Brave Is Kind of a Mess but Enjoyable

Brave 2012Last night I watched the 2012 animated feature Brave. It is what it is. Visually it is stunning. But it’s curious. Much of the background animation could be mistaken for live action. The rendering of a waterfall was absolutely fantastic. But then in that environment exist all the characters who by and large look like they were designed by the people who created Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s just interesting.

“Interesting” is the word for this film. It’s representations of men are just terrible, although given men in reality, not exactly undeserved. So the film focuses on women, and indeed, the three primary characters are women: mother, daughter, and the most charming witch, I mean woodcarver, you will ever see. But the narrative itself is a mess. The film is half over before the viewer gets clued in as to what it is about. And that issue—female intergenerational bonding—is a welcome one, especially given the film’s obvious appeal to girls. But it meanders, making seriously tired Scottish jokes that by this time ought to be at least a little blue. And then the mother gets turned into a bear.

That strikes me as just odd. But it does have the advantage of providing what would commonly result in strong dramatic momentum. The daughter is responsible for turning her mother into a bear and they both want to turn the mother back. There is even a ticking clock. Yet the film continues to meander. If you knew that you only had a day to cancel the spell that had turned your mother into a bear, would you really spend it teaching her how to catch fish? Then there is much mindless action. But I was surprised by the ending when the mother stayed a bear for the rest of her life after eating the daughter. Okay, so that was a joke. They all live happily ever after as computer generated quasi-humans.

I used to really like it that animated features tended to be so well scripted. But that is less and less true, as animation studios have learned that they too can just wing it with a bit of action or a musical interlude. What’s more, the scripts—and most definitely the script for Brave—depend upon dialog to explain what’s going on. There is a second bear in the movie (not the mother), and the daughter has to explain that the bear was actually the son of legend who didn’t listen to his father. This was already fairly well established, and it really didn’t require any dialog—just some more information to drive it home.

None of this is to say that the film is bad. It works well enough. And it’s short: only 84 minutes if you don’t count the credits that go on and on and on. Kelly Macdonald voiced the daughter, which is just perfect, because it seems her voice will always sound like she’s 14. Emma Thompson as the mother is good and pleasant as always. But it was Julie Walters who had the fun part as the witch, I mean woodcarver, who really stood out. The two songs in it were as inoffensive as they were uninspired. (Can we all just agree that in the future, all films having anything to do with non-modern Scotland can just use James Horner’s score from Braveheart?) Finally, as I said: it really is beautiful to look at.

From a political standpoint, it’s a mixed bag. How can it no be? It is about a princess. Other than the aristocracy, everyone in the film is either part of the kitchen staff or the army. The one exception is the witch, I mean woodcarver. She is the most interesting character, and she isn’t in the film nearly enough for my tastes. She reminds me of something that Terry Eagleton once wrote, “To any unprejudiced reader—which would seem to exclude Shakespeare himself, his contemporary audiences and almost all literary critics—it is surely clear that positive value in Macbeth lies with the three witches.” In Brave, none of the men are creative (as I indicated before, perhaps an earned representation). Creativity is left to the women (You could have a fine time analyzing that!) which is left to the mother and finally the daughter when they reconcile. But most of all, it is the witch woodcarver who is creative, although her spells do tend to all end in someone turning into a black bear. So there’s your standard fairy tale: the important aristocracy, the happy peasants, and the outcast. I can hardly complain given that most “adult” literature only deals with the first two of those groups. And I was pleased that Brave presented its outcast in a very positive light.

On the DVD of Brave are two short films that are far better than the feature. The first one was directed by Brave story supervisor Brian Larsen, “The Legend of Mor’du.” It tells the backstory of the other bear who disobeyed his father’s wishes. Other than the opening and closing, which are done in the Brave style with the witch, I mean woodcarver, telling the story, it is done in that old fashioned kind of animation with still images. Even today, I find that to be some of the most compelling stuff because the images can be much more interesting. Here it is:

The attributes of the four sons are interesting: wise, compassionate, just, and strong. One of these things is not like the other. What exactly is strong doing in that group? Of course, I suppose the point of the story is that the strong one is not any of wise, compassionate, and just. And he’s the one who screws everything up.

The other short is Enrico Casarosa’s fabulous La Luna. It is about three generations of a single family: grandfather, father, and son. And it is their job each night to… Telling you would not spoil it, but just watch it:

It looks a lot better on the DVD. (Also: it isn’t reversed!) And really, buying the whole DVD just for La Luna is probably a great deal.

4 thoughts on “Brave Is Kind of a Mess but Enjoyable

  1. A few years ago I emailed some people I knew who all had kids. And I said the Pixars represent the best stretch of children’s films ever made; appreciate them now, because it won’t last. Many kids movies are insulting to kids and adults; others give kids what they think the want, while inserting sly double entendres and pop-culture references to keep the adults from getting bored.

    The great Pixars were something else. They were almost like great folk or fairy tales, working on levels so basic, yet written with such wit, and created with such visual obsession, that adults and kids both responded to them equally. That stretch of "The Incredibles," "Wall-E," "Ratatouile," "Toy Story 3" and (especially) "Up" were just great movies, not great kids movies. (Some people loved "Monsters, Inc." and "Finding Nemo" as well; I enjoyed them, didn’t love them, but if you include those it’s like seven straight great films. Wow.)

    Take "Wall-E." It’s got robots; kids love robots. It’s got loneliness. Most kids feel lonely and incapable of making themselves understood. And it’s got a junkyard of toys! Of course, adults react to the image of Earth as a junkyard differently. But both react to the story.

    Or one of my favorite plot points in "The Incredibles." Mr. Incredible is doing sneak superhero work behind his wife’s back. She eventually finds out he’s hiding something, although she doesn’t know what. That works on so many levels; kids playing a little more dangerously than their parents would like and not wanting to be caught, members of any close emotional group being disappointed others aren’t sharing something with the rest (kids and adults can relate to this), and, of course, the extremely subtle infidelity undertone (which the movie doesn’t ruin by giving it a wink-wink-nudge-nudge shoutout to adults.)

    Lord, "Up" was about balloon adventure and funny dogs and a dying man not wanting to leave his home! How great was that?

  2. @JMF – I’m not clear here. So you didn’t like [i]Brave[/i]?

    In [i]The Incredibles[/i], I think the issue was on the other side. Mirage has a bit of a crush on Mr Incredible, and then when Buddy (who she is clearly in a relationship with) seems willing to sacrifice her in his struggle with Mr Incredible, that allows her the latitude to betray Buddy. From the standpoint of the narrative, it would have been catastrophic to imply any actual (non-Jimmy Carter) infidelity on the part of Mr Incredible.

    Yes, I think about this kind of stuff [i]way[/i] too much.

    From an animation standpoint, they do amazing work. I remember how impressed I was in the late 1980s with "Tin Toy." Now that is nothing. I’m just sorry that it has become so easy that they don’t have to worry about having a really strong script before they start. "Tin Toy" had a [i]great[/i], if simple, script.


  3. Oh, I’m sure "Brave" is fine. I didn’t see it. For me, the great Pixar run ended when "Cars 2" came out. No doubt the new ones have some good qualities.

    What I meant about the infidelity undertones in "The Incredibles" is Mrs. Incredible’s suspecting something’s up. The movie plays this straight as "she suspects him of doing superhero work" because it’s appropriate for kids — however, adults get what she’s worried about.

    Being straight-up a part of Disney now can’t help the company; neither can Brad Bird being gone. He only directed the two films, but I’d be surprised if everyone didn’t add a little to each others’ projects.

  4. @JMF – Oh, yeah, I think they hit that one pretty hard actually. But her primary thing is that he is doing super hero work because of her meeting with Edna. It does go back and forth. She notices the hair making her think affair. That leads to the repair making her think super hero work. But then catching the Mirage in the arms of Mr is more one of those uncomfortable situation that looks bad but which everyone knows is innocent.

    Bird also did [i]Ratatouile[/i] as I recall. I don’t know how good that was. I just have a great fondness for rats.

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