Splitting Hairs with Brave
I’d have to be a total jerk to criticize Brave.
It’s fleet, entertaining, funny and charming. It’s eye-shatteringly beautiful, exquisitely animated and perfectly performed.
Its heart is in the right place. The slapstick is good-natured. It reestablishes bosoms and buns as comedy gold.
Even the pickiest of hair-splitters would merely be praising it with faint damns.
That hair-splitter’s going to be me.
No hair puns please
From the advertising for Brave, I figured the movie was about a plucky heroine who runs away from home and inadvertently tangles with dark forces. Or maybe is called upon to defend her kingdom. Definitely something where she’s swording and arrowing it up in the black forest.
So I was a skosh surprised that Brave is a buddy movie about Merida and her mom.
I’m not even in the posters!
Also, weirdly, it’s her mom that has a literally transformative experience. It’s her mom that’s forced to see things from a new perspective. It’s her mom that has a change of heart as a result. Merida has a shallower arc, where she becomes sort of willing to make a sacrifice (but doesn’t have to) and remembers she really loves her mom. This latter part works and is the reason the story succeeds overall, but I still have beefs.
(Brother Bear (2003) is the other Disney animated feature where someone learns compassion after being turned into a bear. After a day at Disneyland, of [former] Bear Country and Country Bear Jamboree and Grizzly Peak, I am forced to conclude Walt Disney just really liked bears, and now it’s in the studio’s DNA.)
– Stakes unclear. Merida’s external conflict is she doesn’t want to get married, and her mother wants her to for the good of the land. There are plenty of reasons for a fifteen-year-old not to be real jazzed about an arranged marriage, but while Merida complains it’s “not fair,” she doesn’t quite express what her problem is with it. Is it that she doesn’t want to be told what to do — especially not something as significant as marriage? Fair enough, but not quite expressed. Is it that she’s afraid of losing her small portion of freedom? It’s never stated that marriage would end this. Is it that she wants to fall in love on her own time? That’s the conclusion Merida’s mom, Queen Elinor, reaches, but since Merida never stated this as her beef, it’s not clear that they really came to understand each other — rather than Elinor just giving Merida what she wants.
And what happens if Merida refuses to marry any of her suitors? Ostensibly there will be war, but the clans as presented just sort of squabble in amusing and harmless ways. It’s difficult to imagine Merida’s actions provoking them either way: to get along or to wage bloody war. Merida’s mother tells her a story — one time, a brother went his own way out of pride, and it caused war — but it’s not clear how that relates directly to Merida’s situation.
It’s possible at least one of the clans in Brave should have been menacing instead of funny. It would have paralleled the four clans in Merida’s mum’s story and helped establish the stakes.
– Too many helpers. Several times, Merida gets helped out of a dead end by Will-o’-the-wisps, a witch AND her three mischievous brothers. They’re all rad, but story-wise the wisps are plenty. The witch isn’t foreshadowed and disappears after playing her part. The brothers are highly entertaining but don’t contribute to main story (plus Merida doesn’t seem terribly alarmed that they’ve been turned into bears.) What these three do is solve Merida’s problems on the regular. Trying to escape castle with bear-form mom? Brothers. Can’t find witch’s cottage? Wisps. Can’t figure how to undo spell? Witch. Locked in a tower? Brothers. Even though Merida’s rock-climbing has been established! Oh well.
– Another bear subplot. There’s a baddie bear named Mordu. He’s an artifact of Queen Eleanor’s story-within-a-story, but I’m not sure he’s necessary, except to motivate Merida’s dad to really, really, really hate bears. It’s not clear why this bear has been laying low for ten years, or why he decides to start roaming the countryside again just because Merida falls in his den. Mordu’s existence does culminate in a fight with bear-form Queen Elinor, which is violent and scary and should fill up /r/AskReddit “What childhood movie traumatized you the most?” threads fifteen years hence.
This one. This one did.
– Red herrings. Queen Elinor gives Merida a necklace, which turns out to be valuable enough to buy the witch’s service. It never shows up again. There’s an enchanted Stonehenge-like-circle that frightens Merida’s horse, but aside from that and being a wisp hangout it demonstrates no magical properties. And! Merida’s horse Angus is established and compelling and then disappears after the first 30 minutes. Angus!
– Thematic messiness. The last act oddly involves Merida wielding a sword to protect her bear-form mother from her father. Her father refuses to believe the bear is Queen Eleanor transformed, and that’s typical movie hard-headedness that I don’t really have a problem with (though I would have liked to have seen Merida try a little harder to convince him.) Having Merida physically fight her dad, however, who has always been loving and understanding before, just has an odd flavor to it. She could have just thrown herself in the path of dad’s sword, a la Pocahontas or Fox and the Hound. This would have supported the theme of personal sacrifice, not called upon Merida to suddenly be apt with a sword, and not weirded me out.
One awkward conversation later, things were fine again
My West Coast Heckling Partner and I bounced story ideas back and forth with the idea of, well, what would a Pixar fairy tale be? It should take tropes and put them on their ear! Some ideas:
– Let the princess start off as a TOTAL COWARD. (It’s called Brave, after all!) As a little girl, she was foolishly fearless, until she endangered her family by breaking the rules. Now she’s overcompensating by being waaaaay too cautious, even carrying around a little abacus to calculate risk before even eating breakfast. When a Big Bad attacks her kingdom, she hides! She emerges to find her kingdom turned to stone/ice/bears/sleep. Now she’s the only one left! Can she use her math skills to undo the Big Bad’s spell before her kingdom shatters/melts/hibernates/is eaten by wolves? Will she learn to be BRAVE?
– Show a wish-granting antagonist (who in normal fairy tales is forever demonstrating to be careful what you wish for) as having good intentions — but just being overly helpful. This troll/fairy/witch might feel hurt and unloved when no one seems to want her spells. You said you wanted it never to rain again! WHY ARE YOU SO MAD AT ME?
I JUST WANT TO BE LOVED.
I had the idea to write up the story in this heckle, but then I think we got onto something and I think I’m just going to what we came up with as a standalone.
You got that to look forward to.
If you like thoughtful heckling, you might also enjoy: