I've had the shiny new Blu-Ray for Brave sitting around for about two weeks, but things are getting busy and I haven't had the time to sit down and watch it. But as the two weeks were ticking by, waiting for the chance for me to sit and enjoy, I kept asking the one question that many Pixar fans were asking all summer long: what went wrong with Brave? How come we didn't get the dark and moody fantasy film promised in its trailer?
Lots of people speculated. This was the first Pixar film that lacked the direct involvement of the "Pixar Brain Trust," that core group of Pixar animators that have been around since the early days of Toy Story. For example, during Brave's production, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Wall-E) was off making John Carter, and my favourite Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) was making Mission: Impossible 4. Others cited production problems, as the film did switch directors mainstream...something that is sadly becoming more common in the animation world.
And the apologists were quick to point out that it was still Pixar. "Come on," they'd say. "Complaining about a bad Pixar film is like getting angry at a straight-A student for bringing home a B+." True, while some might say that we should still applaud the student for excelling in their studies, this could still be seen as a big enough break in the pattern for the guidance councilor to cock an eyebrow and ask, "Is everything alright at home?"
Brave had a lot riding on it for the Pixar junkies like myself. Following Cars 2 - which many agree to be Pixar's first truly bad film - everyone hoped it would be a return to form. And it with it being Pixar's first princess tale, maybe it would even deconstruct the princess genre. But what we got was so...meh.
Now that it's out in home media format, I guess it's time to give it a second look.
Once upon a time in medieval Scotland, there was a young princess named Merida. Merida has reached that teenage rebellious age, and is constantly at odds with her mother, Queen Elinor. While the Queen has been teaching young Merida to some day rule the land, Merida would rather spend her days riding her horse in the woods and practicing her archery. Turns out, she's a gifted archer. But soon, the day comes when Merida must be betrothed to one of the three princes of the neighbouring kingdoms. Merida chooses the challenge, and she selects archery. However, Merdia figures she's found a loophole in the traditions, and on the day of the competition, she announces that she'll be competing for her own hand. She easily defeats her three suitors, but needless to say, her mother is pissed.
Fearing that this headstrong display could create an international (well, inter-kingdom, but I'm not sure that's a term) incident, Merida and her mother wind up having the kind of argument where things are said that can never be taken back. A tearful Merida rides off into the night, while Elinor stays home and weeps. On her ride, Merida finds a witch's cottage, and seizing this opportunity, Merida asks for a spell that can change her fate. So the witch bakes an enchanted cake with the instruction that Merida feed it to Elinor.
Merida does exactly that, and it turns her mother into a bear.
Seeing as to how Merida's father, King Fergus, lost his leg to a bear and has since taken up bear-hunting as his favourite hobby, Merida sneaks her mother out of the castle, and they seek out the witch's cottage to find out how to reverse the spell. The witch (though a magical version of voice mail) says that the spell must be broken by "mending the bond torn by pride." As they continue their journey through the woods, Merida and her mother are eventually led to a kingdom where a prince asked for the same spell, and it wound up destroying his kingdom, and the prince now stalks the countryside as the demon bear Mordu. Investigating the ruins of Mordu's kingdom, Merida remembers that, in their massive argument, she slashed a tapestry her mother had made with a sword. Merida deduces that she must "mend the bond torn by pride" by mending the tapestry. Oh, and they also learn that the longer she's in bear form, Elinor will eventually turn feral, and, as Merida puts it, "turn into a bear on the inside."
So they head back to the castle. Needless to say, because of Merida's actions, the four kingdoms have been having a drunken brawl for the past couple of days, and it threatens to descend into all-out war if Merida doesn't choose a suitor. So, digging deep for everything that her mother has taught her, Merida walks into the middle of the brawl and begins negotiating a peace. She apologizes for her selfish act, and recounts the tale of how their four kingdoms originally banded together to fight off some viking invaders. And, hiding in the wings, Elinor sends signals to Merida that it's time to break from tradition, and she'll be free to choose her own suitor when she's darn good and ready.
With the crisis averted, Merida and her mother make their way to their chambers, where they begin to mend the tapestry. But, the king bursts in, Elinor has an episode of feral-ness, and the bear hunt is on. Merida, having been locked up by her father for her own protection, frantically works to escape, mend the tapestry, and rush to her mother's aid. So, out in the middle of the woods in a fairy ring, the king has the queen in her bear form trapped and is ready to deliver the deathblow when Merida arrives and busts up the whole thing. Of course, the king doesn't believe that his wife has been turned into a bear. And then, Mordu arrives to fuck shit up. And you've all heard the tales of how you never get between a mama bear and her cubs, so when Mordu comes bearing down on Merida, Elinor fully embraces her bear form, and they have a vicious battle in which Elinor slays Mordu. Finally freed from his curse, the spirit of Mordu briefly appears to bow in gratitude before advancing to the great beyond.
The sun rises - the prophecized last moment before the spell becomes permanent - Merida drapes the tapestry over her mother, but it does nothing. Fearing the spell has become permanent, a tearful Merida apologizes to her mother for everything she's done, and Merida finally takes responsibility for turning her mother into a bear. Tearfully admitting her love for her mother, this mends the bond between mother and daughter, and Elinor turns back into a human. Thanks to this adventure, Mother and Daughter finally have a new understanding of each other, and now know how to talk to each other.
I still stand by the complaints I made in my original review. My biggest problem with the film is it can't find it's tone. A lot of the stuff with Mordu is the moody fantasy film we were promised. When Elinor turns into a bear, some of her antics are pure slapstick. The scenes with the witch seem straight out of a Shrek movie. A lot of the Merida/Elinor scenes in the first part of the film are high drama. Tonally, the film is all over the place.
That being said, there are things in this film that I like. The final battle between Mordu and Elinor is easily the most violent thing Pixar has ever put on film. You feel every bite and slash, and there's some genuine tension in the scene. And upon this second viewing, the mother/daughter drama hit me a little harder than it did the first time around. There's some genuine emotion in there.
I guess, the way Brave disappointed the Pixar junkies, is that Pixar always prided itself on doing the unconventional. And with Brave, they wound up making a very conventional film. Sadly, far too many Disney princess cliches rear their heads. Now, there's nothing wrong with telling a conventional tale. Look at Pixar's main competition, Dreamworks. Their animated films are formulaic as fuck. But look at some of their more recent hits. I was pleasantly surprised by Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. Yeah, they were conventional, but they were told with so much love and attention to detail, and some genuine effort to create characters you care about, that they resulted in being remarkable films. But with Brave...it just feels phoned in.
Same problem I had with Cars back in the day. It just seems like, with this one, Pixar was too willing to rest on their laurels, rather than do that extra oomph they always put in to put their movies over the top. Here's hoping the oomph returns for their next offering, Monsters University.