Posted on Monday, June 25th, 2012 by Laremy Legel
This weekend saw the release of Pixar’s latest film, Brave, a movie that easily won the weekend, garnering an overall “A” CinemaScore from appreciative audiences. Still, at only 74 percent on RottenTomatoes (Pixar’s second worst), and a 7 out of 10 from Germain Lussier, it is clear there is a bit of room for dissent.
Out there in audience-land, did you notice something a little “off” about Brave? Perhaps there are lessons that can be learned, or conversations to engage in?
To provide some context, and on the off chance we have completely different taste, here are my top five Pixar efforts:
3. Toy Story
4. Finding Nemo
5. Monsters, Inc.
Until now, the only Pixar film I flat out didn’t enjoy was Ratatouille, though I admit to only having seen it once, and folks say I’d like it much more if I were to re-visit. Even Cars 2 had redeeming qualities. I can truly say I’ve never found a Pixar film entirely lacking, and that statement includes Brave. There’s no question the film had amazing visuals, setting a new standard for excellence within the animation genre. Unfortunately, the story lacked a bit of … what’s the word I’m looking for? Ooomph. As such, I’m compelled to break down where I feel the problems were, if only to restore everyone’s favorite animation house to the glory they so richly deserve.
One final note, just to head off the obligatory “comparing Brave to the rest of Pixar’s work isn’t entirely fair” argument, we’re in complete agreement there. It’s not fair, and in many ways Pixar’s own ambition and commitment to excellence have raised the bar for all movies. So no, Brave isn’t a bad movie on merit, it’s merely an average one, which animation houses make all the time without compelling anyone to write a 3,000 word article on the subject. But within the greater context of Pixar’s previous work, Brave does come up short, and I think we’ve got a bead on the reasons why.
Note: Massive SPOILERS follow, naturally.
1. The Use of “Filler” Material
At 95 minutes, Brave is the shortest Pixar film since 2001’s Monsters Inc., and it doesn’t seem like they even had enough material to fill that amount. Three minutes of the film are dedicated solely to Princess Merida following blue lights. Montages and songs comprise a few minutes as well. The rest of the story involves The Queen as a bear, her running away, and Merida not wanting to get married. That’s it, that’s the list. As such, the film, while appearing lovely, doesn’t ever fully pull at the heart strings (or the head strings) in the way previous Pixar efforts have.
2. Where is the Dramatic Tension?
Brave opens with a story about the king’s leg being eaten off by a giant bear. It’s a rollicking tale, interrupted by Princess Merida, setting a pleasant and sturdy tone. But afterward Brave reels off a few dozen questions in a row which the audiences already knows the answer to.
Will Merida’s wish to “change her fate” go awry? Yes.
Will she give her mom the cake? Yes.
Will her mom be scared and confused about being a bear? Yes.
Will the three kids be hilarious as little bears? Sure.
Will the king hate the giant bear that is his wife? Yes.
Will he actually be able to harm her? No.
Will the suitors get angry with Merida and her family for her refusal to marry? Yes.
Will it eventually work out great for everyone involved? Yes.
Brave is in the business of showing you things that can’t possibly end any other way, entirely cribbing the tension.
3. The Level of Dialogue
Pixar has made a brand out of quick, clever writing. For Peete’s sake, Joss Whedon wrote on Toy Story!
Whereas Disney is known for songs, rapid mood shifts, and soliloquies. You probably see where I’m going with this …
Yep, Brave is chock-full of overly expository dialogue and songs, and while they never reach the quality level of the Disney’s 1989-1994 “Third Golden Age,” they also completely miss the vibe of Toy Story, Up, and WALL-E. The dialogue is neither quippy nor dramatic, favoring some weird Pixar/Disney middle ground that feels more vanilla than precise.
4. The Curious Case of the Missing Whimsy
While we’re on the subject of precision, it must be noted that Brave suffers from a serious lack of whimsy due to its earnest and straightforward nature. Princess Merida doesn’t want to marry, she wants to change her fate, so she poisons her mom, though everyone ends up fine in the end. Everything is right there in front of you (in keeping with traditional Disney storytelling) and nothing is the least bit strange, right?
But strange is where Pixar storytelling thrives!
On paper, many of Pixar’s films simply wouldn’t make sense to investors. But ah, the execution. Brave? It’s a film that makes perfect sense, programmed for a domestic audience that yearns for an empowered female heroine. This was a completely valid critique of Pixar prior to Brave – they’d created excellent male characters and a few interesting and original female ones. Yes, the time had come for Pixar to tackle femininity.
Only Princess Merida is at worst petulant and at best just plain “too young” to understand the demands of state. Remember, she’s a princess, and the film has taken pains to point out her mother’s lessons. While you could argue she, as a character, transitions, you’d have to also admit it plods along pretty much as anyone out there could guess (aside from the overarching “bear” angle). Where are the moments of pure silliness that Pixar has so excelled at? The asides of WALL-E playing music or Doug’s fascination with squirrels? Missing in action.
5. The Scope of Ambition
As we continue along the “previously, on Pixar” front, WALL-E was, at its core, a silent film about a robot in a post-apocalyptic shell of Earth. On the face of it, it’s as unmarketable as The Road, and any lesser studio would have laughed the concept out of the room. You can hear the booming voices of focus groups now, “Why would we want to watch a movie about a ROBOT?” But true art won out, and Pixar handed in one of the most ambitious and excellent films of the decade. For an encore, Up came out the next year, a treatise on love, aging, and loss, somehow humanizing the elderly and Doug the Dog in a manner much more befitting of a film with “Best Picture” next to it. Toy Story is the a book-ended Pixar tale that delves into the transition from boyhood to “no toy”-hood. Like Big, but without a live action Tom Hanks.
So then, what does Brave seek to accomplish? It’s a fairytale (done a zillion times) about a princess (done a quadrillion times) who doesn’t want to get married to someone she doesn’t truly love (done a kabillion times). Fans of the film have mentioned the “mother-daughter” angle, fair, but we’ve seen that film before too (Hi Mamma Mia!). Even relatively recent films such as Enchanted and Tangled wipe the floor with Brave where the “let’s really try something here” angle is concerned. Brave is safe, and that’s a problem.
But how did they get themselves into this position?