Brave: Breaking with tradition

I break my Pixar boycott and go see Brave. Reluctantly, I find it bearably good.

Whenever anyone mentions Pixar, my good friends roll their eyes, because I’m about to launch into an monologue that they’ve all heard dozens of times: I hate Pixar. I haven’t always hated Pixar, but they haven’t made a great movie since 2004’s The Incredibles (although there’s an argument to be made for Cars).

For the last five years, Pixar’s primary hook has been heavy-handed emotional manipulation that in no way furthers their stories. Disagree? Watch the first fifteen minutes of Toy Story 3 and count how many times the film misleads you, the audience, into thinking the main characters are dead. These movies reek of corporate brainstorming sessions populated by men in suits listing ways to make people sad:

  • Parents dying (Finding Nemo)
  • Friends dying (Toy Story 3)
  • Old people dying (Up)1

They do this on purpose. They want you to feel strong, powerful emotions so when you exit the movie you’ll think to yourself “Man, what a great movie! I cried four times! I will buy all of the merchandise!” But, just because a film has you tearing up doesn’t make it great.2 And Brave isn’t a great movie; it’s a bearably good one, thankfully missing the fingerprints of the corporate suits and their sadlists.

Brave is mostly a story about mothers and daughters, somewhere between Freaky Friday and Mommie Dearest, set in the lovely Scottish moors. I just looked up “moors” and it turns out I mean “crags!” Anyway, sixteen-year-old Princess Merida loves to shoot things with arrows but her mother would prefer she didn’t. Actually, her mother would rather Merida not do most of the things she loves doing,3 and instead focus on becoming a better princess. Because as we all know, you gotta be a good princess to get a good man!

So the neighboring clans send over their closest approximations of good men to compete for Merida’s hand in marriage–in a manner of her choosing. Because she’s kind of a badass, Merida chooses archery and decides to compete for her own damn hand! It’s pretty great. Unfortunately for the princess, after Robin Hooding the competition, the queen is none too happy. Merida does what most movie teenagers would do in her situation: ask a witch to change her life. And crazily, the witch’s spell, while technically working does so in an unexpected way! Who’d a thunk!

Even though the plot is predictable, the characters are lovely. Brave is a case study in why Scottish people are better than us, with their charming lilting accents. Merida (Kelly Macdonald, No Country for Old Men) is sprightly, and the graphical horsepower devoted to her bright red hair alone is impressive.4 Plus Pixar has absolutely nailed animating the “annoyed face teenagers make at their mothers.” Her father, King Fergus of DunBroch (Billy Connolly, The Boondock Saints), is a large, grizzly man who you may think is played by John Cleese, but then you’ll remember that Billy Connolly is the Scottish John Cleese. Merida’s younger brothers (triplets) win fan favorite, hands down.

However, here’s the truth: How to Train Your Dragon better executes the same themes about growing up, the parent/child relationship, and large animals that are basically cats. Sure Pixar mauls DreamWorks in a head-to-head animation battle, but it’s the story that matters and Dragon’s is better. That said, there’s still a ton to like about Brave. The most impressive part is the total confidence with which the movie simply doesn’t resolve the “who will marry Merida” question.5 It’s a Big Deal that a major film, about a princess, feels OK with her not ending up hitched to Prince Charming (in fact Brave utterly lacks any charming princes at all).

So maybe I’ve slept, well hibernated really, on Pixar lately. But, and this is huge for me, Brave has given me reason to change my mind. MAYBE.

— ∮∮∮ —

Why you should see this movie

Because Scottish people are so awesome! Or maybe you’ve got an intense interest in hair physics? Or maybe you have a lovely daughter and would like to show her a movie that doesn’t end with some dopey dude swooping in to save the leading lady’s life.

Why you should stay home

You’ve put up with a decade of Pixar’s manipulation and are ready to cast off the chains that bind you!

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. The next logical step is…children dying?6 
  2. Tell me you didn’t feel anything during Deep Impact when Téa Leoni tearfully confronts the oncoming tsunami
  3. Parents just don’t understand. 
  4. One might think that the entire movie may be an excuse to show off the sweet, sweet, computer-generated hair physics. 
  5. The recent Snow White and the Huntsman handled this well too. 
  6. I wrote out a joke plot for a Pixar movie about dying children, but I bummed myself out. 
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Ross Catrow

Founder and publisher of RVANews.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Sam Davies on said:

    “although there’s an argument to be made for Cars” – Cars definitely succeeds at being emotionless.

    I’d argue that Ratatouille is a solid commentary on the nature of criticism, with realistically emotional characterization (other than the immediate acceptance of Rat food).

    Playing with an audience expectations and emotions is what good filmmakers do. You are definitely right that they can go too far, and that line is for individuals to draw, but the technique can be used for good or evil.

    Take Joss Whedon’s Serenity. *** Spoilers ahead *** Joss kills off Shepard Book at the end of the middle act to raise the stakes. The audience thinks “Wow. He just killed Shepard Book, this is SERIOUS.” It’s a little sad, but Joss’s audience expects death. Then right after an exciting, humorous action scene with Wash flying the ship. BOOM, we get “I’m a leaf on the wind”. The audience thinks “WHAAAAAAT? JOSS ALREADY KILLED SOMEONE! If he’ll kill Wash, he’ll kill ANYBODY.” The stakes are heightened even further. Did Wash really need to die to advance the plot? Eh, not really. But he needed to die so that the audience would feel nervous.

    The first tear-jerking 10 minutes of Up are completely relevant to the story. What is the motivation for this old man, to basically fill his house with balloons and fly his house away? Intense loss. We feel that loss.

    You’re opinion is perfectly valid. You are entitled to decided where emotional manipulation goes too far, but it has made for some dang fine filmmaking.

  2. emory1 on said:

    From “Up,” to “The Incredibles,” and now “Brave,” Disney Pixar has explored the ideas of childhood and growing up through their animated films. Watch as Emory Ph.D. candidate Kelly Ball, department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, looks at the depiction of adolescence in the new film, “Brave.”
    Check out the video below!

  3. WALL-E

  4. Caroline on said:

    I have no complaints on the whole Pixar argument. However. As the mom of a boy-crazy, princess-obsessed, 4 1/2 year old, I LOVED Brave. Not only did I like the mother-daughter relationship (I haven’t seen the Dragon movie you speak of, because “dragons are for boys”) but I was delighted to watch a movie that featured a princess who was an independent girl that didn’t rely in a man to define her. There was no romance in the movie, no lesson of “you have to find your one true love to be complete” nonsense.

    I will happily watch this again and again (because I’ll have to) and I’m sure I’ll be adding to the crazy amount if merchandise I already have. My daughter is going to I obsess over princesses no matter what I do, might as well be a bad-ass one!

  5. Justin on said:

    As my friends know, I actually do define “great movie” as “movie that makes me feel emotions.” That is pretty much my entire definition. I thought that was what art was supposed to do!

    Whenever I say this, people want to list movies that are emotionally manipulative but which are terrible. Guess how many emotions I felt in those movies: zero! Obviously 99% of movies that TRY to get you to feel emotions do it clumsily and make me roll my eyes and feel bored. But the 1% that do it right (Wall-E!) are genuinely great! Seriously, guys, Deep Impact. Tea vs. the Tsunami! What isn’t great about that?!

    Most of the emotions I felt in Brave involved Merida’s hair, though. I love curly hair, but that isn’t enough to sustain a movie. Also: dragons > bears every time.

  6. Meade on said:

    I don’t like these kinds of films- they are not good for young viewers. Our children need to be protected from the left winged agenda. We all know that the lead character is gay. Not that is a bad thing, but I think its not good to promote that sort of agenda and force it on our youth. Whatever happened to children’s stories like The Little Engine That Could? We need more of that in today’s world of filth.

  7. CSB on said:

    ^^ Decent trolling attempt ^^

  8. Mat on said:

    Eh, Pixar’s really not that bad (I say this as a parent who’s seen more Disney movies now than I ever could have imagined). And no great movies since 2004? I need to lend you Ratatouille my friend. WALL-E wasn’t bad either.

  9. Jennifer C. on said:

    @Meade, and anyone else, re: The Little Engine That Could:
    It is possibly the most popular (if subtle) Girl Power story ever. Go read the original Watty Piper text, paying attention to the pronouns.

  10. Jeb on said:

    You know where Pixar blows it? Sequels.

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