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Jul
26
2012

A Few Points In Defense Of The Film Brave

(Merida and Angus, drawn by me in the style of E.C. Segar)

If you read my blog you know that movies aren’t really my thing. My main passions are comics and music (and I try to keep the music chatter to a bare minimum here). I do, though, very occasionally make it out to the theater. These days my theater-going is usually confined to kids’ movies, since I can haul my daughter along with me. Such was the case when my wife, daughter, and I went to see the most recent Pixar film, Brave, a few weeks ago.

I absolutely loved Brave.

I make a point to read/know as little about a film as possible before seeing it, and so I knew very little about Brave going into it. Not too long after I returned from the film, though, I decided to get online and see what kind of reviews the film had received. I was really surprised by the lackluster reaction to the film among critics. Not only was this contrary to my own feelings about the film, but it also contrasted sharply with the very positive online Brave chatter I’d seen via Twitter. So here is not so much a “defense” of Brave, but just a few random thoughts on what might be behind the odd disparity between the critics’ reviews and casual viewers’ reactions to this film. Needless to say, beware spoilers:

  • Reviewers are dudes – I suspect that at the core of this weird discrepancy there’s something gender-related. I’m betting that the audience that saw Brave probably skewed a lot more female than the guy-dominated movie reviewing community. Just grabbing the main page from Rotten Tomatoes here, you can see that among the 25 or so featured reviews, only two are written by women:
  • There’s a princess = people be freakin’ – A surprising number of the lackluster Brave reviews I read mentioned how disappointing it was that Pixar had done a “princess movie.” Some even theorized that this was the result of some insidious corporate mandate from Disney to make Pixar fare fall in line with the Disney “Princess” features like The Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, etc. If you think that there’s any real narrative similarity between those films and Brave, you’re not paying attention. If anything, Brave is a reaction to and refutation of the standard Disney princess story–the “the tired and unrealistic plot of waiting around for your true love to come and find you, sweep you up on his majestic white horse and save you” as Brave writer Brenda Chapman puts it in this excellent post about the Princess trope.
  • It’s a message people don’t want to hearBrave sends a message that’s starkly at odds with today’s dominant “me, me, me” culture. In the film, Merida ultimately realizes that she needs to sublimate her own desires and do what’s best for her family/clan. No, she doesn’t wind up actually going through with the marriage, but she decides that she’s willing to. Relating back to my first point about general gender disparity, I wonder if this concept isn’t something that resonates more with women, who have historically often had to sublimate personal ambitions for their families? At the very least, I suspect that this message of self-sacrifice–of not getting what you want when you want it–probably didn’t fly with the notoriously narcissistic baby boomers who dominate the movie reviewing sphere.
  • Compromise is not a “Hollywood ending” – My wife mentioned to me how much she liked the fact that the ending of Brave was a compromise. This is a very astute observation and I think this aspect of the story may also contribute to the film’s tepid reception. American audiences expect films with the good guy beating the bad guy, with the crime solved and the killer in jail, etc. In Brave, though, the film’s essential point of conflict–the relationship between Merida and her mother–is resolved via compromise. Each party here “gives” a little; neither gets 100% of what she wants, but ultimately everyone is better off at the end. Blowing up the Death Star, it ain’t.
  • Not enough bells and whistles – Many of these reviews compared Brave unfavorably to the two recent Pixar films Up and Wall-E, suggesting that Brave wasn’t as ambitious or imaginative as either of those two movies. Up is arguably Pixar’s best film and the first hour or so of Wall-E is pretty amazing stuff, but I think here people are conflating the number of moving parts for quality. Up and Wall-E are “big” films with lots of fantastic characters interacting in fantastic places–jungles, outer space, etc. Frankly, though, I’m more impressed by Brave‘s narrative elegance. Brave is a story with basically two characters–Merida and her mother–and the entire film hinges on their relationship and how it changes. I saw Brave described as being “safe” compared to previous Pixar fare. There’s nothing “safe” about a 90 minute kids’ film that hinges on a complex mother/daughter relationship instead of flying robots or anthropomorphized animal characters. That’s daring.

6 comments

  1. Troy Jensen says:

    Honestly, I haven’t seen the film yet (waiting until my wife, daughter, and myself can all go together) but from what bit I’ve seen published about it, I do think you have some really good points.

    I think a lot of people have come to expect such a high standard from Pixar, that they’ve also started circling like vultures waiting for the one they can call “a failure”. I’m sure Brave does not qualify as that, and I personally look forward to enjoying a princess movie with a little more depth. And depth is what Pixar seems to be best at (ignoring Cars 2…)

    (And I’m glad I’m not the only one that avoids reviews before a movie and then seeks them out afterwards. I don’t like having my opinion sullied beforehand.)

  2. Meredith says:

    I thought the movie was okay, honestly my biggest issue was with the style- not enough of it. While the humans were cartoon-like, the animals and environment was not. Made the eye candy a little boring. When CG gets too realistic you stop noticing it and it fades away- I enjoy hyper-stylized environments that I can just look and look and never get tired of looking at. I just wish there had been more of it in this film.

  3. Ben says:

    @Troy Jensen – Yeah, I think Pixar has set a pretty high bar, but I honestly think Brave meets that bar–and more. I think, though, that because of the types of films that have come before it that people also expect a certain type of film, a certain level of visual spectacle. Brave is a tighter, more personal story and I wonder of one thing nay-sayers are reacting to is just that it’s an historical story with human characters. It doesn’t take place in outer space or under the sea, and the characters are just regular people, not anthropomorphic toys or animals.

  4. Ben says:

    @Meredith – Interesting… I really hadn’t thought about that until you brought it up. It’s certainly a more subdued environment visually than some of the other Pixar movies for sure.

  5. Monica says:

    Thank you for this! I loved this movie and thought it was such a great take on the princess tropes we’ve had to put up with for so long. I was listening to NPR’s Midday trash the movie yesterday as not being “girl power” enough or “too typical of princess movies”. I couldn’t believe it – I’ve definitely never seen a princess movie take on a mother-daughter relationship front and center that lets THEM be the focus of the action and the struggle. While also exploring the selfishness of being a teen and having responsibilities thrown at you. I thought it was really remarkable.

  6. Troy Jensen says:

    @Ben Yea… strange that people complain and have a harder time relating to human characters in a human setting… I think that speaks to a much larger issue with film and society in general?

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