Posted on Monday, June 25th, 2012 by Laremy Legel
Finding Nemo has animals, as does Ratatouille. You could also make the argument that Monsters, Inc. features animalistic entities. But in each of those cases, the “animals” are organic to the story, not so much plot elements as they are structural points. Nemo doesn’t ever take the time to comment on the clear anthropomorphism happening in quite the same way that Brave fixates on it exclusively through the second and third acts. Brave‘s entire narrative hinges on one joke, and the sum total of said joke is as follows:
“A bear walks into the room, and that bear is Princess Merida’s mom.”
Sadly, the one scene approaching anything near Pixar’s previous greatness involves the Bear-Queen, when she’s hunting salmon. For just a moment, the lesson seems to be that the queen is tapping back into something elemental within her, and gaining greater understanding of her daughter in the process. Sadly, this tact is quickly shunted aside in favor of faux tension the as bear-queen seems be getting closer to attacking her own daughter. Which we know, given decades of animation, simply won’t be happening.
A look-see at Pixar’s canon reveals that they’ve only once featured a human main character, set in today’s world, that didn’t have superpowers. And that human was Carl from Up, who used balloons to float his house away. If you go down the list, Pixar protagonists include: toys, bugs, monsters, fish, superheroes, cars, rats, robots, Carl … and a Scottish Highborn princess. Which isn’t a dealbreaker unless you also build the story’s tension the main characters desire to “control her fate,” which is a motivation firmly woven into modern reality.
Allowing people to relate is a wonderful thing, but it brings a host of problems along with it that move Brave into the “just for kids” camp because thinking adults would have to think, “Well, wait, when did Scottish women gain the right to vote? If Princess Merida is allowed to choose her own mate, what about the girls working menial labor jobs? Are they extended the same protections?” And so on. This why real-word dramas are difficult to pull off, because we all have experience with the real world.
Brave wants to have it both ways – to be childish enough that you don’t take it “too seriously” but still trade on your “Yeah, women should have a say!” ideals.
12. The Story Arc
Pixar, to its eternal credit, heralded a fundamental change in animation storytelling techniques. Gone were easily predictable “fairy tales,” replaced by modern, hyper-focused parables. No one could have predicted the giant, thin-boned people on the spaceship in the world of WALL-E. The “hero” of Up turning into a third-act foil was an act of bold storytelling. Animating toys, peering into our dream worlds, Pixar has always thrown curveballs at the audiences expectations. Not so for Brave. Once the fundamental transformation has occurred, The Queen’s change-over, the story is entirely predictable as many of the questions are off the table. The only real tension comes from the previous bear-king, who could have possibly been redeemed if Brave wanted to go for all out schmaltz. To their credit, they didn’t go there, but there was never much doubt in my mind that I was watching a “happy village” style of film.
13. That “Disney” Vibe
Quick, name the previous Pixar projects that directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell directed. Now add that to the number of Pixar films that writers Irene Mecchi and the three directors previously wrote on. If you came up with the number “zero” you’re well on your way to understanding why Brave is an anomaly (to be fair Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell have a story credit on Cars, along with a few dozen other people). Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi are Disney folk, through and through, which is precisely why Brave feels like a Disney film. Chapman directed The Prince of Egypt and wrote on The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Mecchi wrote on Hercules, The Lion King 1 1/2, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Is it any shock that writers and directors steeped in Disney storytelling cranked out a Disney story?
So then, where was Pete Docter? John Lasseter? Brad Bird? Lee Unkrich? Andrew Stanton? In other words, where were the people who made Pixar into the beloved brand it is today? Evidently the answer was “doing other stuff,” which is all well and good until you realize that Brave never had a prayer of feeling like a Pixar film given the total lack of Pixar-ites involved. And don’t give me the “they were executive producers on Brave!” as that could merely indicate they sat in on a few meetings. You can throw the logo on any project you like, but culture shines through, and that’s why Brave feels so disparate. Every single Pixar film before Brave had Lasseter, Unkrich, Stanton, Docter, or Bird directly involved, either writing or directing, a run of twelve straight films. Not so for Brave, which might have suffered for the absence.
14. The Use of Magic
Magic is a giant crutch for Brave, it’s employed in transition scenes (“Let me just follow these blue lights”) and in massive second and third act plot thrusts. Magic, in the case of Brave, is used to explain and inform the plot, and this is in direct thematic conflict with Pixar’s methods up to this point. The toys in Toy Story are clearly magical, but the story does all the work and allows them to function under rules we can all easily follow along with. They can’t be animated when humans are around, but other than that, “real” life is fair game. The Cars of Cars are sentient, but the “magic” is in the friendships. The Incredibles have super-powers, but no magic. Wall-E and Eve are robots, a triumph of tech, not magic.
The reason magic is a bastion of fairy tales is that it’s a simpler form of storytelling, requiring far less heavy lifting. Sure, there are exceptions, and a few recent films have done really well (Stardust, Lord of the Rings) with the idea of magic as a modern plot construct. The risk though, and Brave falls through this trap on occasion, is using magic to explain things away, patting your audience on the head with a “just because I say so”. Why does Merida’s mom become a bear? Because I said so.
The “magic” method can work if you emphasize the wonder, but unfortunately Brave uses it to explain a way many critical questions. Which brings us to our final difference …
15. Depth, and Complexity of Story
The reason Pixar’s brand is so sterling? Depth and complexity, featured prominently in their previous works. Here are some of the questions Pixar has tackled over the past two decades, see if you can match the theme to the film:
What happens to our memories when we grow up?
What are the downsides to a consumer culture?
Can critics ever truly understand inspiration?
How far will a parent go to protect a child?
Where do our nightmares come from?
And so on. Pixar has always asked the big questions, made us think, made us ponder, and eschewed any predictive powers of an audience. In Pixar films villains become heroes and back again, because their rules for storytelling were the opposite of Disney’s. Where Disney made you feel safe and warm, Pixar wanted us to consider the world around us.
Which leads us to Brave‘s central theme: Don’t poison your mom. Or the thing that you know right from the start: she’s not marrying any of these dudes. By making all of Merida’s suitors so woefully inadequate they allow the audience that comfy, complacent feeling. Princess Merida is better than these guys! Well, yeah, but so is everyone else. So are the three little baby bears.
If great storytelling is about choices the absolute failure of Brave is that it doesn’t make any, content to glide along on a sea of tremendous visuals. Brave is an overly simplistic story of Princess Merida’s quest to grow up and act responsibly. Sadly, it seems destined to be forgotten as “lesser” Pixar, a victim of the true genius of their previous works.