What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
I missed seeing BRAVE in theaters but it was a film I really wanted to see. I’m not the world’s biggest Pixar apologist, but I’ve seen all of their films not called CARS. And I happen to think WALL-E and UP are absolute masterpieces. So while I heard rumors that BRAVE wasn’t the greatest Pixar entry, that didn’t sway me from my desire to see the film. After all, there has ALWAYS been talk of Pixar falling from grace. That is the nature of being on top, and being the undisputed kings of animated feature films. Folks will always be predicting your inevitable fall.
So is BRAVE the film that signifies Pixar’s fall from perfection? Or does the one-two punch of CARS 2 and BRAVE really indicate that you should consider selling your stock in Pixar? As I said, I can’t comment on the CARS films because I have not seen them. But I will say BRAVE didn’t measure up to WALL-E or UP. And while I enjoyed BRAVE, I felt it had a palpable Disney feel to it that I found a little bit frustrating.
BRAVE tells a story set in an universally lovable setting. In a brilliantly rendered medieval Scotland...
...Princess Merida finds herself on the verge of being betrothed to the most worthy suitor in the land. Her father, King Fergus, and mother Queen Elinor invite the lords of the various clans in their kingdom to present their eldest sons, who will compete for Merida’s hand. But Merida is unwieldy, fiercely independent, and wholly uninterested in being betrothed.
Her conflict with her mother reaches a breaking point that sends Merida away from the castle, seeking a way to change her fate.
I actually love everything about this set up. Merida is a wonderful character and a welcomed addition to the storied line of Disney princesses. As the movie opens, there is a pretty masterful pre-title sequence that introduces us to all of the important characters, introduces a supernatural element to the film as Merida encounters the mythical will-o’-the-wisps, and ultimately tantalizes us with an attack from the evil bear known as Mordu.
After the title sequence, there is a pretty awe-inspiring sequence that shows us Merida’s ideal picture of freedom. She takes a break from her “mother-enforced” studies and etiquette lessons and rides her horse Angus through the village and into the countryside. Merida is an ace archer and spends her ride shooting, climbing, bonding with her horse, and just generally being free-spirited. This montage is set to music and is, frankly, beautiful. By this point, we know everything we need to know about the world BRAVE is set in, and the characters that inhabit it.
And this is why I was so disappointed in the direction that the story goes in Act 2. I don’t want to full on spoil the story for those who haven’t seen it yet, but I’m going to get into some mild spoiler territory here. As Merida’s conflict with her mother reaches a boiling point, she once again escapes on horse back into the woods. But this time the will-o’-the-wisps lead her to a witch’s den, where she requests a spell that will change her fate. The story takes a decidedly supernatural turn at this point, and the hijinx feel so very Disney that I was a little taken aback. As witch’s spells are wont to do, this spell works to change Merida’s fate in a way that no one expected. And the complications of this spell are… quite odd. The spell impacts her mother Elinor...
...because the central conflict of the film is between these two characters. But the story just veers so far into the resolution of the witch’s spell that I was ultimately let down that the film never quite recaptured the potential scale and size of the epic opening. I would have loved to see Merida break out into the wider world and somehow learn the error of her ways through more of a traditional heroes quest, rather than simply having to clean up the impact of a messy spell. Frankly, I’m not sure the magical elements were necessary at all to tell a story about a royal family on the mend and a plucky princess whose determination changes the traditions of her kingdom.
So my issues with BRAVE come mostly from a story perspective. But aside from that, I found a lot to love in the film, and I do mean a lot.
The animation is breathtaking on a whole new level. I think it is the most beautiful computer animation I have ever seen. Merida’s hair alone, which was teased [see what I did there?] in all the promotional materials for the film, is incredible. Not only is the hair the most incredible computer animated hair ever yet conceived, but it perfectly encapsulates her character as well. The unkempt, wiry, flowing red locks tell us almost everything we need to know about Merida just from looking at her. But the entire animated whole of Scotland is brilliantly rendered by the Pixar team. Each character design is wonderful...
...the countryside and landscapes are breathtaking, and even smaller details like a tapestry that plays an important role in the film, as well as Merida’s horse Angus, are all visually miraculous. True marvels of technology and art converging.
But apart from the technical achievements, there are a number of implications that the film offers which I admire and feel are positive elements of the film, even if the story bore them out in a way much different than I would have liked to see.
First and foremost, and this has been noted by many before me; Merida is a great example of a strong female lead who never relies on a Prince Charming to save the day. Again, a fairly large spoiler warning here, but Merida does not end up with Prince at the end of this film. The whole symbolic victory that she achieves is to change the burgeoning culture of their kingdom so that young women have the right to choose who they will fall in love with and marry. And I love that the filmmakers didn’t need to tidily wrap that up with a love interest. I’m fairly confident that the day might come that Merida WOULD find a worthy equal, but BRAVE is bold enough to suggest that a woman’s entire purpose in life MAY not be to find the right man. And I applaud that.
I was also fairly fascinated by how patently non-Judeo-Christian this story really was. BRAVE tells a medieval tale that is totally removed from any hallmarks of the Judeo-Christian world. This isn’t inherently a good or a bad thing; but it is an intentional and interesting thing! As I was watching the movie, the notion that this was a wholly pagan film crossed my mind and wouldn’t leave. I kept wondering how parents and families around the country reacted to this element of BRAVE. But the film did quite well at the box office, without necessarily being a mega-hit. So I guess families didn’t need their film to reflect a specific, Judeo-Christian worldview. Yet as I thought this over, I realized that almost ALL of the Disney princess stories are built on a mythology of magic and spells. So in the end, I guess this pagan culture that is being depicted in BRAVE is just another addition to a long line of magical Disney princess stories.
But the progressive example of a strong female lead who doesn’t need a man to save the day, combined with a worldview that is decidedly not Christian, just made me feel like BRAVE had a whole lot of unique things to say in the margins of its story. And I say all of that as someone who does identify as a Christian. So ultimately, while I feel that BRAVE felt a little too Disney for my tastes, it still advanced a new kind of Disney princess. I think BRAVE represents maybe a new template for what a Disney film can be, but it doesn’t reach the heights of creative and storytelling genius that many past Pixar entries have. I hope that Pixar can continue to tell their own stories and not be too heavily influenced by Disney’s past/baggage.
Now, film review aside, the BRAVE Blu-ray package is simply outstanding. I love that Disney (who will almost certainly double dip this film at some point) released a definitive version of BRAVE right off the bat. This is a 5-disc release, which includes 3-D, Blu-ray, DVD, a Bonus features disc, and a digital copy disc. So basically every single format a red-blooded American family could possibly want. I know this isn’t unprecedented by any means, but I really like when big studio films are released this way. It means a lot to me as a consumer to know that each format is provided. I’ll always prefer Blu-ray, for instance, but if I ever wanted to play this at my parent’s house, or if my wife ever wanted to show this to her students at school, we’ve got a DVD copy that plays just about anywhere. I really appreciate that flexibility.
The discs are also pretty well packed! I don’t have 3-D capability, so I don’t know anything about that. And I don’t really mess around much with digital copies just yet. But the Blu-ray disc of the film looks mind-meltingly stunning, as I mentioned in my review. There are also a couple of dozen short behind the scenes featurettes that (because this is a technical marvel of a film) are actually quite engrossing. How DID they get Merida’s hair to look so incredible? They did WHAT to make that tapestry look like real fabric?!
And aside from all the technical stuff that the featurettes go into, you also get a commentary track and some features which show the artists travelling to Scotland and finding their inspirations for many of the visuals in the film. It is easy to see the beautiful finished product and realize the significance of this trip to Scotland that the Pixar people took in preparation for the film.
There is also a BRAVE-centric short film that builds on the mythology of the movie and offers a background for the villainous bear Mardu. And a non-BRAVE centric short film called LA LUNA that I found as charming as most Pixar shorts are.
There is no denying that this home video release of BRAVE is a spectacular addition to anyone’s Blu-ray library. Even if the film itself was a few steps shy of a masterpiece, it can’t be beat for computer animated splendor, and this disc covers everything I ever wanted to know about BRAVE and more.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis
-- screenshots via Blu-ray.com --