Brave is a good movie.
It’s exciting. One of Pixar’s strengths has always been the practised pace of their storytelling, and Brave is no departure from the norm. This is a film that can be slow and reflective one minute, and the next explode into rollercoaster motion. The action is also excellent. Stakes are well established, and the fights themselves have true character. There is a world of difference between the happy Highland brawls and the concluding life-and-death-struggle, and you feel it in your gut. When someone gets hit in the former, it’s a joke. When someone gets hit in the latter, your blood runs cold.
Brave is also genuinely funny, again in the usual Pixar fashion. The film doesn’t have the kind of humour that has you on your knees, or literally rofl-ing. The humour is mostly slapstick, the punchlines snappy. The laughs it prompts are more amused barks than extensive chuckling. But still, the film is funny, or better yet, lighthearted: a film of irrepressible scamps, squabbling Scotsmen and excitable women with large boobs. Not particularly refined humour it’s true, but on occasion refinement can get stuffed. In some ways I am still the little boy who read the Beano religiously for years, and I have never quite lost my love for the intelligent and co-ordinated theft of pastries.
And yet…goddamn it. Look, Brave is fun, OK? It is without a doubt entertaining. It never drags, or gets dull. It’s a good movie. Keep that in mind, because now, I have to talk about why it isn’t a great movie.
I have to talk about it because Brave’s lack of greatness is so obvious. You watch the movie and you smile and you laugh, and hell, even cringe or wince now and again. But you never feel moved. This is especially irritating, because it’s not at all clear why you’re never moved.
I mean look at Brave’s story. At first glance it seems like it should work fine. The characters are all well drawn. Sure, their traits are all very stereotypical, but they are most definitely not stereotypes themselves. They feel like people. Fergus, the king voiced by Billy Connolly, may be a big bag of Scots wind, but underneath he is a man with a boundless love for his family. Furthermore the pacing works and the plot makes sense. It even has this enjoyable, low-fantasy mythic quality to it. It’s something of a rarity to have a modern film keep magic firmly to the outskirts of its world, and it’s good to see that happening here. After all, if magic is a common thing, it stops being special, and what’s the point of it then?
So the story at first glance seems fine. But on second glance, things become a little less perfect. Brave begins with Merida (Kelly Macdonald) narrating, but she never does so again, which in terms of writing faux pas is like farting on a first date. It just unnecessarily muddies the waters: is this story being told by a future Merida, or is present Merida experiencing it realtime? We never know. Meanwhile, the resolution of Merida’s character arc happens too quickly, too easily and too long before the end of the movie. And then there’s the villain, Mor’du.
Now, I like giant evil bears as much as the next man. But I honestly have no idea why this one is even in the movie, not that it’s even in it all that much. Mor’du first turns up in the prologue, a brief appearance in which the bear comes out of nowhere, eats Fergus’ leg and then buggers off for at least a decade. It’s not seen again until Merida and her mother (Elinor, voiced by Emma Thompson) accidentally bump into it, which just doesn’t seem particularly villainous. Villains should have schemes and plans, or at least be an obstacle that has to be overcome. The bear is none of those things. It’s just a bad thing that happens to exist, and is occasionally encountered. Mor’du itself has no purpose. That makes it a dull antagonist.
So yeah, Brave has a fair few story fumbles. But they are not the source of Brave’s problems. They are symptoms. In my opinion Brave’s problems stem from an issue as its very core. This story is trying to do the impossible: it is trying to teach two completely contradictory life lessons simultaneously.
Stories are never just entertainment. All the bangs and whistles, all the lovey-doveyness and explosions and intricate character creation, all that is just sugar coating for an ideology. From a sociological standpoint, stories are the most efficient method of cultural indoctrination, of teaching good from bad, right from wrong, who to love, who to hate and how to live. It’s like making toothpaste taste minty, or giving a child a lollipop after they’ve taken medicine. And yes, all stories do this. Bad Boys 2 may make Boris Johnson look like a pinnacle of refined grace, but nonetheless it successfully expresses the virtuousness of a very specific, militaristic form of male bond. It creates in our minds the sense that this is the ideal relationship. This is by no means an intended outcome. Michael Bay is not a storyteller who particularly thinks about anything. At all. But intentions don’t matter. Bay as a man obviously idolises the military and the virtues associated with that institution. He pours his love for those virtues into his films, and so his films become endorsements for those virtues.
So, at the core of every story is a message. What’s more for a story to work, that message has to be clear. Stories have to have a point.
Brave’s problem is not that it doesn’t have a point. If anything, the opposite is true. Brave’s problem is that it has two messages. In part, Brave is all about seizing control of one’s own destiny. That’s what the opening narration is all about. It’s also what motivates Merida in attempting to change her mother. With these elements Brave supports the ambition of becoming who you want to be, and resisting unfair societal pressures while you go about it.
And then, suddenly, the film undergoes a complete ideological about-face as Elinor is humanised. We are shown that her demands on Merida are not unfair: they arise out of necessity. Merida’s mother is the stateswoman of Brave: she is the one who keeps the clans from fighting amongst one another. Elinor’s instruction of Merida is an attempt to ensure that she has a successor. In this context, Merida’s rebellion starts to look a lot less like striving for rightful independence, and a lot more like wilful selfishness. Merida’s arc also fits this new lesson. Though she starts out wanting to free herself, in order to live her own life, Merida ends up acknowledging the need to sacrifice her own desires for the greater good. No wonder Brave feels so confused. It’s telling the audience to put their own needs first, at the same time as it’s telling us to put the needs of others first.
Brave does seem aware of that conflict, and tries its best to resolve it. But said attempt (Merida’s speech before the clan lords) lacks conviction. It’s just papering over a narrative fault line, a dissatisfactory attempt to reconcile two competing messages. Brave as a film is pure entertainment: nothing more, nothing less. And though entertainment value is the reason we digest stories so readily, it is not the reason that stories exist. We come to stories for the explosions, but we love them for what they say. Unfortunately, Brave says nothing but garbled nonsense.