Brave (Mark Andrews/Brenda Chapman, 2012)

August 20, 2012

This review contains some narrative spoilers.

There is a memorable moment in the third act of Brave in which three male suitors for protagonist Princess Merida speak on their own behalf in agreement with her argument that people should choose who they marry, that the younger generation should be allowed to find their own path. In this moment of outspokenness, these characters, which have up to this point been one-note caricatures, emerge with a semblance of multiple dimensions, and the standard loner protagonist finds she is not the only sensible person in her world. She is part of a community. Amidst many of Brave’s more generic elements, this is a development that proves especially enjoyable.

This is not to assert that Brave is a derivative film, more that it just happens to fit in several recognisable moulds of fantasy and animated filmmaking. There’s the common Disney narrative about a young girl – sometimes of royalty – wanting something more from life than she has been taught to expect: Brave even has an early montage with a standard “want something more” song accompaniment. There’s also the recognisable narrative concerning an independent-minded action hero striving to change things for the better, only to have to reverse some misguided wrongdoing and restore their world to normal. Brave’s execution of the familiar is perfectly enjoyable, though it does perhaps have a few too many characters that exist almost solely for comic relief. What is more interesting, and key to its success, is that the film is deliberately set in these recognisable frameworks so as to frequently subvert and challenge traditional notions of these stories. That cited narrative turn in the opening paragraph is just one such refreshing subversion. Another is the complete absence of any love interest, a given in practically every Disney animation or action heroine fantasy, and, bar a few examples, still a commonality in much of Pixar’s output.

Even the witch responsible for the spell that alters Merida’s world is unique. A figure that would normally be portrayed as evil, she is a well-intentioned individual who actually gave up on sorcery due to too many “dissatisfied customers” and has taken to wood sculpturing; given the obsessive bear theme of her carvings and the noted results of some of her spells, she may also have quit due to the apparent one-note qualities of her skills. The closest thing Brave has to a villain is a demonic-seeming bear called Mor’du who, despite being an oft-referenced figure, isn’t as omnipresent a figure as one might expect from a fantasy, and, like all of Brave’s animal characters, is free of the anthropomorphising Disney device of speech. Speech and communication have a very important role in this film.

Some of the best works of the Pixar studio have been those films concerned with familial bonds, whether literal families (The Incredibles) or simply groups with strong interdependency (the Toy Story films). By far Brave’s greatest strength is the familial well from which it draws and focuses on: the relationship and tensions between mother and daughter that so rarely gets attention in universally-aimed animated fare or genre filmmaking. Merida wants to control her own destiny without having the tradition of arranged marriage imposed upon her, while her mother Elinor has a life plan laid out for her daughter based on what she herself has had to do in her own life; there’s a nice touch where Elinor’s own hesitance about being betrothed in her youth is hinted at.

The film engagingly portrays the various complicated feelings between a well-meaning parent and a rebellious adolescent. Elinor is well-meaning but, as is common with mother-child relationships, concern and conflicting desires can disguise love and a sense of connection. There is a mutual lack of communication and frustration on both sides and it is a resolving of this problematic dynamic that is Brave’s primary concern. For rather than going on a quest with a romantic interest or enigmatic rogue, narrative developments see Merida having to go on a road trip with her mother. The characters on the journey don’t so much discover new possibilities in the world, but rather qualities and viewpoints inherent in each other that the other person never properly understood before. With the option of speech taken away from the mother, vocalisation free of the often confusing nature of oral language becomes a vital tool, and by the film’s resolution, when mutual speech returns, the two are able to properly communicate having grown to understand each other.

Partially due to its mother and child focus, and the relatively small number of locations visited, Brave admittedly feels quite small scale in comparison to many fantasy films and even much of Pixar’s output. This is by no means an inherent detriment as its focus points are so enjoyable, though it is occasionally bothersome that the world around the two main characters doesn’t feel quite so realised. There is, again, the issue that nearly every other character is little more than comic relief, even Merida and Elinor’s nuclear family. The result, combined with the swift running time and very short deadline for Merida to break the spell, is that the world of the film doesn’t feel as fully lived-in as it could have. As enthralling as the central relationship is, it would have been nice to have some slight padding out of the other influential players. Indeed, that might be why that narrative turn with the young suitors is particularly pleasing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: