Brave: The Mostly Spoiler-Free Review

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Brave is an irony: its singular message is “we make our own fate,” but the plot largely consists of the characters following will-o’-the-wisps to the next action scene.  They don’t get to be particularly clever by creating their own solutions… but they are very, very brave.
Which is not to say that Brave is a bad film.  It’s just that the lead characters are hampered by a certain lack of agency.  The opening is great; the Princess boldly decides to make her own way, making a decision that’s just a little selfish to follow her own dreams.  Emotional complexity results.  And then…
…magic.
Not the good kind of Pixar magic, but the kind of magic that says, “Well, we want to hand solutions to our characters – so being magic plot devices, we’ll force the characters into the configurations they need in order to solve their personal problems.”  And that is, admittedly, classic fairy tale logic.  But at the same time, the best of those fairy tales had characters making vital choices; when they were lost, they were sometimes lost for years.  When they defeated a monster, it was often because of their own cleverness.  And I don’t really feel that the lead characters of Brave are all that resourceful; mostly, they wander in the woods until they pick up the will-o’-the-wisps, who in this case act as a kind of videogame help system to guide them.
Now, there’s a lot to be said for Brave in that it’s got a lot of emotional and moral complexity for a kids’ film.  Princess Merida’s family feels agreeably real – or perhaps disagreeably real, because they’re a family constantly beset by arguments, and arguments of emotional heft that literally can’t be resolved without serious compromises that no one is willing to make.  But they obviously still love each other, that sort of love that comes from fondness.  And Princess Merida’s choices have political consequences that are usually absent from a film about love.
And Brave is kind of a feminist movie.  Princess Merida doesn’t really need to be rescued from anything but her own bad decisions, so on one level she’s a strong female character.  Yet on the other hand, the storyline is the same hackneyed “Men don’t believe that women can make choices, woman shows them but good,” that sort of reinforces gender stereotypes at the same time it breaks them.  I mean, it’s great showing a Princess fighting the power, but can we have a strong female hero who’s not defined by fighting against frilly dresses and societal expectations?
And the animation is wondrous.  There’s a character who is transformed, and the transformation is heartbreaking simply because they don’t do a cartoonized version of that character.  That character becomes what they’ve been transformed into, a clumsy thing shambling around in a body that’s unfamiliar, and that turns what could be comedy into pathos.
The end is very powerful, when the daughter makes some bold choices, and the family comes together.  But I spent a lot of Brave wishing those powerful, meaningful choices had been made every step along the way to this climax.  I wanted to watch a film where the characters discovered things on their own initiative, instead of following glowing blue dots like Pac-Man gobbling his way through a maze to find the next power-up.  As a result, what you have is a Pixar film that will resonate strongly with some – the feminist messages and the beautiful Scottish landscapes are going to call to people – but for me, ultimately lands somewhere between A Bug’s Life and Cars, which is to say a lesser Pixar offering without being as actively bad as Cars 2.

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