Why Pixar’s ‘Brave’ missed bullseye
There’s something wrong with Pixar’s Brave. It’s not anything to do with the acting, the animation (which is pretty stunning, especially around Merida’s fluffy hair), or even the surface level script. The problem is deeper, in the structural bones of the story, and I’ll tell you why, with SPOILERS abounding.
First off, what is Brave? It is a classic-style, though (to my knowledge) brand new fairy-tale. It features a teenage princess, who doesn’t want to do what her very nice mother expects her to do (get married for the sake of her Scottish highland Kingdom), so by happenstance takes action to ‘change’ her mother and ends up turning her into a bear. Her father hates bears, there’s a big comical bear hunt, some bear and kingdom back-story, and finally a touching reunion scene when the mother transforms back into a human at the end.
I’ve bolded the key words in the plot. It is essentially a mother-daughter princess story, akin to such body-swap stories as ‘Freaky Friday’ or even ‘The Change-Up’. Due to bodily transformation two characters walk a mile in each other’s shoes, get a better understanding for each other, and change their relationship.
I respect Pixar for taking this story on, in this way. They typically aim for interesting character arcs, though in my opinion lose it come the second half. Wall-E was great until space, Up was strong until he actually landed in Africa (or wherever it was) and the hijinks began. Mother-daughter relations were one they hadn’t tried yet.
BUT, they didn’t do it right.
There are two main reasons for this, and they both stem from Pixar not following the conventional ‘rules’ for the type of story they were writing. Those two conventions come from princess stories (a la Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Little Mermaid) and body-swap stories (like Freaky Friday). We’ll go one by one.
Perhaps one of the most important factors in successful princess stories (which are typically Disney’s zone of expertise)- is entry to a bizarre, colorful, and exciting secondary world- often tied to what the princess wants. In Beauty and the Beast, we start in the village. Belle has a normal life, but she wants ‘something more than this provincial life’. She gets it in the Beast’s castle, which is stocked with singing, magical kitchen utensils and furniture. In this new world, she discovers a new side to herself. Likewise with Ariel in Little Mermaid, who starts in the ocean, which is really the bizarre secondary world for us, fantasizing about a life on land where they don’t ‘reprimand their daughters’. Then she gets on land, which is bizarre for her. She’s accompanied by her hermit crab Sebastien, which affords all kinds of bizarre secondary world stuff.
Snow White, Cinderella, they all follow this pattern:
0-25% – early orientation scenes in the ‘real world’, we learn what the princess wants, what is blocking her
25-75%- a transform to a bizarre secondary world (perhaps even Wizard of OZ qualifies as a princess story), featuring numerous lessons learned
75-100%- use lessons learned to deal with what the princess wants (which has probably changed by now) and overcome the blocks in her way
Brave doesn’t follow this pattern in two ways:
First- there is no (or very little) secondary world in Brave. Merida does change her mother into a bear, and her brothers too, but that doesn’t make a secondary world, in anything other than a few brief scenes: catching fish in the river (which is probably the best scene in the movie), and visiting the ancient ruined castle of another bear-man.
Second- those items occur at least at the half-way mark of the movie, long after any other princess story had already made the switch to the secondary world. We spent far too long dealing with Merida’s normal life, suitors coming, way more than we needed to set up what we had to know, which was the Merida/mother tricky relationship.
So when the bear thing happens, it’s too little, too late. By that time, we’re much more invested in a straight drama about which of the suitors Merida will choose to marry. We’ve spent about 45 minutes dealing with it, so it’s the only thing we have to care about. At that point the mother/daughter arc is a side-story at best.
Body swap stories
Body-swap stories need that same quick opening orientation as a princess story, where we see the desires of the characters, the things blocking them (each other, usually), then at 25% point (20-30 minutes in) there’s the swap, which they spend the rest of the story living through and working out- as each is transported to the secondary world of the other.
Brave does do this, but well after 45 minutes or so of orientation, which is too long. I sat in the cinema wondering what the story was going to be about. It was all beginning, with no milestones of story to move us forward. Merida dashes about on her horse like she’s in Avatar, she rails against suitors, long Ice-Age-ish scenes with her mischievous brothers play out, more railing against suitors, so when the swap comes, there’s not enough time left to deal with it.
Then in large part the transform is played for humour. Though the Queen is suddenly faced with death at her husband’s hands, the tone is light and silly. OK, so Pixar are aiming this movie for little kids, fine. But the best fairy tales are incredibly dark and full of threat. We accept that Cinderella is a living a life of basic-slavery at the start. That the Brave thread of mother-fearing-violence-from-father, if played more darkly, might hint at domestic violence, is not something they should have shied from if they wanted to tell this story.
Instead the whole hunt is a big jape, with lots of running but little real fear. Was it a big jape when Gaston was hunting the Beast? No. That benefited from us disliking Gaston, another hurdle Brave sets itself to overcome, after making the King so likeable. Really the only bad guy in Brave is the evil bear, but he’s more of a side-story than a major player, just an accidental force of nature echoing Merida the current situation.
Is Brave fixable? I think, probably yes. Here’s my prescription:
0-25% Here we need extensive trimming of the beginning. We don’t need to see Merida whine about her responsibilities more than once, really. We only need to see her brilliance with a bow if she actually uses this skill to important effect come the end. Currently she doesn’t, but we’ll change that. We also don’t need all the suitors and the competition, half of the little brother comedy, or all the bits where she’s romping around.
25-75% Much earlier, she changes her mom into a bear. We have the same scene at the river, but more scenes like that. Together they try to figure out what happened, and set on the path of the bear that cut her father’s foot off. More time spent in his castle- make it more interesting, more reveals. Perhaps he was a good guy originally- makes us care more, and be sad when he dies. Perhaps her father is still activated into a hunt, but he’ll arrive just in time to fight the main bear.
75-100% Can be the same stand-off at stone circle, though in ruins of bear’s castle might be more dramatic. Is a face-off between Merida and big bear, protecting her mom who is already wounded, and already fought to save Merida. In a quiet moment, Queen conveys to Merida that she should escape and leave her alone. Here though Merida shows she’s ‘Brave’. Stands and faces the bear, puts an arrow through it’s eye. Wouldn’t have to be too grisly. Then father arrives, finishes it off, same ending as per movie.
I think that would be better. It would make more sense of the title ‘Brave’ too. Have the confidence to bring the bear thing to the fore, and not rely on bits of silly surface humour so much. Really transform the world, and so really transform Merida and mom, who in this version both try to die to save the other.
What do you say, Pixar?
To read more and how to fix it (ahtfi) story articles- go here.