I 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.
Merida 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.
Now 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?
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.”
The 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.’“