It was only a matter of time. Pixar had been on a hot streak for well over a decade, and for me personally, that streak (sadly) ended with the admittedly well-directed and action-packed, but soulless and suspension-of-disbelief stretching Cars 2. Now we have Brave, which is an improvement over Cars 2, but doesn’t reach the greatness of past successes like Toy Story, The Incredibles, and others.
Brave is your typical generation gap story where the mother knows what’s “best” for her daughter, while the daughter has other interests and wants to rebel against tradition. In this case, the mother, Queen Elinor, has been on her daughter’s case for years now to become a prim and proper lady, with the hopes of marrying her off to one of the neighboring clans. But Merida, who fancies archery over wearing arches, wants none of it and defiantly rejects all of the suitors. This causes a schism between her and her mother, and not even a spell from a mysterious yet goofy witch in the woods can mend the bond, because Merida’s wish that her mother would change (as in, have a change of heart) unexpectedly turns Elinor into a bear instead. Should’ve worded that wish better. So now it’s up to Merida to find a way to change Elinor back into human form before an arbitrary deadline, all while hiding her from Merida’s bear-hating father, King Fergus.
As you may have already guessed, Brave doesn’t have a ton of originality. The bear transformation aspect is right out of another Disney animated film, Brother Bear. You’ve got the “reverse the curse” trope from Beauty and the Beast. The mother and daughter conflict isn’t new territory. The whole concept of the main character’s deal going awry with a questionable stranger evokes memories of The Little Mermaid. And they even used the cliché of Merida shooting an arrow through an arrow already in the bullseye!
Now, in fairness, there aren’t a lot of truly original ideas in movies, but I still couldn’t help but shake the idea that Brave could’ve masked some of these influences a bit more. Overall, the movie feels a bit safe.
Part of why I have a hard time getting into Brave is because the movie never really takes the time to explore its characters all that much. Sure, we know Merida is more of a tomboy than a princess, and we know Elinor expects a lot of her daughter, but we don’t learn much else, and those things feel more like a plot device to eventually turn Elinor into a bear. And once she does, neither side can have a much-needed conversation, what with Elinor only being able to growl and perform paw gestures. Yes, there are some moments when the two form an unlikely human/animal bond, but most of them are done over a musical montage, a pretty easy and cheap device to speed up and gloss over character development. On top of that, I just feel like Elinor turning into a bear is pretty much the only reason why Merida became close to her mother, which feels unsatisfying for some reason.
The comedy in the film also mostly falls flat, sadly. Merida’s mischievous three younger brothers feel like underdeveloped afterthoughts, aside from helping Merida get a key in the climax. The gag where one of the suitors happens to be a tiny, meek shrimp instead of the tall, muscled guy he’s standing behind has been done before, notably in SpongeBob‘s “The Fry Cook Games”. The witch (who also feels like an afterthought) has a weird “voice answering machine”-style message when Merida returns to her hut to ask her to reverse the spell; it’s more smirk-worthy than truly funny, and doesn’t really feel organic to this time period. And an excitable Maudie, the plump castle maid who takes the brunt of Merida’s brothers’ pranks, mostly just screams in terror at the drop of a hat, and feels like a one-note character because of it. The only humor I recall enjoying was a scene where Merida’s brothers concoct a dead frog on a stick and convince Fergus and his bear-hungry mob that the frog shadow is a bear shadow, prompting them to repeatedly chase this shadow all throughout the castle. That was pretty amusing, if nothing else because it shows how excitable the group gets at the mere suggestion of a bear, clouding their judgment in the process.
Brave also suffers from not having a lot of memorable scenes. Think back to previous Pixar outings. Monsters, Inc. had a memorable climax where the two leads ventured into a gigantic room full of hanging doors, and had to search each one, all of which led somewhere different. WALL-E had that grim, grimy view of the future: abandoned, garbage-filled New York, while a lone robot cleans up the mess. Toy Story 3 had the seemingly hopeless incinerator scene. Up had the whimsical, iconic floating house and the dialog-less intro which follows snippets from two people’s entire lives. I could go on and on. But watching Brave, I’m hard-pressed to think of very many scenes which left such a visual impact.
Now for all I’ve criticized the film, you might think I hate it. Well I don’t. The visuals are typically good for Pixar; the Scottish backdrops are gorgeous, Merida’s bright orange, curly hair really stands out in a scene (in a good way), and as I mentioned, I very much enjoyed Elinor’s awkward movements in her new body, which offered great character animation. Composer Patrick Doyle offers something different for Pixar: a Scotland-influenced soundtrack that fits right at home with the medieval setting. The story is paced well enough so that things don’t drag (it’s the shortest Pixar film in recent memory, clocking in at only about 90 minutes). And all scenes with a character who is ostensibly the villain of the film, a menacing, towering, seemingly invincible bear called Mor’du, are well directed to offer some tension how the characters will escape it (or, in the case of Fergus, fight it). Finally, I like how this is another Pixar film starring human characters; not that their non-human films were bad, but it did tend to typecast the studio in a way.
The ultimate version of Brave spans across a whopping five discs, but it’s a lot less substantial than it seems. The first disc is made solely for Blu-ray 3D players/televisions. Since I have neither, I couldn’t view that disc. The second and third discs are standard Blu-ray (with the first consisting of the movie and some special material, and the second being solely extras), the fourth disc is a DVD version of the film with a minimal amount of extras, and the fifth disc is a digital copy disc, allowing you to download and watch the movie in iTunes. The other versions available to buy include a DVD/Blu-ray combo set (with no digital copy or 3D discs) and a bare bones DVD-only version, so it really comes down to how much you want the digital copy/3D and/or the Blu-ray exclusive extras.
The first Blu-ray disc includes two short films, “La Luna” and a new-to-DVD short “The Legend of Mor’du”. The former is an unrelated tale about a young boy undertaking a rite of passage with his father and his grandfather, that involves raking the star-filled moon. It’s told without dialog (aside from some unintelligible muttering). I can’t say the short does much for me, but its gentle, Spanish guitar-flavored soundtrack and simple but elegant visuals are pleasing, and a case could be made for its whimsy. The latter short basically tells how the ostensible villain of Brave came to be, and while the wraparounds are done in CG as usual, most of the short is done with hand-drawn stills, which I didn’t like as much. The backstory about Mor’du wasn’t that original, and I’m glad it was kept a mystery in the film itself. That said, it does tie into a theme of the movie, so it has that going for it.
Eight featurettes appear: “Brave Old World”, “Merida & Elinor”, “Bears”, “Brawl in the Hall”, “Wonder Moss”, “Magic”, “Clan Pixar”, and “Once Upon a Scene”. Of these, my favorites were “Brave Old World”, which concerns the crew’s research trip to Scotland (travelogues like this are always the highlight of Pixar’s DVDs), and “Clan Pixar”, which showcases activities that the crew did for fun in-between working, including wearing kilts on Fridays and eating haggis. The rest of the featurettes are fairly standard talking head pieces about a variety of subjects (fight sequences, voice acting, the large number of deleted scenes, etc.), though they have some info to be gleaned regardless, and it’s always interesting to see the rough sketches of the film, a stark contrast to the finalized CG visuals. There are also four extended sequences. Director Mark Andrews introduces each clip, none of which are very long and don’t consist of substantial unseen material (a scissors icon appears in the bottom left indicating what footage was cut). Don’t expect much from these. Wrapping up this disc is a feature-length audio commentary with many of the filmmakers. As per usual for Pixar commentaries, there’s no dead air and they talk about both the technical side of the film and the movie’s themes. It’s worth a listen.
More material exists on the second Blu-ray disc, although it won’t take you very long to go through. We get an alternate opening sequence (presented in various completed stages), as well as five more featurettes, mostly on the technical side of things (such as the staggering amount of detail that went into cloth, hair, and water/mud, and the Scottish dialects/slang pervading the film). Rounding things off are some Brave trailers and promo pieces (the latter of which contains animation not used in the film) and extensive photo galleries.
While these features give a decent idea of the production of Brave, I consider this set a missed opportunity. Why? Because it doesn’t address, even in passing, the fact that Brenda Chapman stepped down as director and Mark Andrews replaced her. Supposedly there were creative differences, and I would’ve been interested to hear what those were. Now obviously I’m not expecting childish mudslinging or gossiping on a Disney set, but I don’t think it could’ve hurt to tactfully raise awareness that the production wasn’t smooth sailing. Sometimes that sort of thing makes for the best documentaries, because it shows how a team can rise above hardships. Heck, previous Pixar sets such as Toy Story frankly discuss how badly the early versions played out before the crew re-worked them, so I don’t see why they sidestepped such a thing here. Maybe we’ll get something in a decade when the old wounds heal.
Having watched Brave three times now, I’m still not crazy about the film. It doesn’t grab me like it should, and a lot of its elements feel too familiar. Don’t mistake me: I liked the film for what it was, but it never really reached all that high. I don’t often use “underwhelming” to describe a Pixar film, but that’s seriously how I felt with Brave.