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Disney/Pixar "Brave" Trailer Analysis

Disney/Pixar has just released a new trailer for Brave:

The first thing I love about this trailer is that it’s just a chunk of the movie. No fast-cuts. No creative editing. No attempts to fool us into thinking this movie is something that it isn’t. No packing all the best parts of a movie into the trailer. I think this is something that more trailers ought to do, but then again I suspect there are a lot of studios who wouldn’t have the courage to use over two continuous minutes of their movie as an ad, since so many of those chopped-up, half-baked trailers for movies accidentally reveal that there isn’t even a minute’s worth of quality in the entire thing.

There’s a lot to like about that 2 minutes, 30 seconds of movie, too. While it may not explicitly detail much about the plot, the central tension that will drive the movie is perfectly clear from the clip: the princess Merida’s independent spirit clashing against societal expectations in general and her mother’s way of thinking in particular. I also love the snide jokes exchanged between Merida and her father, King Fergus, and the way they try (and fail) to make them behind the back of Queen Elinor. Those little throwaway bits, along with Merida’s hair color, give subtle hints on who the princess takes after and sketch in the family dynamics quickly and efficiently.

Yes, this isn't how the scene is done in the movie. Yell at Disney's PR dept, not me.The best part of the trailer, of course, is the Robin Hood moment when Merida splits the lucky bulls-eye arrow, shooting with such force that she drives the arrow all the way through the target and into the supporting post behind it. I love the little fake-out at first when it looks like Merida isn’t strong enough to draw her bow, followed by the reveal that completely shatters that impression when she shows she’s strong enough to rip the seams of her dress without even using her hands. I’ve written before about the difference between archetype and cliché, and the splitting-the-arrow shot is a perfect example of the archetype in action. Yes, we know what’s coming, but the moment derives its power precisely because we’ve seen this before. Everything about that last sequence, from the shifting points of focus to the slow-motion, are used to build up to that sublime moment of mythic import. An element that Joseph Campbell mentions is the mark of the hero — the unusual thing that sets the hero apart from the norm, and it is this moment that reveals the mark that Merida is given. It is a moment that has genuine cinematic power, resonating with that mythic tuning fork embedded in our collective unconscious to signal that This One is Special. And finally, I love the final cut where Merida turns to face off against her mother. The way she turns reveals that she has enough situational awareness to know exactly where her mother is, and the expression on both their faces reveals that this is a fight that they have had many, many times before. I want to see that fight play out, and the trailer does its job of making me interested to see the rest of the movie by cutting off that fight with the movie logo.

Unfortunately, the effectiveness of that back-half of the trailer is also what brings me to my biggest misgivings, and that’s the overly broad slapstick that precedes it. Like anything that comes out of Pixar (yes, including Cars 2 in my eyes), that comedy is all executed near-perfectly, though I could live without the “nothing under the kilt” gag. The problem is that those comedic bits are almost completely out-of-tone with the more serious moments that follow, giving me a sense of dramatic whiplash. The slapstick just doesn’t really seem to belong in the same movie as the one where Merida proves her warrior’s mettle so beautifully. I’m reminded of the unnecessary comic relief elements after the initial Disney Renaissance. Terk and Tantor in Disney’s Tarzan were decent comedic characters, but they just didn’t belong in the same movie that handed us Sabor the scary-ass leopard right in the opening scenes. Like Disney’s Tarzan, this little bit of Brave almost seems afraid to just play the whole thing straight. There’s still a palpable sense of a movie somewhat at war with itself — insecure in what it truly wants to be and hiding that insecurity with inappropriate humor. Honestly, the comic moments strike me as comparable to the way DreamWorks’ Puss in Boots just couldn’t make up its mind what it wanted to be, and it’s not a good thing when Pixar starts reminding me of the lesser output of DreamWorks Animation.

Of course, Tarzan remains one of my favorite Disney movies despite the wildly inappropriate comic relief in it, and I hope Brave can do as well. I’m just a little disappointed that Brave doesn’t seem to have the same courage as Merida herself to defy convention.

Brave premieres in the US on June 22, 2012. Visit the official Brave site for more information.

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