Sunday, June 24, 2012

"Brave" Review - Take a Bow

I'm going to give my general feelings on the movie before delving into spoiler territory.

First let me start by saying that the movie is definitely VERY GOOD. You should go see it. ESPECIALLY go see it if you are a mother or a mother's daughter. While I enjoyed the movie wholeheartedly, every woman I know had a much more thorough experience than I as they connected with the mother/daughter relationship in the film very strongly, and I can understand why. It's definitely the movie's greatest asset and is rightly the centerpiece of the film. Even if you are a dude, you should still go see this movie because it's a damn good movie and it may still move you to tears even if you can't relate to Merida and her mother in quite the same way (though perhaps you'll feel something similar while watching the short "La Luna" before the movie).

Second, let me just say that you ought to stay until after the credits for a little bonus scene. No, Nick Fury doesn't show up to invite Merida to be the new Hawkeye... though maybe he should. Still, it's a good little payoff that's worth waiting for and for the love of god, these people worked hard to bring you entertainment and all they ask in return is that you memorize their names! Yes I stole that from the Simpsons. Sue me.

OK, now for the review proper. Some spoilers will happen beyond this point.

My heritage is kind of a mixed bag all around, but one significant part of my father's mother's side of the family is Scottish. I'm not going to turn this into a big tangent, but long story short, my clan's motto is "Sapienter si sincere", which translates to "Wisely if sincerely." While I've always wondered the particular history behind the origin of this motto (and perhaps I'll never learn it), I've also somewhat pondered the meaning. The best I can come up with is if you're going to do something serious, make sure you think it through first.

In light of recent events, perhaps I should have taken that more to heart, but let's not digress even further.

In "Brave", a decidedly Scottish story about a princess named Merida, she makes a very serious decision that has several unintended consequences, specifically by throwing the entire kingdom into chaos and turning the majority of her family into bears.

Let me back up a bit. Like, to before the movie even started.

As with all Pixar movies, "Brave" was preceded by a short film called "La Luna". While I won't delve too much into the specifics of the plot, "La Luna" has themes that tie in very nicely to "Brave". It's about a boy learning from his father and grandfather how to learn to help the moon change its phases by cleaning up fallen stars. In a very subtle fashion, we see the boy trying to learn by imitating his father and grandfather, whose methods somewhat clash. However, in the climax of the short film, the boy shifts to thinking for himself and setting his own path in order to help accomplish the new responsibility set before him. This is a gross over-simplification of the short, but I'm trying to illustrate how it dovetails very nicely into "Brave".

In "Brave", Merida is being pressured by her mother to behave like a "proper lady" and get married to one of the heirs of the allied clans in the traditional manner so that the stability of the kingdom can continue. However, Merida doesn't want that. She's never particularly clear on WHAT exactly she wants, but why should she? She's young. She just wants the freedom to choose for herself, which drives a rift between her and her mother.

Long story short, she shows up all of the suitors by kicking all of their asses in archery and then sort of accidentally turns her mother and her brothers into bears.

Pixar had never before made a movie with a female protagonist, and when it was revealed that their first attempt would be about a princess, there were definitely skeptics. As more information came out, it seemed to start sounding like they were retreading the sort of "woman fighting for equality with men" thing that, while positive, sometimes seems like the ONLY thing strong women are allowed to do in movies as though their strength is determined solely by how much men limit them or whatever. Thankfully, that's not what we got.

Uniquely, the men in Merida's life are not oppressive. Her father gave her her first bow when she was only a wee lass and always laughs whenever Merida does something defiant in the film. The other clansmen are rather rigid in their traditional sentiments, but they never really seem all that angry towards Merida for showing them up, at least not on screen.

No, basically all of the conflict surrounding Merida's expectations for what she should do with her life comes from her mother, and for once it's not done out of blind ignorance so as to set up a sort of straw man argument that can be crushed by the protagonist.

It becomes clear rather quickly that, as well-meaning as the men of the kingdom are, they are basically completely and utterly hopeless without the queen to keep them in line. Merida's mother rises to this responsibility with grace and knows that in order for the kingdom to remain stable, Merida must do the same.

Merida, on the other hand, just wants to be able to decide for herself what she should do with her life. No, she's not particularly fond of the day-to-day schooling of how to be a "proper lady", but her desire to stand apart from her expected gender role isn't the central conflict. Rather, it's simply that her choice to renounce the traditions that keep the kingdom stable in order to gain her personal freedom has far-reaching consequences that she has to deal with. But like "La Luna", it's also about the next generation finding a path that evolves from the one inherited from the current generation while still honoring the responsibilities and privileges inherited as well.

The movie has a lot more depth than it might seem to have from just the trailers.

On the technical side of things, I will say that the weakest part of the film is the screenplay. It feels like there are too many unnecessary ingredients. While all of these extra characters do add personality to the story, they add very little else. For example, we probably could have done well enough with just one suitor and one other clan. I'm not saying the movie would have been BETTER that way, I'm just saying that the screenplay isn't very tight. In a way, that kind of works in context, but I would be remiss not to point out the movie's few flaws.

But whatever flaws the film has, there are just as many little things that I love about it. I love Merida's wild hair. I absolutely LOVE the animation as a whole and it's some of the best CG work I've ever seen. I love certain poignant and moving moments between characters. I love the wood carver. I love Merida's father. I love the music. I love that there's no unnecessary romantic subplot, which -- for a Disney movie -- is like a Bollywood film without dancing. I love that (most of) the animals behave like actual animals.

There's a lot to love here and all of it is worth your time.

There's also an odd meta-narrative that ties in with the themes I've discussed regarding the so-called Pixar legacy.

With the exception of the "Cars" movies, people expect a certain amount of... well... perfection  from Pixar in regards to their films, and a lot of the buzz surrounding "Brave" is that it's technical flaws supposedly do disservice to Pixar's legacy of high expectations.

I find this amusing, because one could see the movie as a metaphor for Merida herself. It is not perfect and it perhaps doesn't know exactly what it wants to be in the larger landscape of the Pixar canon, but it does try very hard to be its own thing, and while it may not be what people expect from that legacy, it certainly stands strong enough on its own that I think it will win the hearts of its audience and be well-remembered without being overshadowed by what came before it.

Well done, Pixar.