Saturday, March 2, 2013

Why I Didn't Like Brave

Ok, so in my Wreck-It Ralph post I said that Wreck-It Ralph was a better film that Brave, and I think it should have won the Oscar for best animated film rather than Brave.  When I walked out of the theater I felt disappointed by Brave. As a fan of Pixar's films I had some high expectations (and maybe that was part of the problem), but when it comes to Pixar they've produced such a strong body of work I think it's fair to say most of us hold them to a higher standard.  Maybe it is also not fair to compare, and critique Brave based on Pixar's previous films, but, it's one thing to say it's a good film, but not as good as some of their previous films, but I disliked Brave enough to call it a poor film.

It isn't as though I didn't want to like this film, I did want to like it, I just didn't. I even listened to the filmspotting podcast where they reviewed the film, knowing they gave it a positive review, hoping that they'd talk me through why it's a good film, but even after listening to that there are too many glaring flaws I can't get around.

For the longest time I had left it at that, but so many people seem to like Brave (including the Academy apparently) that I felt, while going through the "best" films of 2012, I should take the time to think it over and place some reasons next to my point of view about this film.

Laremy Legel of slashfilm.com wrote a very good article exploring 15 reasons why Brave doesn't feel like a Pixar film.  I knew there was something off about it, it just didn't feel like a Pixar film, but couldn't quite put my finger on things until I read his article, and I couldn't agree more.  His reasons why it doesn't feel like a Pixar film are also some of the reason I would cite for why I didn't really like the film.  Here are his 15 reasons, check out his article for further explanaition:

  1. The Use of "Filler" Material
  2. Lack of Dramatic Tension
  3. The Level of Dialogue (where is the quick wit and clever writing they are known for?)
  4. Lack of Whimsy
  5. The Scope of Ambition
  6. Tackling a "real life" culture instead of something more imaginative
  7. Weaponry
  8. Sight gags
  9. The avoidance of Andrew Stanton's Storytelling rules - avoid the dreaded "I want" moment.
  10. Animals
  11. Humans
  12. The Story Arc
  13. That "Disney" Vibe
  14. The Use of Magic - as a crutch to explain things as, "just because I said so."
  15. Lacking Depth and Complexity of Story
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Erik Wecks also posted an article about Brave on wired.com that took a different critical angle.  He argued that it's a bad idea to produce something for a mass audience that can possibly be seen as offensive to half of your audience.  

I get that they wanted to make this a modern tale of women empowerment (which makes it seem even more odd that they'd set it in the past, but don't mind that now) and I'm all for films containing strong female characters, but, as Erik Wecks recognized, it shouldn't come at the expense of the other side of things.  In other words, you shouldn't have to elevate women by pushing down on the other side of the gender seesaw (as Wecks puts it).
Wait... You mean Merida won't end up with this hunk?
Take a look at Brave and ask yourself if there is even one male character worth emulating? They are all ugly, stupid and gross.  The father can't even piece together enough words to complete a speech if his wife isn't there to whisper the words to him.  And, as if to spoil the surprise that Merida won't be marrying any of the three suitors, they've designed them to look and act so strangely that there is no question that they aren't suitable for Merida.  At this point it's no longer just an issue of Merida wanting her freedom to choose for herself (which was supposed to be the point of the film), it's to avoid the three little pigs who no one would ever want to be married to.

Before, Pixar had done an excellent job of having both genders working together and not really elevating one over another, but it's so shameless here that it's obvious what they are trying to do.  We've seen in other Disney films that you can have a strong female character that goes after what she wants and gets it without making all the men around her look like stupid slugs that have no business ruling any land, anywhere.
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Now on to the film itself.

You start watching this film (maybe because of how it was advertised) expecting to see a modern princess tale, where she isn't just some damsel in distress needing her prince charming to come rescue her.  She will be strong enough that maybe she can be princess charming rescuing her man in distress.  For the most part even the first portion of the film would lead you to believe that this may still be the direction of the film.  As is the norm for this type of film (and disney films in general), there are arguments with parents and a strained relationship between the main character and the parents.  This is a common subplot of Disney films.

As I mentioned before it's quite obvious that none of her suitors are a legitimate, or desirable match for Merida so you know she isn't going to end up with any of them.  With the question of which suitor not really being a question anymore we eventually figure out that, the parent/daughter relationship (we thought was a subplot) is all they were going to do with this film.  That's it.  They somehow had to stretch it into a feature length film.  You realize all that will happen in this film is Merida reconciling with her mom and gaining her right to choose to stay single (not choose who she wants to marry, because there is no one, she is just going to stay single).  So you feel a little let down, but realize that if they handle it well it can still be a good film, but sadly they don't.

Worst yet, Merida has to poison her mother turning her into a bear to make it all happen. You could argue that it wouldn't have happened had she not turned her into a bear, which consequently is not an applicable lesson for anyone in real life.

Merida, as the main character, doesn't really change during the course of this film.  Supposedly she has to take responsibility for her actions, but she doesn't really have to. She does have to look after her mom, who she turned into a bear (SERIOUSLY WHY A BEAR? oh right... just because).  She forces everyone around her to change to her will.   She isn't some little kid who thinks boys are icky and so she is avoiding it, but eventually she finds a good boy and falls for him, maybe that's been done before, but at least then her character would have changed in some way.

Merida is supposed to get married to keep up tradition and keep the uneasy peace going between the different clans.  Supposedly this is about her getting what she wants but having to face the consequences for it, but apparently all the clans need to find peace again is for Merida to give a speech in which she says, "Hey, remember that time you were all friends? Wasn't it pretty good?"  And they all say, "Oh, silly us, you're right!" and that's the end of that.  They are friends for the rest of time, and decide to turn a blind eye to her and the tradition she is breaking and no one says another word about it.  So essentially there are no consequences for her breaking tradition.  So what lesson has she learned?  

If only she had something to do with her bow skills...
Moving on.

Do I need to mention that Merida is supposed to be a strong lady who can shoot arrows better than all the boys, but she never really needs to?  Why bother giving her an archery skill if she never uses it?  She never gets to use what she IS good at.  Instead of her being able to help her mother, or fix her problems by using what she is good at, she has to sow a quilt (and sowing is not among her skills).  That's something else that Pixar and Disney films are usually good about playing up.  You may not be good at everything, but you do have something to share.  You can use what you ARE good at to help or change things, but sadly for Merida her skill is completely unnecessary.

Which brings up the subject of things that get introduced in this film, and then never return or come back into play like they should.  Usually you spend the first half of the film introducing things that come back into play or get wrapped up later in the film, but with Brave the writers just forgot about them, or hoped that we did.

Merida pays the witch with a medallion (that she seems awfully excited to get her hands on) for some wood carvings (and obviously the cursed cake).  This all seems like setup for things that will come back later on, but strangely none of them do.  Even the witch disappears and never returns.  Apparently she exists only to go around turning people into bears and then disappearing again.  Why are none of these things significant?  Why don't they come back into play at some point?  It doesn't make sense to waste precious time in a film exploring things that don't matter later on.  

Here, I should remind you, of the point about magic being a crutch.  The witch and her magic cake just pop up out of nowhere to present Merida with the problem she is supposed to work out for the rest of the film for no better reason than..."because I said so." And how is the magic of the cake tied into the quilt? You might say, "it's symbolism."  But I would argue, it may seem like symbolism, but, it's too forced.  In the literal world of Scotland they've established, is the act of sowing the quilt really necessary when they have clearly already repaired their relationship?  Which was the requirement of turning her mother into a human again.  The quilt is actually a very obvious story mechanic used to build a "beat the clock" style tension masked as "symbolism."  When it comes down to it, magic only serves as a crutch to provide a way for Merida to learn to grow closer to her mom.  That is poor writing.  Other Pixar films feel more fluid, arriving at the comedy and different plot points much more naturally.  

Speaking of unnatural...  I've already mentioned the problem with the men in the film, but I also want to add that they are meant to be the comic relief, but they just aren't funny.  It's painfully obvious when they are supposed to be funny (a man moons the other men, or the dad speaks in a high pitched voice immitating Merida) but these moments feel very contrived, or manufactured in an attempt to get laughs, they don't feel like they occur naturally in the flow of the film the way the funny moments and witty dialogue of other Pixar films do.

Aside from the fact that none of the men seem all that interested in Merida, the men are so stupid, caring only about themselves, that none of them seem to notice that Merida, her mom, and the three little boys are all missing in action for a good two days at least.  They are out in the wild overnight, and apparently the men are so busy staying up all night bickering and telling stupid stories that they don't notice the only women present in the entire film are missing.

Usually Pixar creates interesting, lovable and memorable side characters in their films, but in Brave they are all shallow, ill-mannered men.  Which would be fine if only some of the men were like that, there are real men that can be described that way, but every man in this film is like that.

The Final Act

We've already established that all Merida had to do to create an unbreakable peace, so she could do as she wishes, was to remind the clans that they were once friends.  They remember, and no one fights anymore for the rest of the film.  This new friendship and unity could have been used in the final act, but it isn't.

The final act involves a fight with the villain, if you can call it that.  There isn't really a villain in this film, there is a bear that randomly shows up now and then to scare people.  Supposedly it's one of the clansmen that wanted to rule them all, so he went to that witch asking for a spell for more power, but, of course, she turned him into a bear.  

Maybe it would have been too honkey-dorey to have him redeem himself and rejoin the clans, because we know he has gone "full bear."  He is no longer in control of himself.  So he is a victim more than a villain, and that could have been an interesting subplot, but they don't do anything with it (again, another example of things brought up and then forgotten about).  It isn't played up at all, which is curious given their rather light runtime and that usually Pixar creates interesting characters with care, but this is an example of having a bad guy simply for the sake of having a bad guy.  Maybe you thought the witch would come back and be the primary villain, but the writers had already forgotten about her by this time.  So the bear comes along only to serve as another method of ratcheting up the "beat the clock" style tension, because instead of just peacefully sowing up the quilt they have to defeat the bear first.

But because they don't care about this "evil" bear, he must die, and killing this bear means nothing more than that there will be one less bear in the wild.

Now, how do they kill the bear? That could be interesting...
Maybe Merida shoots him with her bow...
Maybe her dad, having a score to settle, fights it and kills (oh wait we are empowering women, so he needs to be completely useless here)

Maybe the best option would have been to have the towns people, having a new found peace, band together and fight it and then allow Merida to triumphantly make the killing blow with her bow and arrow...

All interesting ways they could have gone with this, but they don't do any of them.  Momma bear knocks some rocks on it and it dies.  This scene is followed by a moment where we aren't sure whether her mom will turn back into a human, and Merida is really sad, but she seems to not care about her brothers at all. Afterall they are only comic relief.

I understand that this is a film for kids, and apparently for girls only, but even if that's your intention (which again, is out of character for Pixar) this is still a poorly written film.  I know this has rambled on probably too long, but I can't be the only one to notice that this film is overrated, and shouldn't have won for best picture.  

That's what I came up with for reasons I didn't like the film, if you agree or don't agree let me know by leaving a comment. As always, I'm open to discussion.