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Brave (2012)

Mulan Rouge

I'm not interested in writing about Brave because it is not an interesting movie. It's as tangled a mess of themes and logic as the perfectly realized digital spaghetti that adorns its main characters' head. What I'd like to write about,  mostly--and I hope you'll indulge me--is the apparent hype walk-back by Disney/Pixar fanatics who will defend their beloved movie studio to the death, no matter how sad the arguments.

Okay, maybe I should dedicate a little time to the movie. A feisty, 10th-century Scottish princess named Merida (Kelly Macdonald) refuses to pick a suitor from one of three neighboring kingdoms. To the dismay of her proper mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), and pseudo-Viking father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), she would rather hunt and explore than settle down and pop out kids. She's a sassy rebel, after all.

After a blow-out fight with mom, Merida runs away to the forest, where she encounters an allegedly retired witch (Julie Walters). She buys a hovel full of bear carvings and forks over her royal necklace in exchange for a spell that will change her fate. The witch produces a miniature pie that Merida is to trick her mother into eating. Sure enough, mom is transformed into a nine-foot-tall bear--an especially rotten dilemma, considering dad's vengeful bloodlust for the species that ate one of his legs in battle.*

Will Merida and the queen go on a relationship-saving journey of self-discovery? Will they find a way to lift the spell, which becomes permanent if not reversed by the second sunrise? Will there be a final battle between momma bear and another cursed beast who was mentioned in passing as a myth earlier in the film?

If you can't answer these questions, congratulations on being six--the target audience, I'm told, for this movie. And here we are at the jumping-off point in my dissection of Brave.

With few exceptions, Pixar has built a reputation of high-quality features that center on story and heart as much as envelope-pushing visuals. While studios like Dreamworks have, in the past, mistaken this as an opportunity to over-do pop-culture gags, Pixar has always strived for emotional complexity and surprising story ideas. Providing entertainment that works for adults as well as children, they realize, means so much more than working in a gag about whatever top-40 radio hit is already stale by the time of release; it's a matter of not talking down to the audience, of giving everyone a thousand-layered onion that they can enjoy in different ways with each viewing.

Strangely, sadly, Brave is uncharacteristic of other Pixar successes. Its characters are literally cartoons who have dimension thrust upon them by plot necessity, rather than through the hard work of learning lessons. People have suggested that this is because Brave is not a movie for adults--it's strictly a kids' film meant to empower very young girls with a great female role model.

There are two problems with this theory. First, Brave may be too scary, plodding, and gloomy a film to be written off as children's fare. The bear attacks and dark magic imagery even creeped me out to a degree, and I can see this film being the subject of many a middle-of-the-night conversation in weeks to come.

Second, Merida is a terrible role model. It's never established what age she's supposed to be. My wife pegged her for twelve or thirteen--prime marrying age back then, I guess. But she looks, sounds, and carries herself as a middle teenager who exhibits all the wherewithal of a Jersey Shore cast member. She rarely has a kind word for her parents, throws violent tantrums when she doesn't get her way, and is a complete blockhead on top of everything else.

For example: would you be surprised to learn that the pie you've given your mother--a pie that was baked by a witch who lied to you from the moment you met, and whose abode changed from a humble carved-goods shop to a seedy cauldron altar--was full of mystical poison? She asked the witch to give her something to change her fate, and the witch said, "Here, give this to your mother". Were the red flags obscured by all that hair?

Does it really take mom transforming into a bear to make you realize that this whole thing was a bad idea? And what kind of a role model cops an attitude upon witnessing this transformation? "It wasn't my fault! It was the witch! She tricked me!"

Uh huh.

As a further example: when Merida learns that the key to breaking the spell is "mending the rift" that caused it, her mind instantly jumps to sewing up the tapestry that she'd damaged during the big fight with her mom instead of (do I really have to write this?) making up with her mother? Seriously, she spends the last third of the movie on a mission fueled by utter ignorance. The queen's human brain is trapped inside a bear's body, rendering her incapable of slapping some sense into her thick kid.

Lest you think I'm being unfairly harsh on Brave's female protagonists, the men in the movie fare even worse. To a person, they're vain, dumb, rowdy drunks who care only about fighting and other masculine pursuits. It's a wonder these four kingdoms survived invading armies.

What kind of a king, for instance, is attacked in his castle by a rampaging bear** but doesn't instantly verify the whereabouts of his wife, daughter, and three sons after dealing with the threat? When Merida and her mother escape the castle after having snuck in to retrieve the tapestry (I think that's what happened; apathy has clouded my recollection a bit), I expected a search party to be hot on their trail. Instead, when they go back to the castle later, they find king Fergus in the middle of a post-bear-vanquishing-party, completely unaware of the fact that his family was either missing the whole time or had been turned into bears.

Brave's other major selling point is that it's Pixar's first female-centric feature. Its lead is a head-strong girl who doesn't need rescuing by a dashing prince. That's fine. But it's kind of like a gas station claiming to have broken new ground by launching its own brand of cola. Girl-targeted kids' movies, even ones in which the lead is spunky, strong, and the actual hero, are such old hat that I wonder about peoples' willingness to swallow this empty campaign. One need look no further than Disney's fantastic 2010 film, Tangled, for proof. There's also Mulan, Dora the Explorer, The Hunger Games, etc.

The bogus hype surrounding Brave's allegedly daring feminism blows my mind. I don't dislike Merida because she's a girl who doesn't know her place; I dislike her because she's obnoxious, half-bright, and wears a puzzling, boys-are-icky chip on her shoulder. The key, I think, to strong female-centric stories is not drawing attention to the battle of the sexes at all. I didn't come out of Up wondering why Carl Fredricksen kept bragging about how his giant-cocked manliness kept his wife in the kitchen for forty years. I did, however, wonder if Merida realized that her parents' concern for her had nothing to do with bucking societal expectations and everything to do with her being a spoiled brat.

Which brings me to my last point of contention: the equal and equally troubling hype concerning the film's visuals. Yes, Brave looks great. Co-directors Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, and Steve Purcell pull a convincing Scottish countryside out of thin air; their armies of highly talented effects artists bring characters and animals fully to life.

So what?

Whenever I'm asked about my nonchalance towards Pixar's animation (believe me, it comes up a lot), I always ask, "What are they gonna do, not keep improving?" Every film looks better than the last, and every film takes me about five minutes to "get", visually. After that, if the story doesn't work, I don't care how fine the thread-count is on the make-believe warrior's cape--I simply tune out. Besides, as movies like Brave inch closer and closer to full-on realism--particularly in the landscapes department--the more they come off as multi-million-dollar masturbation. Why spend so much time, money, and talent rendering twigs that no one will ever see, when you can just fly a film crew to Scotland and be done with it?

Marveling at Pixar's feats today is like marveling at color television six years after black-and-white became passe. I understand the gimmick. What else ya got?

In the case of Brave, the answer is: not a whole hell of a lot--especially since it comes on the heels of a similar-looking and far superior film called How to Train Your Dragon. This movie is essentially that movie, minus the dragon, and with a protagonist gender-switch. How to Train Your Dragon offered not only exciting visuals, cool plot developments, and compelling characters, it also felt expansive. Brave is a completely digial fabrication, which makes its Asylum-like reliance on three locations all the more frustrating. It's as low-budget as a $185 million gets.

All this rambling comes down to a single question: is Brave worth seeing? My answer is "no". It's a gorgeous but forgettable film with nothing positive to say. If you've bought into the marketing and heard the exact opposite of everything I've written from a legion of critics--fine, give the movie a shot and tell me I'm wrong. But if you go into Brave hoping it will give the special little girl in your life something to aspire to, ask yourself if having a lousy female role model is still better than having an upstanding male role model.

If you answer "yes", have fun raising a sexist pig.

*Contrary to Internet moaning, the bear transformation isn't a spoiler; it's a key part of the film's premise. Suggesting otherwise is like saying Star Wars was ruined for anyone who found out that Luke left Tatooine at the end of act one. 

**The attack was a ruse, but neither he, his security detail, or the visiting ambassadors knew that.

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