Warning: This review contains some pretty massive spoilers. I was initially on the fence about spilling any plot twists in this review, because Pixar went to such great lengths to avoid allowing any such material to infiltrate their advertising campaign for the Brave. In this era of spoiler-tastic movie trailers and commercials, I thought that Pixar’s effort to preserve some mystery about the movie was commendable. After seeing Brave with my own eyes, I believe that the second half of the movie wasn’t kept under wraps because the studio wanted audiences to be pleasantly surprised. I believe the second half of the film was suppressed because it sucks.
This Disney-esque fairy tale centers on Merida, the firey-haired princess of a medieval Scottish kingdom, as she defies her mother’s will and brooks custom. Like Disney’s other red-haired princess, Ariel from The Little Mermaid, Merida isn’t too keen on living a life of idle luxury. Despite her mother’s overbearing drive to turn Merida into a proper princess and marry her off to a young nobleman, the young princess desires to change her fate. Of course, she goes looking for the solution to her problem in exactly the wrong place. Oh, and there’s some shit about an evil, indestructible bear roaming the forest that surrounds the castle.
The first half of the movie wherein all of the principal characters are introduced is great. While the film’s tale of a headstrong girl foolishly plunging into grave danger is a little too clichéd to feel like a proper Pixar film, the first forty minutes or so of Brave recalls the atmosphere of the great Disney movies of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. These early scenes are well written, the characters are well developed, and the film is gorgeous to look at. The first act of Brave feels like the beginning of a legitimately great movie. Then the bottom falls out.
After an incident in which Merida embarrasses her suitors by outperforming each of them in an archery contest and then loudly declaring that she has no intention of marrying any of them, she engages in a shouting match with the Queen and flees the castle. It’s not long, of course, before the princess stumbles upon a senile old witch who offers a solution to the problem of the Queens intractability. Merida mistakenly asks that the witch “change” her mother without specifying that she merely wants her mother to change her mind. The witch then produces a spell that turns Merida’s mother…into a bear.
And as the rest of Brave pretty much devolved into a slapstick comedy in which Merida hides her prim-and-proper bear-mother from her ursine-hating father, I found myself asking: Why a bear? From the very beginning of the movie it’s made clear that the primary conflict will be between mother and daughter. In true Disney fashion, Merida is going to make a horrible decision that will endanger her family, force her to see the wisdom in her mother’s actions, but ultimately allow her to prove herself as a courageous, independent woman to her parents. And yet…the big curse simply turns her mother into a bear?
The first half of Brave sets the stage so beautifully that literally any stock curse could have been introduced – ghosts, werewolves, trolls, goblins, dragons, etc. – and the film would have been damn near perfect. But the big plot twist is that Merida’s mother and her three brothers eat a cursed sweet roll and turn into bears? Why?
An hour of bear-related mishaps and shenanigans later, Merida breaks the curse and saves her family. She discovers that there was something to her mother’s seemingly unreasonable rules all along and the Queen learns that maybe she should have eased up on her daughter all along. The two learn that they should have listened to each other all along, and peace and order is restored to the kingdom.
The first half of the film and the finale feel like the beginning and end of a classic Disney fable. And yet there’s that flabby middle section in which precocious Princess Merida stomps around a castle and then around in a forest engaging in hijinks with her whacky pet bear. It feels like something out of a Dreamworks movie, and not a good Dreamworks movie like How to Train Your Dragon, either—more like one of the crappy ones with the gratuitous celebrity voice-overs.
Children are going to be taken in with the gorgeous visuals and the broad comedy either way, so if you’re a parent, by all means take your kids to see this movie. Just be aware that Brave is not vintage Pixar on the level of The Incredibles, Wall-E or Toy Story 3.