered why I was not moved as much as I hoped!!

    You make it so clear in your review. All the missed opportunities! Emotional conflicts: When Merida’s suitors got introduced, I wanted one of them to be that huge hunk who I think ended up ‘dancing’ with the nurse. I agree with you here “Merida’s three suitors are a joke. None of them is remotely appealing. This is a huge mistake and gives Merida no pause for thought nor any temptation to chose a different path”.

    And how wonderful would it have been had Elinor shared her ‘arranged marriage’ experience (as you mentioned) and how she eventually fell in love with Fergus (if she ever did) and possibly plant a seed of doubt into Merida’s rebellious head…

    What a great outlook and one of your many that I’ll remember in my writing.

    Regards
    D.

  5. Reply Robert 3rd September 2012

    Part of the problem with this film is that I just don`t think we`ve seen all of it yet.
    In thinking about the plot, It occured to me that the witches ryme actually has two meanings as in the story there are TWO bonds broken and if you apply the ryme to the bond the lost prince broke you seem to get a clear hint that the demon bear has to die in order for the spell on Merida`s mother to be broken.
    Now, in viewing the film again afterwards I started noticing that visually the film seemed to be hinting at something thats not referred to at all in the dialogue.
    Backtracking, it looks to me that there is a key element in the `Lost Kingdom` story thats missing.
    All we get now is , the king split the kingdom between his four sons, the eldest objected and the kindom fell.
    I think that there is a lot more to this tht`s been removed.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 7th September 2012

      Thanks Robert– I think you are absolutely right! The movie had a troubled past and a director was fired. I think the movie doesn’t have a consistent vision and there are lots of “hanging chads.”

  6. Reply Angelo 6th September 2012

    Even more confusingly this monster turns out to be the legendary brother, it would seem, who destroyed the ancient kingdom so long ago because of his pride and selfishness. How did he turn into a bear? Was it mother love or something else that breaks his curse?

    About this, the first time Meridia finds the witch, she tells her that she once granted a man the wish to be as strong as ten men, and you can see that he paid her with a medallion with two hammers crossing. When Merida and her mother are following the will-o’-the-whisps you can see them reaching a castle with the same symbol, and she finds a slate with a bas-relief shattered, mirroring the tapestry she slashed.
    So basically he was that man, and he couldn’t fix his curse, so he turned into that bear.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 7th September 2012

      Thanks for that insight. These clues, however, are a bit obscure for a general audience. And I am still uncertain what exactly breaks the curse. Great comment though!

      • Reply Courtney 14th October 2012

        Actually, I don’t think that those clues are obscure for the general audience at all. No one I spoke to had any issues comprehending that part of the story. Perhaps you should pay better attention before writing a review?

        On another note, I find your comment saying “in other words, she acts like a child– or worse a girl.” extremely offensive. First of all this implies that there is something innately wrong with being a girl, which there is not. Second of all, the majority of her behaviour is stereotypically (by traditional gender norms) unfeminine. What is it that she does that marks her behaviour as girl-like, and worse than what you would expect of a boy? Do boys not run around wildly, sometimes away from things they do not like? Are boys not allowed to cry and show emotion and remorse if they potentially ruined someone’s life, especially if that person is dear to them? And as for your comment about her ineffectiveness against the great bear, I will remind you that none of the male characters were effective either and that it was Elinor that defeated him.

        Oh, and since you obviously didn’t understand this part of the movie either, what she did that was so brave was stand up for herself and rebuke tradition and fight for the right to choose her own path in life, which would be otherwise be denied her because she is a woman. In doing so she is defying strict gender norms and all of society, and if that doesn’t take any courage or bravery, I don’t know what does.

        • Laurie Hutzler 27th December 2012

          Hi Courtney– Thanks for your comments. Meridia comes across as childish. She has no vision of how she can contribute to ruling the kingdom in a way that is feminine. She is wild and rebellious in the beginning and remains wild at the end. She doesn’t undergo any profound personal change. She make no great sacrifice. Her mother does both. Structurally, that makes her mother the protagonist. It’s possible to love a story even it doesn’t work or is flawed filmmaking. I’m glad the film touched you.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 27th December 2012

      Hi Angelo– I’m still confused about what breaks his curse and kills him. That whole bit is rather muddy in my eyes. Laurie

  7. Reply Jamie 26th November 2012

    This analysis only favors one of the major characters, making it a lopsided point of view.

    The reason why I say this is Elinor has this change of heart after two events happen. 1. She actually spends time with her daughter to see her strengths. Elinor CANNOT survive outside of the castle- her daughter shows her how. 2. Meridia STARTS the speech BY HERSELF. Everything that Elinor has taught her daughter Meridia is able to hold her own. ELINOR IS MOVED! Meridia shows that she is a well-rounded young lady in her own right. (The speech as two speakers 1st Meridia, 2nd Elinor) Meridia ADMITS TO HER OWN SELFISHNESS in front of the clans and her mother. She does it so well that the clans are now her audience and are NOW willing to accomodate. The only problem, Meridia is not Elinor. Elinor must MAKE her own decision to break tradition- Meridia has done this already. (Yes, Meridia is looking for cues from her mother- she now acknowledges her mother as a leader- not just her strict mother. I like to also add, that Meridia is a little surprised at Elinor’s part of the speech. Meridia was just about to side with tradition after spending the day with her mother. Elinor maybe a bear at this point but she is VERY vunerable.) Because of this resending, the truth comes out from the suitors as well- they weren’t all that interested in going through with this arrangement either. (The young men, themselves, had reactions of shyness, confusion, and disinterest. After all, they don’t know the girl they almost got married off to.)
    I believe it took both of them to fix everything.
    About the curse, the script was a little hazy, which looked like it brought some irritation to some audience members. This witch, seems to be connected with Ancient Ruins Meridia stumbles across after her blowout with her mother at the tournament. Also, Meridia and Elinor end up within the Ruins after Meridia ‘breaks’ the witch’s cauldron. So, this old woman has to be connected to this place. This is the same witch who helped the legendary brother tip the scales to his favor. Like Meridia, he wasn’t specific about HOW he should have the strength of ten men- he, like Meridia, pretty much left that up to the ancient woman who proceeded with the spell. This cost him his humanity, his life, and that which he ruled over long ago. If you watch when the spirit leaves the body, he bows to Meridia for having set the wheels in motion to set, at least, his spirit free. This all occurs after the last fight that happens within the Ancient Ruins. All the items and the players are set within the Ruins. The Legendary brother’s bear body, Elinor, Meridia and a obviously mended tapestry (the rest of her family is there too). Also, Meridia has to admit her wrong doing- she try to cheat. To have power over the powers that be. It’s that old saying- ‘be careful what you wish for’ sort of thing. Meridia has to admit what she’s done. That’s what broke the spell. There are a lot of stories out there that have spells that run like this, a good chunk of them don’t have a time limit in order to undo them. Once the spell is casted, that’s it. It’s already permanent even before you knock on the witch’s door! (A great example is the movie Eve’s Bayou- now that’s permanent!)
    I have to admit Meridia is a developing character, not a tradition protagonist from start to finish. After all Meridia maybe a princess, but she is still very young and she needs get her own bearings or her own mind and what it means to be a princess. Elinor is more defined as such. But look what the message is- they now have respect for one another. Meridia hopefully as learned humility and this lesson will guide her to be a good ruler not just of others but of oneself. And Elinor must see that as queen, she doesn’t have to enforce every rule, she must play it by ear sometimes, and that maybe the individual’s voice needs to be heard over the voices of tradition.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 27th December 2012

      Thanks for your comment Jamie. In my view the protagonist is the person who makes the biggest emotional sacrifice and changes the most or changes others the most. By that definition Elinor is the protagonist although Meridia has the most screen time.

  8. Reply Jasmina Wesolowski 24th January 2014

    I absolutely agree. Technology war doesn’t matter anymore. Especially in a Pixar-movie. Anything else than the best of the best would be unacceptable, wouldn’t it? The ode to great animation is aimed at muddled stories. I personally didn’t like Elinors character design. I found it pretty boring.

    Perhaps it’s a little advantage, I didn’t see the movie again – let’s see what’s stuck in my head.
    What’s the story? I guess it was a movie about a mother who pretends being someone else. She arranges and controls everything, feels responsible because husband, folk and confederates are chaotic, careless and childish. She forces her daughter to do the same (to take over for her someday). She demands of her to mask her true self: being a daughter who’s like what mother doesn’t want to show about herself (that’s what annoys us most, right?). The mother learns that being true to herself doesn’t change anything or makes her a less respected queen plus she learns that her daughter shouldn’t be forced to marry a man. She acutally gets along quite well. Therefore Elinor doubts her lifestyle a lot. Merida on the contrary is always sure about the way she chose being the right one. Merida wants to change her mother, because she knows what mother wants of her is rubbish – that makes her mother the more interesing protagonist – wait, the movie was called Merida, wasn’t it? Besides, there’s only one word for fate and destiny in the german language. Interesting.
    I don’t quite remember what the whole bear legend was about, but I think that the uprise of the legendary beast and Merida trying to fight it was the proof of Meridas’ manly skills are useful (I remember her saving/helping her mother with her “hard skills” a few times before the attack – something that worked out actually). It wouldn’t have helped if she was better at knitting or beautifully dressed. She takes responsibility for the crown (even if behind that stands wanting to save their lifes) and feels like she belongs to the family (she doesn’t think she belongs in the beginning). She does something that makes her parents proud.
    Another point is Merida following the ghost lights to meet the witch (which not every child would do). She tries to fight the cursed bear, protects her mother from her father who wants to kill her, not giving herself up on the tradition and her mother in the beginning – I think all in all she’s brave indeed. I also think that the bravery refers to Elinor, who’s brave enough to change her whole life.
    I’ve also been disappointed about Merida not meeting a man, too. Perhaps someone who’s an enemy of the clan. You expect that, seeing a character who just doesn’t care about being female, that would give a big struggle.

    In my opinion it’s sad that after the truly magnificent “Up” (implying the greatest animated intro ever in my opinion (I started to cry after a few minutes)) there were no remarkable, emotionally appealing Pixar projects released.

    Best wishes,

    Jasmina

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