The title is Brave but perhaps it ought to have been Proud. It is ultimately pride, not bravery, that lies at the heart of the latest Disney Pixar film. Scottish Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald), a headstrong tomboy, has reached marrying age. Per tradition, the three other clans all submit their candidates for her hand. Tensions flare between Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), precipitating the young woman to run out into the forest to blow off some steam. There is where things take an unexpected turn. Merida encounters a witch, who sells her a potion to “change” her mother.
Neither I nor anyone I spoke with after the movie had gleaned from the advertising campaign that this was a story that included magic. It’s presented as an animated epic, sort of their Lawrence of Arabia but with a Scottish ginger instead of an asexual Briton. Instead, it turns out that Pixar has made their Freaky Friday. Once affected by the spell, Elinor is transformed into a bear – particularly bad for her because King Fergus (Billy Connolly) has it in for bears more than Stephen Colbert. Mother and daughter must reconcile while Elinor is in her bear state, which sets up some admittedly great character content as they begin to appreciate one another’s perspective on life.
Dating to A Bug’s Life, every Pixar advertising campaign has emphasized the studio’s rich filmography. Pixar has become a recognizable brand name. Parents have no idea who John Lasseter is, but they know Pixar. It’s the studio that has annually produced a film that has been part of their children’s lives. It is the commercial aspect of Brave that earns the film its title.
Aside from the entirely unexpected reliance on a witch’s spell that took the grand epic and turned it into a story about generational misunderstanding with a bear, there are two key elements of Brave that are certain to raise eyebrows.
One is a heavy emphasis on slapstick and even crass humor. It’s certainly in keeping with tradition of the animation medium dating back to Bugs Bunny’s shenanigans, but this is not the kind of humor we’ve seen from Pixar to date. Several times in the film, the animation relies on jump cuts to exaggerate how quickly characters have run from one part of the screen to the next. Merida’s mischievous triplet brothers pursue a handmaiden entrusted with the key to the room where she is locked; she hides it in her bust and the boys are not reluctant to go in after it. We see the King and several men forced to tie their kilts together in order to get down from the roof of a tower, and they march past us with their backsides bared toward us. These are things one would find acceptable in, or even expect from, a Dreamworks picture.
The other curiosity is that the action is all played completely straight and in the finale it becomes very intense. One child in attendance began to cry. Even I was surprised how far they were willing to take it, and the blows traded are truly vicious. The animation is spectacular, making decent (though not mandatory) use of the 3D format but I was almost taken out of the movie thinking of how unexpected the footage really was.
It seems as though Pixar has finally hit an interesting dilemma. Their first generation viewers have all come of age and are out of their target demographic now, as acknowledged in Toy Story 3. The youngest end of their viewership spectrum loves Cars, but neither that film or its sequel have really caught on with very many kids over the age of 7. Brave seems to be confused on whether to try to appeal to the older viewers with its intense action sequences, or to seek to offer Looney Tunes-style comedy to the Cars set as they grow into the next phase of their entertainment. The problem is that the two styles are incongruous, and both are taken far enough that they’re almost guaranteed to disappoint or even upset some parents of the Cars fans who may not be ready for either nude male butts or bear-on-bear violence.
Until now, the worst that’s been said of any Pixar film has been that it is “weak.” Brave is not weak, but it certainly courts controversy and may be the first of their films to actually cost their carefully guarded brand name some prestige with parents. It certainly earned its PG rating and perhaps it will provoke renewed discourse about just what that rating is supposed to reflect. Ever since the advent of the PG-13 rating, there has been little discernible content difference between a G and a PG film. Brave should not lead to anything as formal as the establishment of a new rating classification, but it should occasion us to reconsider just what “parental guidance suggested” means.
For more on the changing nature of parental guidance in films, read “Parental Guidance Not Needed.”
1: Brave vs. Cinderella – The timelessness of Cinderella bests the unevenness of Brave.
2: Brave vs. Santa Claus: The Movie – Merida’s tale is more interesting than corporate takeovers of Christmas
4. Brave vs. Family Guy: Blue Harvest – This is where having TV content can get problematic for some Flickcharters. I ignore that and simply concede that I was only amused by the Family Guy tribute to Star Wars, whereas I was genuinely invested in Brave.
5. Brave vs. Taffin – I do like me some Pierce Brosnan, but Taffin is largely interesting to me only for being one of three movies in which Alison Doody appears opposite someone who has played James Bond (the others being the 007 movie A View to a Kill with Roger Moore and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Sean Connery). Brave gets the nod for the parts of it that work well.
6. Brave vs. Diabolique – All I really remember of the 1996 remake is that I saw it by myself during its theatrical run. Due to my ability to actually recall something specific about it, Brave wins by default.
7. Brave vs. Ocean’s Thirteen – The Ocean’s threequel may have redeemed the franchise, but it didn’t rock my socks off. Neither did Brave, but I’m more impressed by Pixar putting their reputation on the line with Brave than I am with a movie made just to compensate for the bad taste left by its predecessor.
8. Brave vs. The Sixth Sense – I already knew the twist to The Sixth Sense before it ever left theaters, and I didn’t get around to seeing it until two years ago. Still, I was very impressed by Haley Joel Osment and I instantly understood why he was lavished with such praise in 1999.
9. Brave vs. The Edge – Aha! We have the basis for a “Kill the f***ing bear!” double feature! Going with The Edge because scruffy Anthony Hopkins and scruffy Alec Baldwin in a survival situation with Elle MacPherson up for grabs was more interesting than whether Elinor would remain a bear.
Brave entered my Flickchart at #851 of 1354 movies. It also entered my Pixar Animation Studios chart at #13, between two shorts: Dug’s Secret Mission (my #838 overall) and For the Birds (my #853 overall).