Instead of my usual DVD review format for Brave, I thought I’d address a popular criticism of the film and reassess it in the light of my third viewing of the film. Is this really sub-standard Pixar? Read on to find out. SPOILER WARNING: This article discusses the last act of Brave. Watch the film first, out on DVD and Blu-Ray now.
After the unforgivably rubbish Cars 2, people began to worry about the future of critically lauded animation studio Pixar. Known for combining smart concepts with jokes that appealed to all ages, every film they released picked up across the board raves, massive box office and more than a couple of awards. Yet the uninspired and apparently commercial nature of their misguided spy/motoring caper sowed doubts into the minds of animation fans, so unexpectedly naff was their latest entry. I walked out of the cinema at the end of Brave, their none-more-different follow up to Cars 2, with a huge grin on my face; not only had the House of Lamp returned to form, they seemed to have exceeded it. Then it turned out that I was quite alone in the extent to which I loved the film. Criticism began to roll in, and the consensus seemed to emerge that really, Brave was a minor, forgettable film.
It was still far more well received than many animations, and it’s currently got a score of 78% on Rotten Tomatoes, but even those reviews counted as positive seemed to come with some reservations. Empire’s four star review still called it “excellence at a lower ebb,” whilst Time Out called it “not another Pixar classic.” The implication is that whilst there is much to enjoy, really, it’s not a great Pixar film, some suggesting that it’s not especially Pixar at all. The Guardian‘s review was a lot more scathing, describing it as “eerily bland,” and criticising it for being “oddly regressive, binding Merida to the family unit just when she was making that bid for independent adulthood.” So is Brave really a step back for Pixar? Is this a once great studio coasting and relying on cliché to provoke sentiment?
In short, no. The long answer, however, is that Pixar have taken some old ideas which are new for them – princesses, castles, witches – and turned them into a visually spectacular, unforgettable attempt at creating their very own myths and legends. It’s a story set in a fantastical Scotland, where every moss covered tree and stone is brimming with magic, meaning the tone is something entirely new for them. Also, with a mother and daughter relationship at its core, this is the first Pixar film with a female lead, and the first film produced by Disney where the woman doesn’t end up with a man at the end. Save the ending of Toy Story 3 or the first ten minutes of Up, it’s also the most moving film the studio has made yet.
So let’s address some of the accusations directed against the film. The most prevalent complaint about it is that it’s all rather slight; where is the smart high-concept idea for adults to snigger at? It doesn’t seem especially clever or original in any way, it’s just a Princess story designed for Disney to sell Merida dolls. Strangely my response to this seems contradictory: yes it is original and new, but no it actually isn’t and that’s a good thing. Firstly, it’s not just any old Disney princess story, thanks to the central relationship being between a mother and a daughter, not a woman and a man or a child and a father, making it quite unique. In spite of being set in medieval Scotland, the dynamic between Merida and Elinor feels tangibly real – note the way that Elinor shows genuine fear that she has hurt her daughter by burning her bow, or the maternal instinct that kicks in as the ursine queen roars into battle against Mordu. Merida’s whisper, as she kneels by her transformed Mum in the rising sun, that “I want you back, Mummy… I love you” is given a heartbreaking poignancy because the progress of their story is unlike anything else Pixar have previously done, based more on their relationship than any wacky idea.
At the same time, many reviewers were right in picking up on the rather slender, unoriginal plot that makes up the film. Admittedly, a girl rebelling against her parents is hardly as interesting a concept as self conscious toys, or the lives of the monsters in your closet. Yet the beauty of Brave is in the execution, as it is with any story no matter how original. Even the mid film twist of the mum turning into a bear doesn’t come close to the dizzying brilliance of Wall E in terms of narrative. However, the intention doesn’t ever seem to have been to impress with the premise, as Brave is simply a well told myth, and most myths hardly had complex plots. The extras on the blu-ray hint at far more scenes and a more expansive story, but they also show that they were cut for a reason. The narrative here is deliberately lean, much like a story you would tell your children by the fire, and this allows for a greater exploration of the evolving relationship between Merida and Elinor. Many great films are slight on plot, so why do reviewers demand something complex and concept driven simply because that’s what Pixar have done before? Brave is a good old fashioned legend, and as the film tells us, “Legends are lessons, they ring with truths.” It is when ringing with truths that Brave is really elevated beyond anything Pixar have previously achieved, it just took them a far more traditional story to make that possible.
The other accusation levelled against Brave was that it just wasn’t very funny. Those critics are largely right, but then, this isn’t really a comedy at all. The humourous moments are hit and miss, but they are merely additions to a film that is primarily dramatic as opposed to comic. It seems unfair to criticise a film for not being a good comedy when that was never the intention, and shows more about the reviewer’s expectations of the film than the film itself. It’s funny, but not hilarious in the same way that Monsters, Inc. is rammed with hugely inventive sight gags and one liners. But it is not the occasional homunculus joke that creates the charm of Brave, it’s the combination of visuals, score and beating heart at the centre that make it the most memorable, beautiful film the studio has done.
For some extra reading, here are three of my favourite reviews of Brave from around the web, that I think capture some of the brilliance of Brave and they help me realise that I’m not alone: Jamie Neish – Hey U Guys , Robbie Collin – The Telegraph, Ali Gray – The Shiznit