Brave Review: Pixar Officially Wimps Out
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Brave Review: Pixar Officially Wimps Out

By Agent Bedhead | Film Reviews | June 22, 2012 | Comments ()


Brave is a pretty good movie. In fact, for a Dreamworks or Sony movie, it's outstanding. However, relative to the Pixar brand, Brave is merely OK, the second worst Pixar effort after last summer's Cars 2. The irony is that Pixar justified Cars 2 (with all of its unending merchandise opportunities) by saying that it would afford them the opportunity to make more of its usual greatness. With Brave, however, it appears the studio might have lost its magic touch.

Pixar has long since claimed the unmatchable ability to blend technical prowess with storytelling and end up with a product superior to any other in its medium. Until last summer, the studio consistently managed to offer up a commercialized product that not only pleased crowds but delved into deep themes within its family-friendly subject matter. With the studio's assumed return to superiority in both subject matter and quality, however, Brave falters. It's a film that you'd expect from Disney but not Pixar. It's yet another princess story, and while this one presumably contains a twist, it's not an innovative one. That's the main problem -- Brave lacks the Pixar brand of innovation, choosing instead to explore old, well-worn tropes, which almost defeats the purpose of being the first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist.

Here's the lowdown: Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is an atypical (and Scottish) princess who craves adventure and doesn't deign to do the stereotypical girly things expected of princesses. She doesn't want to be in an arranged marriage or, for that matter, in any marriage at all. She rejects the notion of blindly accepting her life as a "working royal," and her parents, Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Elinor (Emma Thompson), are beside themselves that with thought that their daughter won't surrender to the rules of tradition. Worst of all in their eyes, Merida refuses to marry any of the dudes at her disposal -- the sons of Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) -- and who could blame her? They're idiots with a single defining characteristic, much like the high school boys in Twilight, whose annoying qualities served to make the audience appreciate just what a swooner dreamboat Edward Cullen was by comparison. Thankfully, Pixar spares us a sparkly vamp (it hasn't yet fallen that far) and shows us instead what Merida would rather do: Ride horses and shoot arrows.

The obvious advantage with Merida not "needing" a man to complete herself is that her story isn't reduced to the inevitable Prince Charming nonsense. Instead, Merida's tale centers around her relationship with her Mom. There's a lot of potential in the premise, but it comes at the expense of character development. When Merida decides that she'll not settle for the dreary royal life that is her destiny (and really, it's strange that she never knew about the arranged marriage aspect until the eve before her planned wedding), she impulsively takes off into the woods and falls into a series of lazy fairy tale clichés. More fatally, Merida inexplicably places a great deal of trust in The Witch (Julie Walters), who gives Merida a spell to "change her fate" by way of changing her mother's essence. As any audience can predict, the spell does unexpected things that must be fixed; I won't reveal what actually happens to Merida's mother (other than to hint at some sort of transformation), except to say that it's beneath Pixar, too slapstick to permit character growth or allow for heart-tugging pathos.

Despite its unfortunate predicability, Brave is a relatively dark movie, and very small children might be more afraid at certain moments, especially the opening scene where Merida's father loses a leg to a black bear. Simultaneously, the movie overall skews very young in comparison to the studio's other movies. Perhaps that accounts for Pixar playing it so conventional in terms of story, but it feels like the filmmakers were afraid to go somewhere with Merida beyond making her willful and stubborn. It's a shame that the studio had to play it so safe with its first female protagonist, but ultimately, Brave holds its cards too close to its chest to produce anything special or unexpected.

Don't get me wrong; it's not a bad movie. In terms of enjoyment, Brave is nearly on par with How to Train Your Dragon as far as adventure is concerned. Sadly, even as Merida overcomes adversity and resists her fate, she doesn't learn much in the process. In typical Pixar fashion, Brave is a gorgeously rendered picture, but Merida's hair reflects her defiant personality more than anything she actually does in the story. As far as the cast goes, the voice work is also tops, especially from the Scottish Kelly McDonald, who's already proven in the past that she's diverse enough to master a drawling Texas accent in No Country for Old Men. Here, the natural brogue shines, and Thompson and Connelly are likewise easy on the ears. Overall, Brave is an above-average viewing experience, but it's not up to Pixar snuff.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • SecurityFrog

    I do say I have to disagree with the review of the movie. Brave is my favorite movie EVER, and while being young, I can spot a crap movie just as quick as my parents. My mom loved it, and she cried through most of it. Even my brother loves it, and he's quick to diss what he calls "chick flicks". I do have to say though: I am thirteen and my brother is ten, and we've both seen some pretty adult films. Though I personally had no problem with the "scary bits", even my brother, who I exposed to a couple of frightening films, still thought that some of the intense bear fighting scenes were scary. Brave is NOT a movie for kids under ten, despite its' marketing to younger children. Despite this, I loved this movie and I loved the ginger Merida (I am ginger, too.) You should see it.

  • Salieri2

    I saw Brave today and quite liked it despite its flaws. It's no UP or Finding Nemo, but it has more going for it than just the software suite developed for Merida's hair.

    Things that made me happy:
    It passes the Bechdel Test.

    Merida's archery was not fetishized or a major part of the plot resolution but simply indicative of her personality.

    Big Hot Mute Brother gettin' it on with Maudie at the end.

    Merida's mom wields at least half of the power in the royal couple, more than half depending on the circumstances.

    Despite the general buffoonery of the king, her parents have a solid, adult relationship. Mom does most of the day-to-day heavy lifting but Dad supports her. Nice to see.

    The gorgeous, gorgeous art.

    The boys, confronted with bear, following orders to tidy up the appalling mess they made of their room.

    The terrifying increase in bearishness. You know the one.

    Emotional range in facial responses, but Pixar had better have that nailed down by now. Still awesome.

    Things that hacked me off:
    The pop songs. Gah.

    Silverware made out of twigs and the majority of the scene surrounding it. Ugh.

    Rock-climbing in a dress. Please. You did so well with splitting the seams to draw a bow, give us some credit re: millinery physics.

    Tremendously unlikely level of ignorant brattiness.

  • Claus

    My nine-year-old daughter was terrified by the bear sequences (she had to hide her face at least three times) and was still shaking 20 minutes after leaving the theater. My four-year-old dealt with it somewhat better but neither of them liked it.

    Personally, I wonder whether we're starting to see the movies come down the pipe that have been conceived and developed completely under the Disney banner; between the Cars 2 cash-grab and the mismarketing of Brave, Pixar has been uncharacteristically disappointing lately.

  • jcamp11

    The bar is SUPER high for Pixar, right? After reading this review, I was totally prepared to be utterly disappointed by this movie. I took my 6-year-old boy and girl twins to see it Saturday afternoon. I loved it. They loved it. Was it on par with some of Pixar's very finest? Nope--those are special films. But I thought the animation was beautiful, the vocal work was fantastic and the score, lovely. The dark bits were super dark--but many of the childhood films I watched were as well (Secret of Nimh, anyone?). Compared to the usual kids fare, Brave was fantastic. Compared to what we've come to expect from Pixar, Brave was quite good. I think what made this biggest difference for me was that I recognized that the story wasn't really about Merida--a special, talented and headstrong girl--and her adventure. It was a relationship movie about Merida and Eleanor--the nature of their struggle, the importance of making amends when relationships get damaged by selfishness and pride. I'll give you this, though: the marketing for the film sets the expectation for a movie about a very special kind of heroine. Instead, it delivers a really sort of average (and by average, I mean universal) conflict between an adolescent daughter and her mother.

  • casineraindc

    I like to call this moving 'Mother Bear'... is that giving too much away?

  • duckandcover

    Knowing about the spell now makes sense when you think about the trailer again. Huh.

  • BobbFrapples

    Brave was good. A little rushed, (Merida didn't feel like a developed character, just a wild child with a temper) but good. It managed to make me laugh and cry, and impress me with the beauty of the digital medium. (Pixar is ruler on high when it comes to textures!) I highly suspect that there will be a sequel in the next five years. Here's hoping it's a Toy Story 2 and not a Cars 2.

  • Just got back, thought it was very good. Definitely in the upper tier of the Pixar movies. The animation was stunning and while the story was simpler than I thought it would be, I was still very satisfied.

  • Jen

    The thing that annoyed me the most about this movie? That no one seemed to care about what happened to the three little brothers. Like.....HELLO! That's a much bigger problem you've got there.

  • space_oddity

    I saw the movie today with my (4yr old) kids and that was their main question when it ended. "But what about the brothers??"

    If a 4 year old (who has AMAZING powers of suspension of disbelief) is pointing out plot holes, you have problems.

    I'll add, though, that they loved it, and I enjoyed it. It's not bad. It's just not mindblowing.

  • Same tart, same way to break the spell. Boys changed back when Eleanor did.

  • pajiba

    My almost five year old was in total agreement with AB. To quote him on the drive, "You costed your money on a bad movie." And because he doesn't really understand the nature of my job, he blamed me because all the other people came to the theater. "You messed up at your job, didn't you, Daddy?"

    Yeah. No humor, no heart, too much dark intensity.

  • L.O.V.E.

    Just got back from seeing it. The part with the 2 bears was too dark for my daughter, but i thought the heart (and a wee bit of humor) were there.

    Did you get any sense that your son wasn't quite relating to the story because it revolved around a girl and her mother? The showing I was at definitely skewed mother/daughter, and drew applause at the end.

    My daughter was hooked from the first shot of a girl with wild hair (her's is dark, but wild nonetheless) who likes weapons (mine prefers swords as a fan of Power Rangers and TMNT).

    My wife appreciated that unlike most Disney movies where the female authority figure is either evil or a mother long since passed, the protagonist had a good mother who was actually there for the whole movie..

  • mona_sterling

    Pretty much my thoughts exactly. I loved the mother/daughter dynamic it strove to capture, even though it wasn't the most original way to tell the story. And, as a mother of two girls, I'll never be unhappy to see an independently-minded bad-ass girl as a role model for my daughters.

  • Stephen Nein

    FFS - Some of us loved How to Train Your Dragon.

  • duckandcover

    Despite my hatred for Jay Baruschel's voice (why can't he talk properly?!), I love that movie.

  • Tinkerville

    Saw it, cried, loved it. It's true that it might not be as great as some of their past films but that doesn't mean that as a standalone fairy tale it's pretty outstanding. Loved the wild, unruly princess story they brought to life and let's just say I left the theater wanting nothing more than to call my mom.

  • pixar has made a few brilliant films, some good films and some lame films. it's a good animation studio. what it isn't is some untouchable god miles above the other creators of animated movies. they had some ground breaking tech and that started the hyperbole ball rolling, and like most things that get repeated ad nauseam, the myth spread and spread until it became a gospel. (the power of suggestion, repetition and pack mentality are all seriously underrated)

    I think years from now, when people are looking back, many pixar films will be reevaluated, and films from other studios won't face the automatic 'its not pixar therefore it is substandard'.

    i'll end up seeing Brave because i am a big fan of the animation medium, but nothing i have seen or read has gotten me very excited to see it.

  • DominaNefret

    Let us see...
    Toy Story: Woody and Buzz
    A Bugs Life: Flik
    Monsters, Inc.: Sulley and Mike
    Finding Nemo: Marlin
    The Incredibles: Mr. Incredible/Ensemble
    Cars: Lightning McQueen
    Ratatouille: Remy
    UP: Carl and Russell

    I wonder how much of the backlash against Brave has to do with the fact that this is the first Pixar movie carried by a female main character?
    It is clearly a "girlier" movie than what they have come out with previously, I am wondering how much people are reacting to that.

    I haven't seen it yet, but I don't actually typically have a problem with cute fairy tales where the characters and scenery are more important than the story. I grew up on those, after all.

    I think that saying Pixar has lost their magic because (compared to their other movies) they made a B+ or B move instead of A+ is a wee bit histrionic.

  • Serpentlord

    Brave isn't girly in any way other than having a female main character.

    That's not to say you'd have the same characterization with a gender swap, but I can't imagine after a dozen Disney movie starring a girl achieved acclaim from everyone not named Armond White that anyone would be angry at an animated movie starring a girl unless they've just murdered and cannibalized their wife.

  • Serpentlord

    I just saw it, and I loved everything about the movie except the plot. I'd be a lot more accepting, but Pixar set such a high standard with previous movies that I have to be disappointed.

    For a movie that was stunningly beautiful, amazingly funny, filled with great characters, and contains a scene featuring bears fighting each other to the death, high standards are the only reason I could be disappointed.

  • superasente

    Heart = broken

  • Psychicdog

    Prince. MacGuffin.
    I don't...I can'

  • Candee

    A spell? Gah...I didn't think any magic would be involved, and that kind disappoints me. It seems so lazy. Ah well. I look forward to watching it anyway.


  • Slash

    Yeah, this is pretty much what the WSJ guy said. That it's a disappointing Pixar movie and a pretty good Disney movie.

  • mswas

    Never fear, parents. I took my two daughters, age 9 and 12 (ALMOST 13), and we thoroughly enjoyed it. We all cried during the story resolution in the stone circle, and my daughters came out pumped up and excited about the story and the heroine.

    My older daughter read this review, and she disagrees with you, Agent Bedhead. She said "if you think it's a good movie, why should the fact that it's Pixar change that."

    She says she loved the detail and the animation, and how the mother and daughter relate after the change. The slapstick of the brothers was a big hit for us, and these kids did not feel it was predictable at all.

    My 9 year old had a hard time comprehending the review (I guess you're writing above JK Rowling's level, AB!), so I just asked her if it was as good as Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. She said it was the best movie she's ever seen. She also agrees with her big sister that it doesn't matter who made it, she liked it.

    Count us as big fans, and I'll have no problem replaying this one as many times as we have watched Finding Nemo or Monsters, Inc.

  • He's just saying that when you go to see a Pixar film, you have certain expectations, and if they are not met, you can't help but feel disappointed, even if the film itself is quite good. Saying that a movie pales in comparison to the Toy Story series, Finding Nemo, the Incredibles, Monsters inc, Ratatouille, Up, and Wall-E isn't exactly damning criticism. The aforementioned movies are some of the best films produced in the past decade and a half, and recently they've been getting the oscar nods to back it up.

  • space_oddity

    Just the fact that it doesn't have a Randy Newman soundtrack is a giant plus.

  • mswas

    We loved it and we weren't disappointed at all.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    Bummer that's it's not brilliant. As a child, some of my favorite books were "The Practical Princess" and "Petronella". Both about princesses who went their own ways. (Both by Jay Williams, too.)

  • Jenne Frisby

    I love Petronella! I have a lot of those "alternative" fairy tales; they are so fun. I also recommend some of Tanith Lee's fairy tales, and The Magic Fishbone, by Charles Dickens. I'm packing right now, and it's pouring rain, but just thinking about them make me happy.

  • L.O.V.E.

    I really hope I like this because after taking my daughter to see it in the theaters, we will be watching it on dvd roughly 39,678 times.

    We saw Tangled, AGAIN, last night. So I will appreciate the reprieve.

  • Go out and invest in a more diverse collection of Disney / Pixar movies. Having 20 on the rotation is a lot more palatable.

  • L.O.V.E.

    You dont understand. My daughter has her own F'ing Criterion collection. If Disney/Pixar made it, she has it. But she gets locked into her favorite. Whether its the Toy Story movies, Ratatouille, Nemo, Megamind, Beauty and the Beast, Despicable Me, The Ant Bully, etc., she gets fixated on one and wants to watch it over and over and over and ...

  • bellaluna30

    My youngest is currently stuck on Mr. Popper's Penguins and Marmaduke. (Every time hubs walks in on Marmaduke, he says "This movie is so stupid." "There's no accounting for the taste of a 3 year-old" is my general reply.)

  • L.O.V.E.

    Yah, I lived throu the Marmaduke phase, and Popper's is on HBO now.

  • Now that I think about it, I probably did the same thing to my parents as a kid.

  • heyannonynonny

    only a ginger can call another ginger "ginger"!

  • Guest

    you need at least a tinge of the minge

  • Stephen Nein

    I got some here in my beard. Does that count?

  • Psychicdog

    like only a ninja can sneak up on another ninja?

  • annie

    How dare someone down-vote a Tim Minchin lyric.

  • BWeaves

    My Godtopus, woman. You don't have to marry the dudes. Just make yourself the filling in a Kevin McKidd / Craig Ferguson haggis.

    My local paper panned this movie, too, only they mentioned what the spell does to the mother, so I already know.

  • annie

    The one other review I read always gave it away when absolutely none of the marketing alluded to it. Nice one, guys.

  • Kati

    The toy marketing absolutely gave away how the spell goes awry. The triplet dolls come complete with spoilers.

  • Stella

    Since I liked How to Train Your Dragon, I guess I'll be ok with Brave. Someone enlighten me, were there any female writers associated with Brave? Could it really be that the writers didn't know how to 'write' a good female protagonist? Or were they too afraid to venture too far from the familiar stereotypes for fear of backlash from the family-friendly viewing audiences?

  • Blake Shrapnel

    It was written by a four person team, two were men, two were women. The director, Brenda Chapman, is also a woman.

  • branded_redux

    The story for the movie was originally conceived by Brenda Chapman (based on her relationship with her daughter), and she was the original director of Brave before being
    replaced by Mark Andrews late in 2010. Pixar does have a history with replacing directors mid-production in general but drew more attention for doing it in this case.

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