Pixar is an amazing company.
Thirteen releases and thirteen critically-acclaimed box office hits.
As Scott Myers says on his excellent Get Into The Story blog, let that sink in for a moment.
Thirteen releases and thirteen hits. Wow. This is the holy grail of Hollywood and no other studio has ever come close.
Now fast forward back to reality. Some say Pixar dropped the ball with Cars 2. Personally, I enjoyed the movie but it’s true that the story and character motivations were a little off.
To explain about Cars 2, if you’ve seen both movies you’ll note some striking differences. The first movie is all about Lightning McQueen learning to be humble. Everything about the first Cars movie supports this concept and it’s done well. The second movie is a sequel to the first but only sort of. The beloved tow truck Mater is the star of Cars 2. Maybe that’s why it feels “off” but I see it as a story issue because Mater doesn’t significantly change over the course of the film. Change isn’t a requirement for a good story, and Mater does come to accept his silliness and how others see him, but he doesn’t really change. The Mater at the end is the same as at the beginning. In contrast, Lightning McQueen does change. He goes from not wanting Mater around to accepting his friendship whenever and wherever. For Lightning, it’s a story about acceptance and friendship. If the character with the most to learn is supposed to be the protagonist then Lightning should be the protagonist just like in the first movie – but Mater is the star of Cars 2. It’s a strange story structure that seems to have subverted the traditional Pixar emotional story for a James Bond-style plot however entertaining that might be.
So how does Brave compare? My thoughts:
- Brave shouldn’t have been titled ‘Brave’. The story really has nothing to do with bravery. Merida is a fiercely independent teenage girl whose actions can be described as defiant, at times assertive or arrogant, but never brave. She does accept responsibility for her actions and asks for forgiveness by the end of the movie which requires courage but it’s a stretch to call that bravery. Maybe the title was a marketing decision. I think “Strive” would have fit the movie better because Merida is constantly striving for something.
- The ubiquitous bow and arrow have little to do with the story. They are plot devices. Merida does get into trouble for winning an archery tournament a la Robin Hood style near the beginning. And Merida’s mother does throw Merida’s bow into the fire which triggers Merida to run away, but that is using it as a story talisman. Her excellent bow skills don’t help Merida in her first battle with the bear Mor’du. They are useful for catching fish for her mother’s breakfast but the pair could have foraged for berries just as well. Bottom line, they don’t help her win the final battle in any way and are therefore meaningless to the overall story (unlike another popular female protagonist).
- We don’t know who to root for. Merida only half changes as does her mother. Merida accepts responsibility for causing her mother to transform, but never apologizes for her earlier insubordination. Merida’s mother retreats from maintaining the status quo with regards to Merida’s betrothal but never actually apologizes for controlling her daughter’s life. In the end they both come to understand one another by a kind of role reversal but is having two characters only half change satisfying? Perhaps we are supposed to be happy that they ‘met in the middle’.
- Brave is two halves of a movie. One builds forward from the beginning while the other reaches back from the end and neither quite fits with the other. The forward-building concepts include destiny, the imagery of the bow and arrow, the title, and the intent to change fate. The back-reaching parts are the stone circle, the concept of falling rocks, the bear Mor’du, and accepting the status quo. Both sets of concepts are fascinating in their own right but neither set is fully developed. What could this movie have been with just the starting concepts? A truly brave Merida using her archery skills to defeat a villainous enemy released in a pandora’s box-style story would have been epic. And this is what sold the movie. However, the back-reaching concepts do not an epic story build.
- There should have been five clans. The story would have been much more satisfying if the four current clans were descended from four surviving princes of the ancient kingdom. There could have been five brothers with the eldest becoming Mor’du. The remaining four brothers could have imprisoned him somehow and then become the current clans. Such a simple story fix would have raised the emotional stakes overall and energized the existing connections between Merida and Mor’du. It would also have avoided the need for Merida’s convoluted explanation to the clan leaders while her mother was sneaking back into the tapestry room. The chessboard scene would have had to go but the use of falling chess pieces seemed out-of-character for the always proper queen to me anyway.
- The ending doesn’t fit. Yes, Merida and her mother make up. Yes, Merida solves the riddle and fixes the mess she made. But no, it doesn’t fit. The back-reaching story parts seem lifted from another movie, Disney’s Brother Bear. However, Brother Bear didn’t claim to be an epic story about bravery whereas Brave does. Brother Bear is about a human who gets transformed into a bear to teach him that actions have consequences, how nature works, and to not act in anger. It is a surprisingly well done emotional journey through the northern wilderness and should have received more attention, critical acclaim, and box office success than it did. Brave doesn’t start out like Brother Bear yet it has a similar emotional ending and these two halves don’t fit.
- The ending isn’t satisfying. Pixar is known for making movies with great endings. Great endings resolve the external, relational, and internal stakes of the story simultaneously. However, Merida doesn’t defeat Mor’du. Her mother does. So, again, whose story is it? And what about Merida’s archery skills? Does Merida show bravery in the stone circle during the final battle? At least she makes up with her mother afterwards and accepts her role in causing the disaster but this ending is not great. Enough said.
But there is one more aspect of story that has bearing on Brave.
- The ending is satisfying to women. The ending of Brave is a woman’s ending but I don’t mean that disrespectfully. Most movies are for and by men. Stereotypically, men focus on conflict and competition. By contrast, women are concerned with restoring relationships and cooperation. With that understanding, Brave delivers a very satisfying ending in that Merida’s relationship with her mother is completely restored through their cooperative actions. But it still doesn’t match the more male-focused beginning.
While writing this post I ran across the wikipedia article for Brave which noted that Pixar rewrote their proprietary animation software while making this movie. As a computer professional I know how much time and effort such a major undertaking requires. So maybe this movie is an ironic consequence of Pixar’s corporate strive for excellence. Simply put, Brave might be the learning movie for their new software and that’s not a bad thing. It means Pixar’s future movies should return to – and will likely surpass – the level of excellence we know, expect, and love.
And Pixar’s worst film is usually miles ahead of the vast majority of Hollywood productions.