Brave

Brave-Merida-PosterBrave was a film that I initially got very excited about. It promised to be a Disney/Pixar film with a non-passive princess: one who genuinely did all of her own stunts, solved her own problems without waiting for a handsome prince.

There have been, obviously, Disney princesses who were more than simply damsels in distress – Mulan is a particularly noticeable example. Yet her story, while being an awful lot more progressive than Snow White, still has a man as a central focus – much of what Mulan does is to impress Li Shang, and he is her reward at the end. It also bears mentioning that Mulan is about a woman trying to prove that she is as good as a son, which, whilst a positive conclusion, shouldn’t count as a progressive idea.

So I was very interested in Brave, and its protagonist Merida. All the posters showed her armed and alone, not needing to rely on anyone else. Naturally, given my interest, I promptly forgot about it for a couple of years and only watched it at the very end of 2014. 

Brave is the story of Merida, princess of a pseudo-Scottish kingdom, who struggles with her mother’s expectations. The queen wants her to be a perfect princess – decorous, presentable and proper. Merida would rather ride wildly through the forests and practice her archery. This conflict comes to a head when she has to choose one of the various lairds’ heirs as a husband. Furious, she dashes off into the night, leaving her mother (equally furious) behind. In addition to this, people get turned into bears, which is an important aspect to the film, but one that is difficult to explain more fully without giving everything away.

I liked the setting – it’s gorgeously realised, lots of crags and overgrown woods. It looks like Scotland, albeit a slightly brighter, more vivid version. The crags are a little higher, the woods a little darker. However, the best thing about the setting isn’t anything visual – it is the sound. The music tends to be bagpipes, which is nicely authentic, and the characters all speak with thick Scottish accents.

It’s wonderful to see Disney taking a risk with the voices; I have no doubt that it made the film harder to understand for a significant proportion of the audience. But it adds depth and detail to the setting that is constructed in Brave, ensuring that it has a very different flavour to other films. It’s also just a very pleasing set of accents – they’re memorable and compelling. I had, several years ago, a teacher with the same accent as Merida, and I’ve since been rather attached to it.

The high point of the film was Merida herself. In addition to the pleasing accent, she is an exceptional protagonist – she’s smart, competent, and (obviously) brave. There were a couple of false notes in the final scene, when her characterisation seemed to lose consistency in the most unfortunate way, but otherwise she is sold throughout.

At one point, I was worried that the lesson she was going to learn in the film was that princesses should sacrifice their dreams for the common good, but that was thankfully averted; though she learns to act the way her mother wishes, she’s still able to face down the clan chieftains in hand-to-hand combat and still able to operate without a man.

In fact, no love interest appears at all, which is refreshing for Disney, and rare for almost any kind of film. The three lairds’ sons are offered, but quickly identified as unsuitable, and no one turns up to take their places. Merida does not even get a hint of romance.

I think that Merida was fantastic – she breaks damaging conventions (passivity) whilst still maintaining a softer side; she’s not a damsel or a two-dimensional tomboy. The climax is driven by her actions, and she doesn’t hide behind anyone. She’s exactly what is meant by a “strong female character”: not someone physically strong or powerful, but someone who makes their own decisions and has a layered personality.

Brave’s major weakness is the inconsistent tone. From the start, the film comes across as reasonably dark and serious – the problems are real problems (demon bears) and the stakes are high (war and bloodshed). It sets up to deal with issues of identity, responsibility, and complex relationships.

All that is in the first half hour. Then, although those ideas recur and are developed, the film loses its own atmosphere for a while. The wild, dark, brooding tone is replaced with more typical Disney humour; Merida’s three red-headed brothers devise elaborate plots to steal buns, the witch has an alchemy-powered answerphone, and so on. Even the bear transformation, which should be a disturbing, tense scene is mostly played for laughs, with lots of comical gesturing and un-bearlike behaviour.

I’m sure that the intended audience loved it, but it fell a little flat for me – it felt as though they were squandering all of the tension and atmosphere that had been built up just because it was expected of a Disney film. I dislike the idea that everything has to have comic scenes; it wasn’t necessary when Shakespeare did it, it isn’t necessary now. Brave would have been no less entertaining without the slapstick, and it might have been a better, more consistent film.

The other criticism I’d make is that Brave seems a little rushed – it is not a long film, particularly, and an awful lot is jammed into the last half hour. Again, it seems as though the directors were trying to cram as many “necessary” Disney/Pixar elements into the film as possible, just because that is the pattern. It’s a shame, because if Brave had kept the same darkly atmospheric tone throughout, and used the space freed up by removing farcical elements to expand more on some of the ideas/scenes that were skated over, it could be a truly magnificent film.

As it is, Brave is a good film – it is more than watchable. However, it doesn’t quite live up to its promise. It is great at all sorts of things, perhaps most importantly its treatment of a female protagonist, and you should watch it for those reasons. Brave is, I’m trying to say, by no means bad; it is just that, occasionally, you catch glimpses of how good could it really could have been.  Brave is a good film; it could have been a brilliant one.

Buy it here.

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