I saw Brave on Friday. As usual with Pixar, the animation was fantastic. I had a problem with the story.
Here’s the big rule of storytelling: your audience must care about the characters. I didn’t have any particular reason to like Merida. She’s pretty but self-involved. The story has a subtext of ‘girl-power’: Merida is a free spirit, she’s being forced to marry according to the rules of a male-oriented system.
The big archery contest we’ve been seeing in the trailers is a reprise of the episode in Robin Hood, but drained of all suspense. We know Merida is a good archer, so it’s no surprise when she beats the spectacularly incompetent boys. Consider that when Robin Hood was tempted to enter Prince John’s archery contest it was a death-trap. Robin was obliged to disguise himself—even knowing his skill would ultimately give away his true identity. Of course he enters in spite of that certain outcome, because his character is rash, impudent, risk-taking, proud and—well—brave. Merida faces no such risk of capture and hanging as Robin Hood did, only her parents’ displeasure (her mom’s, at least). We’re supposed to believe her actions caused a small war among the rival clans, but c’mon, they were all there for a dust-up anyway.
Another flat character is the witch—eccentric, neither likeable nor unlikeable enough to make her interesting. She’s there merely to push the plot along. The male characters are silly, blustering and ineffectual when they’re not actually causing harm.
For me, the only character with depth was Merida’s mom, who was once surely just like Merida but bowed to convention for the benefit of her people. The friction between Merida and her mom is well-done because the mom has dimension. Merida never thinks of anyone but herself (okay, she swipes some pastries for her little brothers) until she’s forced to. But even then, it’s a case of having gotten hersef into a horrible situation she has to get herself out again. I wasn’t convinced that it was a character-changing event for her. After she makes everything right with her mother, she goes back to riding her horse and shooting arrows at things. Instead her parents change, so that Merida doesn’t have to do something she didn’t want to in the first place.
I would have liked Merida better if her Fate, which was so important to her, required a vision beyond herself and her desire not to be bent by convention. Merida’s mom was interesting because long ago she’d grown up. By the end of the movie there was no reason to believe Merida would ever grow up. What’s so brave about that?
Great movie review, John. I have to admit that from the trailer I wondered what the point of the story was and where it was going. I’m not a fan of “live-my-life-for-me” and “girl power” stories. The best stories have likable characters, high stakes, and no-win set-ups (like Hunger Games). And in the best stories, I think there’s a vulnerability and a selfless quality to the mc. We like to see a person of character face those vulnerabilities, not sacrifice that selflessness, and overcome the odds.
They’ve had so many good movies that it’s too bad Pixar put all that effort into a story that missed the mark this time. It’s all about story, after all.
Well said, Beth!