A bow Fergus? She’s a lady.
Everyone looked pretty pleased on the way out of the theater. Sure, they looked, on average, in the 8 year old range and female, but that’s around the target age and it was the 12:55 showing in the afternoon, so that’s all about right. The 3:00 showing was a little sparser in the attendance department with unattended older couples, a pair of young women, a dad with his two boys. All nice to see. I think we all came to this movie looking for something original but ancient, something like the good old days—or what we think of them—of animation when fairy tales got their first, pure telling in a medium that could depict absolutely anything. We weren’t disappointed.
Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a brash young princess who just wants her domineering mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), to lay off on all the does and don’ts with which a princess is expected to comply. [What do we have to avoid ending sentences with prepositions for?] The story begins with a lavish picnic set up for the royal family on Merida’s birthday. Dad’s gotten her a bow, which she’s very pleased with (though the Queen is reticent). All of a sudden, a giant bear, Mordu, comes out of the forest towards Merida. The King, Fergus (Billy Connolly), intervenes and engages with the bear, “Come on!” **Boom** Title Card, Brave (2012). Who’s that shouting, “Yeah!”? Oh it’s me. Sorry, everyone. Excuse me. *Cough*.
Some years later, Merida’s grown up into a lovely young lady with wild red hair—you’ll remember the hair and when you recommend Brave, you’ll say, “the hair was awesome”—an independent streak, and three super cute brothers. That independence is threatened when Elinor sets up the traditional betrothal ceremony. The first born heir to the three clans of the realm will compete for the princess’s hand. If you’ve seen the trailer, you know that she throws a spanner in those works. Still, the threat of imminent betrothal is there and Merida wants to do something about it. Enter the Witch (Julie Walters), who casts a spell, for valuable consideration, that will change Merida’s fate. Caveat emptor.
I love Pixar. They start off the movie with a short, La Luna (2012), from Enrico Casarosa, about a boy learns the family business of rearranging the shooting stars that land on the moon. It’s warm-blanket good and puts you right in the mood for the feature presentation. Luckily, I was in the right frame of mind. The young lads behind me were not—they thought it was stupid. Perhaps that’s because the short was for all the oldies in the audience, tapping into our childish wonder that doesn’t really belong to children. It’s the reason why Hugo (2011) isn’t a good children’s movie. La Luna strips away your adult cares, leaving us all on the same level.
Back to Brave.
The movie looks great. If I were in a better theater with a better projector, I think it would have been even more impressive. Even so, I was awestruck at the natural look of the scenes. When I watched newer trailers, I got a little nervous. In the teaser, we got the environment and the main character, but later trailers looked more at the surrounding, comic characters. For some reason, the females are (roughly) anatomically correct than the males—well, let’s say more head-body proportionate. So I was worried that I might have been misled. But I wasn’t. Sure, the men do look a bit goofy, but that’s an exception. The females are the main characters. And the bears look as great as the landscapes.
The voice acting was great from Macdonald and Thompson. I’ve always loved Macdonald’s voice anyway. I can’t stop myself from repeating some of her words—which is how I show appreciation. I’d say Connolly was above average, but Craig Ferguson, who is a clan chief, needs to reconsider his pitch. I couldn’t identify the other chiefs during the movie (who turned out to be Kevin McKidd and Robbie Coltrane), but they were acceptable. Once I saw this, I had to wonder. McKidd was the narrator in the teaser which suggested, to me, a different kind of story. There were other trailers that furthered that misapprehension.
The story was very good. Like I said, I had, in the recesses of my mind, an expectation of a Mulan (1998) or Robin Hood (1973) kind of physical engagement. I was pleasantly surprised to find a magical, mythical story instead. I think that bodes well for the legacy of the movie. Casting out on your own story raises the potential for the film. So long as you have a good creative team, you can make something people need to see. I’m not a fan of that mentality when it leads to avoiding movies, but I accept that being unique makes a movie a must-see. The writing team of Brenda Chapman, (also director) Mark Andrews, Irene Mecchi, and Steve Purcell get close enough, in my opinion, to warrant consideration.
There was one line, right at the end, which I found highly objectionable. I often find the most objectionable material to be at the end of a movie. It was bad both because it was rich, creamy cheese, but also because it was inaccurate. Let’s say it suggests that Merida has gone through a character change. She was a strong-headed young lady from the start and the action only tempers her mettle. I would say that she had already internalized her mother’s lessons. She makes no compromise, she only realizes what is important to her and I don’t think that warrants a “You see now, don’t you?” kind of line. Really, the character that actually goes through a change is [Spoiler].
There were, if I may, a few blips on the story front. The four clans business—which allows her to wrench the gears—needed to be clearer. Obviously, when she comes out and says it, you can put it together pretty easily, but when Merida has a little aha moment, it would have been nicer to track with her.
Another qualm I had, which is far less specific, is the treatment of magic and the mythological aspect of the movie. In the world they created, which was very natural and quite realistic, the magical elements needed to be fleshed out. Magic is a force that those in that universe were highly skeptical of, but with a strong cadre of believers. On that point, I think it would have been far more logical within the normal rules of storytelling to have Queen Elinor as the skeptic rather than King Fergus.
That to one side, we have four pieces of magic before things kick off: the Will ‘o the Wisps (awesome, by the way) and the Witch. You might pull out Mordu, but I think that’s a case in point—there’s nothing to distinguish him as mythical rather than just a wicked huge bear. I think something along the lines of a benign spell/prayer from Queen Elinor (or, better, on the King’s orders) for harvests or something might have built up that element of the story. Important or nit? I think it’s important for the legacy of the movie. A fuller, more organic universe is going to be a classic—a Cinderella (1950) to this movie’s Aladdin (1992). Not a perfect analogy since both are adaptations, but it’s about expression.
A parallel niggle I had was with the spell reversal business. The Witch explains how to fix things (in a sort of riddle) and gives a deadline. I’m not sure about the riddle device—either in origin or execution. It has the ring of Lloyd Alexander, which is good enough to be good, but isn’t as well placed. Alexander uses these kinds of riddles as prophesies which the characters try to figure out in order to deal with events; whereas, here, we need to understand the riddle to break the spell.
I was only able to write down one of the lines of the riddle, and it happened to be the only one that I easily recall in connection with the plot. That’s a problem. It’s also a problem that the method of breaking the spell is not, in any way I can devise, related to how the spell was cast (which I take to be magical logic). In days of yore, maybe I’ve just got Alexander on the brain, you’d have to go on a quest to find a magical or metaphorical object to reverse the spell. I’m not saying that it would have been a better direction, but it would have at least been less obviously modern psychology in progress.
These are not necessarily problems. After all there were a large number of people—those who made the film—who disagree with me. But there is one piece that I can point to as an objective misstep and that’s the selection of the music. Outside of classic rock or other meaningful and recognizable tunes, you ought seriously to avoid lyric’d music in a movie. Secondly, you ought to avoid clearly demographically targeted music for general use. The Irish pop music seems as clearly targeted for a teenage girl audience as the music from St. Trinian’s (2007)—well, maybe not that bad since nobody’s actually on stage. I’d like them to go back and change that for the DVD. I feel that any gender-related lessons need to be as accessible to boys as for girls. Expectations need to be set for everyone.
Also, there is a scene after the credits to wait for when you see the movie. It’s worth waiting for. I liked it, anyway, so there.
So, I looked forward to this movie as a perfect gender-neutral female character/movie in my blogging on Women in Film. The general idea being that women are depicted in movies almost always as a comment on the gender as a whole, but in the 21st century we’re seeing a positive shift towards women as characters as their own people. So, to me, success is a character that happens to be female without any (implicit or explicit) endorsement of the idea of innate inferiorities. Success? Yes. It isn’t unmitigated–the momma bear strength does, I think, fall into a kind of inferiority that women aren’t strong unless their motherly instincts are engaged–but its lapses are recovered with Merida. She isn’t a role-model for appropriate behavior, but that was never the goal.
You can be as bad as you feel.
No need to be genteel.
You don’t have to be a ho,
Why not get rowdy with a bow?
Never your mom underestimate,
For with her claws she can eviscerate.
Not on your way to the theater?
What the hell are you waiting for?