June 22, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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BRAVE:  Watch It At Home – Pixar Out Of Its Element


A spunky young animated princess is suffocated by her domineering mom, and her efforts to break free lead to all sorts of unintended chaos… Wasn’t Tangled a lot of fun?  Pixar’s new BRAVE has gotten lots of attention for being the studio’s first film with a female lead, but the more important point in terms of its success and failure is that it’s Pixar’s first walk down the well-trod path of the newly-spun fairy tale.  If How To Train Your Dragon was DreamWorks Animation’s fairly good attempt at making a Pixar film, Brave is, unaccountably, Pixar’s try at a DreamWorks movie–and frankly, this may be the one genre that DreamWorks does better.

Brave isn’t a calamity, like last year’s Cars 2,  which felt like a naked grab for sequel cash and a betrayal of everything Pixar was supposed to stand for.  Brave is gorgeous to watch, and idiosyncratic in ways  both good and bad.  But trying to be simultaneously archetypal and original, it doesn’t wholly manage to be either.

Our princess is Merida (voice of Kelly McDonald), daughter of warrior King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) in medieval Scotland.  Fergus lost a leg in a face-off with a giant bear, and he has a Captain Ahab attitude toward the beasts, while Elinor is state of the art when it comes to prim and proper.  Merida is distinguished by perhaps the best hair any animated character has ever had, a fiery, unruly forest of red that expresses just about everything we need to know about her character.  Merida’s parents have decided that it’s time for her to be wed, and they organize a tournament for the 3 other ruling families of the land to have their eldest sons compete for her hand.  Elinor tiresomely insists that Merida suppress all of her talents (notably for archery) and be as ladylike and submissive as a prospective queen should be; Merida resists bitterly.  Finally Merida visits a witch (Julie Walters) in the nearby forest, and–

And here’s where a SPOILER ALERT has to come in.  Pixar and Disney have successfully kept what happens next under wraps, but it’s the crucial event of the movie’s second half, and discussing Brave without revealing it would be pointless, so read on at your own risk.

Where were we?  Merida visits the oddly bear-obsessed witch (in her spare time, she carves only bear objects and sells them).  Merida asks for her mother to change… and when she feeds Elinor the resulting potion, it changes her mother into a bear.  And that’s the rest of the movie:  Merida and the now-bear Elinor head for the forest, where they bond, Elinor learning the appeal of the wild life, and Merida coming to understand something about the importance of tradition.  In the end, naturally, Fergus comes upon this bear, not knowing who she really is, and Merida has to resolve the crisis.

There’s some wondrous animation of the bear Elinor, but fundamentally the transformation doesn’t have the resonance that directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (Andrews replaced Chapman midway through production, for reasons no one wants to talk about), and screenwriters Andrews, Chapman, Steve Purcell and Irene Mecchi must have intended.  It simply plays as a strange plot device, something contrived to force Merida and Elinor to spend quality time together so each can learn life lessons–it’s like the plot of a high-concept Eddie Murphy movie.

The filmmakers never figure out quite what tone they want the movie to have.  On the one hand, there are DreamWorks-ish anachronistic gags, like the vanished witch leaving behind a cauldron version of voice-mail options.  But when Merida’s 3 young brothers also fall under the spell and are turned into bear cubs, the movie seems to have no instinct for the kind of killer shtick characters like that are made for–you can’t help thinking of the way DreamWorks has strung 3 movies worth of Madagascar laughs out of a few penguins and a lemur.  This isn’t Pixar’s kind of humor, and because of that, Brave often feel awkward and then sanctiimonious, with little of the narrative grace that marks the studio’s great films.

In terms of Merida as Pixar’s brave step into the world of heroines, the studio missed the bus.  Merida is charming and spirited, but in this year of Katniss Everdeen, Black Widow, Arya on Game of Thrones, and the Joan of Arc version of Snow White (on screens both large and small), Merida’s archery prowess and big speech convincing all the lords to let her think for herself feel like awfully small beans.  Merida isn’t even as daring as Tangled‘s Rapunzel:  watching the movie, you keep waiting for Merida to do something that showcases some outsized heroism, but it turns out her task is to beg forgiveness and seek a family reunion.

Brave‘s visual craftsmanship is beyond reproach.  The landscapes are spectacular, and the interiors have intricate detail and a lived-in look.  McDonald and Thompson do very strong vocal work, although the men are largely wasted in characters that are less funny versions of the How To Train Your Dragon Scots.  There are also some unnecessary, interchangeable songs dotting the soundtrack.

Brave is a very different kind of misfire from Cars 2 (it feels like a picture that just didn’t come together, not one that should never have been made), so the fact that the two have come in succession shouldn’t lead to any conclusions about Pixar’s losing its way in any grand sense.  But the fact that the studio’s next release is a sequel to Monsters Inc (after a 3D re-release of Finding Nemo) is a little disconcerting.  For 15 years, the arrival of a new Pixar title was a highlight of the movie year.  It would be a shame if the studio became just another generator of seasonal tentpole releases.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."