Why Pixar’s ‘Brave’ missed bullseye

Mike Grist and how to fix it 10 Comments

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.

Princess stories

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?

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Comments 10

  1. interesting!

    i thought it was the strongest pixar film yet, for the simple reason that its moral was the most memorable & worthy. Toy Story & WallE were fun but i dont really have any residual memory of what they were trying to say (WallE was i guess about eco issues/consumerism etc)

    And I don’t agree re the reason we’ve invested in Brave was to find out which of the suitors will win her – it was fairly obvious none of them were suitable, and what we were invested in was how do Pixar solve that particular quandry….. The scene where the princess makes her speech, with the help of her mother bear charades was pure genius, and a beautiful human moral regardless of culture, religion or creed…

    1. Post

      Interesting, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      I agree of course, that the suitors were all unsuitable, though I don’t feel that her speech moment really solved the issue fairly. If all she had to do was give a speech, why couldn’t she have given it earlier, or her mother? I don’t believe that some simple persuading would be enough to sway men bent on warfare. Though of course the way ‘warfare’ is presented is pure comedy, with no sense of the danger attached.

      Besides all that, unless I misunderstood, I’m pretty sure all Merida did was buy herself some time to choose which of the three suitors she was going to marry. Though she veered towards ‘making her own choice for love’ it seemed she concluded with- just give me some more time.

      Also- were you not disappointed by how the story ended, compared to how it started? It’s called ‘Brave’, but what did she do that was brave? And after all the bow-work and climbing and stuff at the start, weren’t you expecting/hoping for a bit more swash-buckling, and for her archery skills to be essential at the climax?

  2. Pixar has been a sexist boys’ club for so long, they have no clue how to make a film with strong, central, female protagonists. Brave was not a bad film, but did feel insecure and unfocused.

    1. Post

      I can understand the charge it’s a boy’s club, but were they actually sexist? I suppose all the main characters to date were men. Perhaps that is unacceptable, really. I can only think of Cowgirl Jesse, Mrs. Potato Head, the female Wall-E, the flat-fish in Finding Nemo, uh… Hmm. All side-kicks or love interest.

  3. Gah thank you for this! I knew there was something off about this movie that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and you made some good points about what that could be. I think I was also watching it with the image of it being a Disney princess movie first and foremost, as opposed to a Pixar movie – and as we know, in a typical Disney princess movie their ‘quest’ usually has something to do with a handsome prince, and they tend to be missing one or both parents. Brave obviously followed neither of these threads so I must admit I felt slightly cheated! Although I think she did live up to the title, but we saw from the start she was ‘brave’, so maybe it was just more of a general name/theme… 🙂

  4. Brave was a beautiful looking movie- I give it that, but yeah, the story did suffer in some bits. Thanks for pointing out what I really couldn’t. The title could of been something different too as I didn’t really see why she was Brave in the first place… The evil-bear did feel like a second thought that wasn’t too thought out; I doubt Pixar wanted to give him/it too much light, but creating a good backstory to the evil bear would of been a bonus than just pure disliking the thing in the first place. Merdina also whined too much, lol, something I found funny, but that made the movie drag. I’m a Disney kid (grew up with the best in the 90’s) and I felt that Brave did miss a lot. Cute movie for those, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

  5. I can admit to that it is not a perfect movie, gives to much time for the setup and to little for the ending, the pacing is a bit off, but it sure do have quite some qualities not many thought of.

    For starters, the reason for the title “Brave” is suprisingly well explained by the voiceover at the beginning and the end, where Merida talks about fate and destiny, then eventually says something along the lines of “You can change ones fate, as long as you are Brave enough to see it”, meaning that it is not the combat-type of bravery that are referred to, but be brave to go against traditions and expectations, a major plot point made in the movie, as well as…well, you will see at the end of my post.

    This last sentiment also runs well with explaining a few other things in the movie, as why she didn’t need her bow to defeat the bad guy (which I see only as a sideplot) as that kind of bravery is not central to the main plot, even though the movie seemed to set up to it.

    Obviously, she does not comply to the expectation of her choosing a suitor.

    The mother being transformed into a beast as a result of unbethought overreaction in the conflict between a mother and her rebelling daugher is a not-so-far-fetched point that in such conflicts we tend to alienate the other person, making them seem as beast in our own, blind eyes. The undoing of this requires them both to give in and take the other persons viewpoint, an act of sacrifice and therefore bravery.

    Most importantly, and maybe a little over-the-head for some, is that Pixar doesn’t feel the need to follow all or even a single one of the conventions of the traditional Disney Princess movie. They break tradition and thus are free to write their own story – as they always do.

    They ARE “Brave”.

    They defy some conventions for example by:

    – Only one part of the duo is transformed, instead of the usual both.
    – Merida is not the classical beauty a Disney princess usually is. (even though she is pretty)
    – No real antagonist – just a side-plot one – Mor’du.
    – Circles a princess story around her relationship to her REAL, LIVING mother.
    – They set us up to expect a certain type of character from Merida, different from the one expected from her that she broke out. Making us have our traditional expectations of a tomboy, arrow-wielding girl, Pixar is giving us the finger, saying Merida does not want to be like that either if it will hurt the relationship to her mother, and in the end having her explaining that she changed her fate by being the movies title – Brave.

    I could go on. But my head is spinning and I have to bid farewell. A good movie, by all standards, and a great movie by some, but yes, it lacks some traditional elements (purposely?) and is not the best Pixar movie.
    Gotta love fuzzy, strong, scottish redheaded lasses though.

    1. Post

      Great points Hugo, thanks for sharing.

      About the Disney princess thing- I think you’re right that they were bucking convention, but I’m not convinced what they put in place of ‘traditional’ arc works. Perhaps you agree, cos you also say it’s too long on set-up.

      And as for the bow thing, I have no problem with her bow not being a winning component of the ending, and brave being something else, but then I think amping up her bow skills at the beginning was a mistake, leading us to believe we’re in for one kind of movie. Sure, play with people’s expectations- but if that leads to disappointment, surely it’s a fail?

      About the movie’s title getting ‘explained’ in voiceover- I’mnot a big fan of that. If they need to explain it both before and after, I’m not sure that’s what the movie was really about. Kind of pasted on, trying to ‘tell’ the audience what they saw, when it is not.

      I don’t hate it though. Well, most of it I do. Maybe the only bit I really liked was with her mom as a bear down by the river. To me, that was the key scene, really the only scene that really turns the mother-daughter thing in any original way. Most everything else we’ve seen before. And for that to be the only thing, in Scots world where the vistas are really quite bland (epic but nothing new), is just not enough.

      Anyway, thanks again for chiming in!


      1. I agree, because they could have made a so much better movie by changing some of if. Like fore instance, if you want to be explaining the movie concept in the voiceover, make the audience pay more attention to it by making it reoccur in the movie more than only in the beginning and the end. And as you say, even though breaking convention, not using the bow as a winning concept in the end is a tad bit dissapointing.

        What I say is that Brave had the uttermost potential to be the greatest Pixar movie ever made, but didn’t go all the way, by, how I see it, NOT meeting all the expectations of the audience. And I blame most of it on the change of director from Brenda Chapman to Mark Andrews. But thats just my humble opinion.

        / Hugo

  6. I agree, Brave just was one of those movies that never really took off, it just kinda blew up in the hanger.I mean it should of been her mom being forced to be together then getting captured by the witch who originally was a EPIC FAIL then the daughter should escape using those archery skills the mom gets turned into a bear but still escapes, then they have to learn how to be together wail the father hunts them and then they have to face off all the human turned bears that the witch previously transformed and finally the witch herself then all the bears turn human and everything is back to normal.

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