“Brave” Doesn’t Quite Live Up to Pixar’s Lofty Standards


Brave Poster

“Brave” (2012) is the first installment in the venerable Pixar franchise that stars a girl and involves a witch. There is something both nostalgic and cliché about this set-up, no doubt because it is a familiar backdrop of many classic films created by Disney, which purchased Pixar six years ago.

The girl is Melda (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a feisty princess who has reached an age in which, in Scotland in the medieval period, a princess is expected to be married. Princes from the neighboring areas come with their fathers for her affection, but she is more interested in shooting bows and arrows and running through the forest. She clashes with her mother, the queen, who is pushing her to get married for the sake of peace in the kingdom. During one unbearable argument, Melda runs out of the castle and into the forest, where she meets a witch.  Melda requests the witch to make a spell that will make her mother understand her.  She gets her request and uses the potion on her mother, the consequence of which is that her mother turns into a bear. The spell can only be uncast, she learns, when she and her mother come to understanding each other.

This film feels noticeably different from the prior films produced by Pixar. Not only does it star a female lead, but it involves a story about a teenager dealing with teenage issues — disagreement about course of life with a parent — in a time and world when teenagers were adults. This is really not a children’s film; the target age group is much higher than, say, “Toy Story” (1995) or even “The Incredibles” (2004).  “Brave” lacks the youthful innocence and witty humor of those previous films. The prime audience of this film are teenagers who will be able to understand and empathize with what Melda is going through, albeit in a different era.

This change in tone isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What makes “Brave” fall distinctly short of even recent classics like “Toy Story 3” (2010) and “Ratatouille” (2007) is the failure to develop the story. The strength of Pixar films has always been in telling a compelling narrative, even if it is a simple one. A relationship between a mother and teenage daughter is far more complicated than the father-son fish relationship in “Finding Nemo” (2003).  It’s certainly far more nuanced than a simple love story that Disney told in “Cinderella”(1950) and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1955), also starring a princess and a witch. I think the “The Incredibles” is testament to how Pixar can successfully pull off telling this story, but they don’t quite measure up to their usual standard in “Brave.”  The critique seems blunt but apt: the pacing of the film feels rushed. With a running time of 100 minutes, a little more time of Melda and her mother as a bear, bonding in the forest as they figure out how to uncast the spell, could have gone a long way.

The film also suffers from some sloppiness that one doesn’t usually expect from Pixar. The most glaring is a scene in which Melda is giving an extended speech to his father and the men in the grand hall of the castle. She is trying to draw the attention of the hundreds of soldiers in the room because her mother, a bear, is trying to sneak into the room through the back.  In this scene, it’s rather obvious that the father, facing Melda, should notice this.

All this isn’t to say that the “Brave” isn’t a good film. In fact, it’s a very good production. The story, despite its shortcomings, is told well. Particularly strong is the score of the film, which not only added to the Scottish feel of the film, but also gave added presence to Melda as a character.

The most impressive achievement, though, is unsurprisingly the computer animation. There is a scene in this movie, quite brief, which gives a bird’s-eye view of the port in Melda’s kingdom. The details and the realism make this a stunningly beautiful couple seconds. Watching it, I realized that, since its debut with “Toy Story,” computer animation has managed to carve out its own genre. Computer animation can make people and scenery realistic in the way traditional animation never could, yet its goal is not to make a film that is a replica of live-action. There is a subtle balance to strike between realism and animation in computer animation and “Brave” hits just the right note. The film certainly feels like an animated film, but taps into the realism when such realism adds a level of beauty traditionally only seen in live action film.

“Brave” in a way is a victim of Pixar’s own success. It is an entertaining movie with a good story involving interesting characters told well. But Pixar has set for themselves a golden standard, not just for animations, but for filmmaking in general.  “Brave” doesn’t quite live up to it. Pixar often makes filmmaking look easy, but “Brave” is a testament to the rather obvious fact that it’s difficult to make an instant classic. But if the failure to meet that lofty goal is “Brave,” well that’s not too bad, either.


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