A Brave Attempt

“Legends are lessons. They ring with truths.”

Truer words are rarely said today in the realms of storytelling. Then again, film is a visual medium form of storytelling. Show me, don’t tell me. This isn’t a book.

Those who know me well enough would do equally well to remember that I’m a huge Pixar fan. There’s a piece of thematic message behind most of the Pixar films. They are not just movies, but each an experience crafted by the true wizards of the storytelling world - Pixar Animation Studios. Lately, however, they’ve been off their touch. While the customers could be blamed for having an over-demanding standard, it’s much more fair to say that the manufacturers did not even meet the base standard at all, the level of quality that they themselves have been setting over the past decade or more.

I’m a big fan of storytelling. I’m no fan of books, but it’s fair to say that storytelling goes beyond that single medium. I do believe that stories should indeed be more than just sheer entertainment to pass the time. There are many aspects that contribute to a productive society, whether it be politics, security, education, or the arts. That last one has proven to be a significant contribution throughout history as art itself has served to shape nations with notions of truths. It is an education of the philosophical level. Therefore, when it comes to stories, any story, I take them very seriously. I treat them as more than just stories, in fact. They are emotional experiences that pierce my soul, painting new pictures to my mundane life, changing my fate, shaping my destiny. I would give anything to listen to and tell the best stories. Thus, it’s only fair for me to expect the best stories in return. Even with one of their weakest entries, A Bug’s Life, Pixar has often met my expectations by pushing the boundaries of great storytelling. Recently, however, there’s an air of banality that has began to plague the ironically creative team, examples being Cars and its sequel. Brave is not such an example. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a fine sign of recovery.

The best stories out there have big themes that dare to ask the important questions nobody wonder about. That’s true art. With Brave, there is indeed a big picture sewn across the tapestry, asking questions in regards to fate and the bold task of confronting it. Is one brave enough to change his fate… and is one brave enough to face the change? There is no fate but what we make for ourselves, sure, but once you’ve made for yourself another destiny, what if it doesn’t satisfy, either? It’s a rather simple analysis of a big question, one that I’m afraid wasn’t answered thoroughly. Nevertheless, the effort is appreciated. Like I said, it’s a fine sign, and quite the right move towards a brighter future for Pixar.

We start off the movie in a similar way as other movies that tackle ‘big questions’ - the questions themselves are asked. Or rather, the topics are thrown into the open so that the audiences familiarize themselves with the kind of message the storyteller is going for. The problem with this form of storytelling is that, a big pay-off is always expected in the later parts of the story, one that’s expressed not through words, but through actions that represent a visible discussion of the philosophical topics asked earlier. While one might be inclined to criticize the hackneyed nature of the family themes obviously portrayed in this movie, I ask you dear readers to delve deeper and seek the bigger picture the movie is trying to depict. Both Merida and Queen Elinor are prideful creatures so eager to choose the kind of fate they prefer, but truth be told, it’s not only Elinor that’s not brave enough to change her fate, but so is Merida; she was stubborn enough to stick to the fate that she is comfortable with in her closed-perspective. Such a fear was so eloquently described in the Pixar short-film created much earlier, “Day & Night”:

“Fear of the unknown. They are afraid of new ideas. They are loaded with prejudices, not based upon anything in reality, but based on… if something is new, I reject it immediately because it’s frightening to me. What they do instead is just stay with the familiar.”

Human nature. It’s as ugly as a scarred beast. Or bear.

Having known what the story was going for, I began to pay close attention, scrutinizing even, to details that might elaborate on such a message. In the end, the line of path drawn between the message and its examples are quite straightforward, to be honest. It doesn’t take a critical mind to see it, in fact. While the ‘heartwarming’ stuff can indeed be distracting and nauseating (Ever heard of Chekhov’s Gun? Chekhov, master of the short story, gave this advice: if it’s not essential, don’t include it in the story), when one abandons from his mind the pointless plot-devices that don’t matter to the main story theme - cheap slapstick laughs, trite conservative values, frivolous music scores - there lies a big picture beneath that’s quite endearing. And it’s endearing, to me, because it represents something very relatable, and more importantly, grand.

Merida wishing to change her fate, while a simple idea, isn’t really so when it deals with the other sub-plot of this movie that talks about legends being lessons ringing with truths. It’s the very formula of the archetypal hero - fate-changing - a formula that’s been repeated since the dawn of time, at least in accordance to Joseph Campbell’s ‘Monomyth’ diagram, as well as his book, “The Hero with A Thousand Faces.” The hero - or heroine in this case - wishes to change her fate and sets forth on a journey that would indeed shape her character somehow by the end of it. That’s what’s so freaking epic about this movie theme! It’s not just about traditional values, it’s about storytelling itself! It was even in the tagline and the trailer: “If you have the chance to change your fate, would you?”

Unfortunately, that’s where the problem lies. It’s too simple. Not exactly fair to pull the ‘shallow card’ - depth comes in both simplistic and complex nature, as proven by Pixar. But truthfully, by the end of the movie, there isn’t a lot to go on with this thematic message. The few things this movie did right, they were done so brilliantly that it makes me wish there is more to be found.

For example, Mor’du, the giant demon bear. Obviously the antagonist of the story, Mor’du represents the side of the morality that goes horribly wrong, when the monstrous side of your humanity inside takes over and turn you into a primal beast. I really wish we could’ve seen more development to his character and, more importantly, a reflection of his personality to Merida and Elinor’s, to truly pin down the point of what would happen if our protagonists go down the wrong path. While this was hinted at with Elinor nearly succumbing to her bestial side, I kind of wish that there’s a scene that shows, even when the beast takes over, the protective side of the mother remains in control. After all, we know that bears are most dangerous when they are protecting their children. I’ve said this a lot of times about good guys in a story, and I’ll say it again: Being good is not just about not being bad, it’s about confronting the bad and remaining good. And I mean really confront it, such that we could feel both Merida and Elinor’s struggle against the darkness inside us. Even better, give Mor’du some redemption in the end by showing a human side to him. Give him a flashback sequence. Anything that would make us care more about him than just a Chekov’s Gun. As of now, all we really know about the demonic beast is that he bit off King Fergus’ leg and is an enemy to be defeated in this story.

Then there’s the weakest part of the movie that one wouldn’t exactly be inaccurate in claiming it as a ‘rip-off’ from “Brother Bear” - a sequence where the mother and daughter ‘look through each other’s eyes.’ The entire sequence of Elinor learning to fish was so commonplace in movies that it was a bore to watch, as well as earlier scenes where Elinor learns to be more bestial and ‘bear-like.’ They felt redundant and don’t seem to present much significance to the overarching theme. While I understand that it is an example of Elinor experiencing the short-end of her earlier pride as the queen, I wish it isn’t something as simplistic as family kinship. This peaceful moment of serenity is a crucial window-character moment that lets us dig further into the characters of the story. Don’t squander it by showing us something we’ve already seen slapped thousands of times on every family-themed fairy tale cartoons. This is the part where you either show Elinor expressing regret through her actions, or if the production time and budget demanded it, through dialogues. I wouldn’t have minded!

Thankfully, Merida’s portrayal saved the show, and I’m all-so grateful for that. Her regret for changing her fate was so powerful through her words, her voice, her tears, and her facial expressions that you didn’t need any big actions to show it. I did wish there was a more complex display on the freedom of choice than her simple lecture, but this is no “Song of Ice and Fire”, and this is just satisfying enough to swallow one’s pride. Elinor did after all, watching her daughter speaking before the nations like a real queen. I don’t see other delicate Disney Princesses being bold enough to unite nations (Mulan only united one, though I do have to give credit to Pocahontas).

And I’m especially grateful for Pixar’s boldness to tread on a tone that bears close resemblance to the old Grimm’s fairy tales near the end of the movie. It is an old trick to bluff the audience into believing that a tragic ending is imminent, one that didn’t do well to fool me, but at least it didn’t underwhelm the gravity of Merida’s actions too much. Though I do have to wonder about King Fergus’ love for his wife, for he showed little sorrow when Elinor was fully transformed into her bestial form (even if it wasn’t clear at the time that the beast is indeed his great love) and little regret for trying to kill her when she returned to her human one. Elinor took it quite well, too.

Nevertheless, Pixar’s brave attempt to hit a grand message right on the nail, even though it lacks a solid impact, it is much assuring for a fellow fan and could put his heart at ease. For now.


Next review, Monster’s University.