“Brave” (2012) Review

There was a time when all you had to say was “It’s from Pixar” and it was enough to get just about anyone to race to the nearest cinema and view a film whose financial and critical success was practically inevitable. Since their feature-length debut with 1995’s Toy Story (although more so in the last decade), Pixar Animation Studios has become the arbiter of quality in animated feature films. Their movies have not only consistently made piles of money at the box office, but are virtually shoo-ins for Academy Award nominations. For a long time, it was as if they could do no wrong.

Then Cars 2 happened.

We don’t talk about the darker days…

Yes, Cars 2 did very well at the box office and proved the franchise was lucrative enough to open up “Cars Land” in Disneyland last month, but the film is such a deviation from Pixar’s usual caliber of cinematic quality, it’s generally looked down on by both fans and critics and has the unique distinction of being the first and (so far) only Pixar movie not to receive a single Oscar nomination. I get it, you can’t judge the quality of a film or filmmaker solely on what critics think and you especially can’t use Academy Award nominations as a gauge or else nobody would watch more than a handful of movies each year, but this is Pixar we’re talking about. Maybe I’m holding them to too high of a standard, but they’ve certainly and by and large consistently proven that they’re worthy of such a standard. It’s like having a personal chef who serves you all this amazing, sophisticated cuisine every single day and then one night, he serves you a Whopper with fries. Sure the food may be okay, but you’re still going to look at him and go “Really?”

There had better be caviar on this thing!

It’s tempting to view Brave as Pixar’s attempt at a comeback. Their quality is no longer as easily taken for granted and they now have something to prove. However, as the studio’s triumphant return, Brave unfortunately falls a bit short. It’s just not on par with most of Pixar’s other work. That being said, it’s a very, very good film. It’s highly enjoyable with a satisfying balance of humour, drama, and action. The characters are very likable and you certainly have an emotional investment in them. As usual, the cast is star-studded and spot-on featuring almost impeccable performances by the often-underrated greats Billy Connolly and Julie Walters. It’s also a very well-made film. One thing that’s constantly improving with Pixar in spite of film reception is the quality of their animation. The movie looks just amazing and you don’t need 3D glasses to fully appreciate this. While Brave may not assure us that Pixar is back in full force, it at least lets us know it’s on the mend.

The plot borrows from the standard princess story template: a young princess (in this case, a member of Scottish royalty named Merida, played by Kelly Macdonald) is all set to marry some royal suitor that she hates and through a series of events, she manages to take control of the situation. The film’s a classic battle between tradition and autonomy and where the theme of bravery comes in (hence the film’s title) is being brave enough to recognize that we determine our own destinies. Despite being the glue intended to hold the movie together, the presentation of this theme introduces some major flaws in Brave and ultimately holds it back from being truly great.

Admit it, this is all you were thinking about for the last two sentences.

Brave follows the trials and tribulations of Merida, who in spite of her mother Elinor’s (Emma Thompson) wishes, refuses to marry a suitor and demands to choose her own path in life. Merida stubbornly casts a spell on Elinor in order to get her off her back and ends up turning the poor woman into a bear. Yeah, you read that right. A bear. Naturally, rest of the film is devoted to Merida and Elinor learning to put aside their differences and restore balance to the kingdom, etc. That’s all well and good, but Merida’s story has virtually nothing to do with the type of bravery described by the film. It’s stated numerous times that bravery is being able to take control over your own fate, but this is something Merida’s been more than capable of since the beginning of the film. In fact, the whole awkward turning-her-mom-into-a-bear thing is the direct result of her being so desperate to have some kind of say in her own destiny. So what changes does Merida really go through over the course of the movie? Sure, she gains more of an appreciation for what she has (I probably would too if my parents turned into bears), but at no point did it feel like her bravery was being tested or pushed to the limit. She had that bravery all along and she knew it too. And of course Merida never really has to reassess her desire to choose her own path either because a film that tells impressionable girls to obey orders at all times and learn to love those with whom they are forced to be with doesn’t exactly send the best message and I doubt Disney would give it the go ahead.

More than once.

I feel like Elinor is the real main character of Brave. She’s the one who goes through all the changes. It’s her line of thinking and attitude that is challenged the most and she’s the one who ultimately puts it all on the line during the film’s climax. As a result, it is she who truly discovers the meaning of bravery. Yes, Merida learns lessons too, but they’re not nearly as significant nor remotely in keeping with the themes of the film. Yet the film focuses on her, which turns out to be its biggest flaw. I almost got the sense that the filmmakers were aware of this too since any references to Merida’s development as a character feel very much like an afterthought. The most notable of these references is the final scene of the film where Merida marvels at Elinor’s changes and Elinor turns around and basically says “Don’t forget, you changed too” as if the audience forgot she was the main character. The whole thing felt like one of those old Shake ‘N Bake commercials where the mother does all the legwork preparing a dinner, but the little kid steals the thunder by running in at the last minute declaring, “And I helped!”

Overall, Brave is well done. It’s everything you could want from a Pixar movie. It’s just not everything you’ve come to expect from them. All the elements for a great movie are definitely there, but they’re just not presented in the most effective way. As a result, the development of the main character is largely inconsistent with the film’s themes and messages, giving the general feeling that the focus of the film is off. Regardless, it’s enjoyable, satisfying, and worth-seeing.

I give it 3.5/5.

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