How I’d Fix It: Brave

Brave is not a bad movie. It is far, far, far away from anything resembling bad. It’s gorgeously animated, wonderfully voiced, and contains some terrific setpieces. The worst can be said about the film is that it’s sort of blandly forgettable. But since it didn’t live up to all the potential it had, I still want to talk about it. Sure, this column isn’t called How I’d Improve Movies that are Already Good but Could be Better, but that’s only because it would be too much of a mouthful (plus there’s no ring to it).

I should make clear that I would probably be writing about Brave even if it wasn’t a Pixar movie. I try my best not to go into Pixar stuff with any special expectations. Some have said it doesn’t “feel like” a Pixar film. I don’t know about that, and I won’t forecast doom for the company simply because this movie underwhelmed and Cars 2 was a sack of dung. I don’t feel betrayed by or disappointed in the film simply because of the studio it came from. If this were a Dreamworks movie, I’d still be doing it for this column.

Standard disclaimer: I’m not going to claim that this is “the right way” to handle this material. I also don’t claim to be an expert on filmmaking or story. And I certainly will admit that I don’t know much about the behind-the-scenes deal with this movie, so I have no idea what kind of battles had to be fought for how the film turned out the way it did. All I have is the finished project, and while I won’t pretend this is some definitive solution to the movie’s problems, or that I could somehow make the movie perfect, I do think that the ideas here are an improvement over what ended up on screen.

Also, spoilers.

Brave‘s first act sets up everything pretty much perfectly. It’s after she gets the spell from the witch, and her mother turns into a bear, that things sort of fall apart. Since a lot of the movie’s problems can only be worked out through changes in the story, my points must again be descriptive rather than prescriptive. And I shall make them in the form of questions.

Why is Elinor turned into a bear?

I mean, I get why why, in a narrative sense. There needs to be an instigator for Merida and Elinor to set out on an adventure, so that they can come to an understanding with each other. But… why make her a bear? What does that add? There’s some great physical comedy and communication jokes that come out of it, but I can’t suss out any compelling thematic or character-based reason in the transformation. It doesn’t help that this move waylays the great Emma Thompson for most of the film.

So the bear change means that Merida and Elinor must avoid the clans. It means that Elinor has to learn to do without her proper manners, and get some down and dirty education. She doesn’t have to be a bear for any of this to happen. If the effect of the spell were to cast Merida and Elinor out in some other way, they could proceed through the same developments as humans easily. Do I terribly mind the bear transformation? No (Although, again: Thompson). But where’s the real logic in it? I realize this criticism could technically apply to a lot of other things that I don’t mind in the least (“Why are there talking dogs in South America in Up?”), but since this is an integral part of the plot and character development in the film, I really think there needs to be some thematic justification for it. And I don’t see one. It feels like the writers just went “Okay, we need a plot device to move things forward here,” and filled in the blank space with a random idea. It could have been anything. Yes, there’s also another bear in the movie, but… well, I’ll get to that in a moment.

Why don’t the other clans really have anything to do?

The three other clans, their leaders and their sons, don’t contribute much to the film. The leaders are interchangeable, and the sons are distinguished by a single character trait each (vanity, incomprehensibility, nincompoopery (Woah, nincompoopery is actually a word? Well I learned something)) and nothing else. They are part of the initial setup for the plot, but once that gets underway, they do nothing but pratfall through the rest of the movie. Worse, their part in the story gets wrapped up in a rather anticlimactic manner, long before the end. I don’t mind that the threat of war between the clans wasn’t the main focus of the movie (frankly, I’d love to see more personal stories in lieu of “save the kingdom/world” plots in fantasy), but if you’re going to introduce that threat, it sure feels weird to just have it trail off lamely, and not tie it in somehow to the main character’s development. Also, were they simply squabbling for a full day without noticing that the princess and queen had disappeared from the castle, and that the queen’s room had been ransacked?

What’s the point of Mor’du actually being the prince?

If you remove the backstory of the ill-wishing prince, then Mor’du’s role in the movie would remain exactly the same. Yeah, I get that there’s supposed to be a parallel between him and Merida, that he represents the consequences of putting oneself before one’s responsibility. But there’s never a moment where that idea really coalesces. We don’t know anything about why the prince made that choice, while we see that Merida has some extremely valid reasons for wanting to change her fate. Plus, he basically only shows up whenever a scene needs some danger thrown in, and now that I think it over, he could even be removed wholly from the movie itself without changing anything. Think about it: he’s only in three scenes. Fergus doesn’t need to lose his leg, you could easily replace him in the ruins scene with collapsing architecture, and there’s plenty of conflict already in the climax, what with the men hunting down Elinor. So really, what’s the point of the demon bear, period?

Why are will o’ wisps always showing up?

I don’t believe in many “rules” of storytelling, but there is one guideline that I think generally should be abided by: everything that happens should happen as a consequence of something else. The guys from South Park put it very succinctly: the beats of a story should be connected by “buts” or “therefores,” never “and thens.” The will o’ wisps in Brave are “and thens” personified. They are authorial fiat, showing up to guide characters to wherever they need to go next, without any need to think out a more interesting way for events to play out. But even without the wisps, the plot of the film just sort of lazes forward without any driving momentum. Merida and Elinor learn that they have a time limit to figure out how to reverse the transformation so they… go fishing? Okay, I know I promised not to bring Pixar baggage into this, but it’s kind of stunning that a script this ill-thought-out came from their renowned story-smiths.

Why is nothing really going on in this movie?

What cripples Brave, what stops it from being something more than a lush-looking series of nice enough scenes with nice enough characters, is the dearth of real energy in the plot. A fairy tale story* about a mother/daughter relationship could easily work. Hell, it should work. But look at what happens in this movie: mother gets turned into a bear, goes on a day-long camping trip with daughter, and that fixes their relationship. Somehow. When you actually think about what concrete events go down, apparently the fishing trip is what motivates Elinor’s change of heart over Merida’s betrothal. Does that make any sense? No. It’s “things happen, and we’ll say that the fact that something happened changes the characters, no matter what those events have to do with their inner thoughts” logic that pervades too much of kids films today, and which Pixar has always been above until now (Gah, sorry, I did it again).

Without any true relationship between the plot developments and the evolution of the characters, there is only so much the audience can emotionally invest in the movie. That’s what limits Brave. That’s why there needed to be some connective tissue between the mother-daughter theme, the demon bear, and the warring clans. That’s what’s missing.

To tell the truth, I only figured this out in the process of writing this article. Brave is so technically well-made, and mimics all the emotional climaxes it’s going for, that it could easily trick the viewer into thinking that it has more going on than it does. But when you think it over, it falls apart. And what’s left is a very confused little film.

*Incidentally, I won’t accept “fairy tale logic” as an answer to the randomness of the film’s plot elements. Even the most out-there parts of fairy tales carry symbolic weight.

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