Sunday, June 24, 2012

Brave: A Review

"To tell a woman everything she may not do is to tell her what she can do."

Spanish Proverb

Nutrition Facts: This review contains spoilers. Some are spoilers for Disney's Brother Bear.

There are few studios with visions that I have so much trust in that I would watch anything they create. Pixar, Ghibli and Laika are three such studios, and I wonder if there's something about animation that breeds visionaries.

Brave is one of the most anticipated films of the year for me, and after the relative disappointment that was Cars 2, I hungered for something truly new from Pixar. When I found out that Brave was going to be Pixar's first foray into fantasy, and that it will feature a female hero for the first time in Pixar Animation history, I was stoked. When I realised that they also got their first ever female director to helm the project, I was overjoyed - partly because I've always been interested in seeing the female perspective of anything but mostly because they hired Brenda Chapman, director of The Prince of Egypt (one of my favourite animated films of all time) to make this happen. At the same time, I was appalled at myself for not noticing the distinct lack of feminine voice in the past dozen Pixar films.

However, a substantial bit of my excitement was undermined when I learned that Chapman left the project in October 2010 over "creative differences" and was replaced by a dude. In my mind, that did not bode well for a film which tells the story of the coming of age of a strong-willed young woman who's into breaking traditions and besting men at what they do - but Pixar had always shown a great commitment to prioritising the telling of stories in their films more than anything else so I remained cautiously hopeful that the film formerly known as The Bear and the Bow would be nothing less than a masterpiece.

Brave family
Queen Elinor, King Fergus, Princess Merida and the triplet princes, Harris, Hubert and Hamish.

Like how I feel about most women, I do not know how to feel about the plot of Brave. One one hand, it subverted my expectations and told an entirely different story from the one that the trailers and the first act of the film had led me to believe. On the other hand, it re-hashed a plot element from Disney's Brother Bear where a headstrong character is magically transformed into a bear, go on a life-changing journey, and becomes wiser and more compassionate at the end of it. While recycling a trope does not break a story (and I recognise that Brave does tell a very different tale from Brother Bear's), it didn't help that I'm constantly being reminded of a film that I love which ultimately moved me more than Brave did. Maybe it's because I'm not this film's target audience. This is clearly one for mothers and their teenage daughters.

The film opens with a young Merida with a shock of red hair playing with her mother, Queen Elinor, who was pretending to be a monster which wants to gobble her up. Foreshadowing? Check. In that same scene, her father gave her a bow and after she botched her first shot, her parents let her wander into the woods on her lonesome to retrieve her errant arrow. There she met some creepy Will O' the Wisps that led her back to her parents and her mother. Her mother tells her that the Wisps are the spirits who led people to their fates, while simultaneously setting up the fact that her father does not believe in magic. I think there might be some circular logic here - because if someone chooses to follow the wisp, whatever happens to them subsequently is their fate by default, isn't it? Dur hur hur.

Anyway, a man-eating behemoth of a bear appeared right out of the forest that itty bitty Merida was just prancing about in chasing fey lights, and attacked the family. It's a bear that's famous enough to have a name, and it's called Mor'du (which echoes the Latin word for death and is French for "bitten"). Fergus leapt into action and BAM! Prologue ends.

Holy crap, that's one terrifying bear.

Flash forward a decade or so, Merida had grown into teenage girl with a mane of red hair still as shocking as ever and she was forced to undergo princess-training everyday (which she evidently loathed) under the relentless supervision of her mother, the queen. Then during a scene at a dinner table, Elinor broke the news that she would be married off to one of the firstborns of the three clans ruled by Fergus as per traditions. What Merida thought of that was best summed up by her father's hilarious impression of her: "I don't want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset."

Her three suitors are from the clans Dingwall, McGuffin, and Macintosh (an obvious tribute to the late Steve Jobs, to whom this film was dedicated to) and they were suppose to win her hand in an archery contest - but in an awesome sequence in which Merida utterly shows them up in terms of marksmanship, she won her own hand in marriage. Her glaring into her mother's face defiantly after loosing her last arrow made me want to stand up and clap.

The film's most emotional scene came right when Merida lost it in a quarrel with her mother and slashed a tapestry depicting her family which her mother wove for her with a sword, neatly dividing her from her mother in the picture. There's just something about the act that's deeply disturbing to me. And so intense was the scene that I half expected her to wound or even run Elinor through with the blade. Meridor also called her mother a "beast", signalling more foreshadowing there.

After the kerfuffle, Merida rode off into the woods and following a trail of wisps like as if she's in a video game tutorial, she chanced upon a witch's hut where she managed to bargain for a spell in the form of a cake that would "change her fate". The characters made it a point to mention the spell's fate-changing attributes several times just to hammer the point home and I was wondering: how stupid would you have to be to get a spell from sorcerous stranger that would "change your fate" without specifying how it will change it? And you give this pastry-shaped spell to your mother?

Here is where I wondered if the wisps aren't actually more like their malevolent real life mythical counterparts that supposedly led traveller's astray. I was also baffled by Merida's decision to follow the wisps - which are specified earlier by her mother as spirits which would lead one to their fate - when what she really wants to do is escape her fate.

Anyway, at this point, I guessed the entire film, down to the fact that Mor'du is in fact the cursed form of a power-hungry prince from a legend Elinor told Merida earlier. This had the effect of making Brave felt a little paint-by-numbers to me and subsequently ruining my experience with the movie. I also expected a much more expansive adventure with Merida and her Mother Bear in this lovingly-rendered medieval Scottish landscape that the animators have brought to life but all they did were catch some fish in a brook and visited some old ruins (courtesy of those bastard wisps again) to uncover a plot point before returning to their home, where Fergus had not noticed that his wife and daughter had gone missing for an entire night and day.

Mordu, Merida and Mom
Plot point acquired. Evacuate!

I saw Brave twice already and there are definitely scenes in it that are worth the price of admission. I was not as moved by it as I was by Up and Toy Story 3, but it may be because I am neither a mother or a daughter (and the predictable storyline and chunky storytelling certainly didn't help). But as with all Pixar film, this film is a very pretty thing to stare at for an hour and a half. Merida's hair must have taken up at least half of their workforce just to animate and apparently, most of the film was supposed to have taken place in winter (but doing so much snow wasn't a feasible proposition to them... yet). I also liked how subtly and chillingly they show Bear Elinor changing internally into a real bear by having the whites of her eyes receding till they are inky black. While I think the 3D in Brave is the possible the best I've seen in a Pixar film, I felt that it was undermined by the fact that most of this film took place at night.

Besides Merida, Elinor and maybe Fergus, every single character in Brave are caricatures and comic relief characters. Merida's triplet brothers are indistinguishable from one another while the lords of the three competing clans share the same personality. I did enjoy Conan's lawyer-friendly cameo though and judging from the audible "awww's" in my audience, the baby brother bears went over great too.

The best bit of the Brave experience was probably the La Luna short appended in front of the feature and it too shared thematic elements with Merida's story, of children outgrowing their parents and making their own way in life. It was whimsical, beautiful, utterly nonsensical and may induce happy tingles in the hearts of susceptible individuals. Me? I had goosebumps when the boy splits the giant star into hundreds of tinier ones with a single tap of his hammer.

Brave ended not by having Merida meet someone she truly loves or having some guy come to her rescue in traditional Disney shlock, and for that alone it deserves commendation. There are too few films that allows female characters to just do their thing without making the quest for male companionship a major motivation. In fact, I was left with the impression that Merida would never get married, and that is perfectly okay. Now, can someone remind the 21st century women of my generation about that, please?

P.S. Brave's Scottish-flavoured soundtrack certainly gave C├ęcile Corbel's Celtic-oriental fusion score for Studio Ghibli's Kari-gurashi no Arietti a run for its money. It's nowhere as iconic as Michael Giacchino's sore for Up but then again, what is?

P.P.S. Stay after the credits. There's a brick joke at the end.

Wants to visit Scotland now,
k0k s3n w4i


Dan O. said...

Good review. Had a lot of fun with this one for the first half or so, but then after that, things started to go downhill for me and it lost my focus. Usually, I love the heck out of Pixar films but this one didn’t do much for me, except give me plenty of eye-candy to gaze at.

Glo-w~* said...

Now I know why it went down hill. I didn't know about the director fiasco and figured it was because Disney was choking the reign on Pixar. Who knew that the trailer was where most of the best bits were! I had high expectations for this, didn't bother to stay after the credits after that. But I do have this urge to turn ginger...

k0k s3n w4i said...

Dan O.: thanks. merida's hair deserve an award though. that was epic.

Glo-w~*: to be fair, maybe the reason why brave was more of a disney film than a pixar is because of brenda chapman's influence. she had writing credits on disney's beauty and the beast and the lion king. maybe that's the "creative differences" pixar was talking about.