A piece went viral on the Internet recently called ‘The 22 Rules of Storytelling, According to Pixar,’ and if anyone is qualified to create the rules of storytelling, it’s the animation wizards who gave us ‘Finding Nemo,’ ‘WALL-E,’ ‘Up,’ and the ‘Toy Story’ trilogy. Looking over their list of rules, and comparing them against my lukewarm reaction to Pixar’s latest animated film ‘Brave,’ I find myself hung up on Rule #3:
“#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about until you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.”
As a thematic piece, ‘Brave’ works beautifully. The film is about mothers and daughters, women of different generations learning to understand each other’s values. It’s about defining the proper way for a princess (read: a woman) to behave in a male-dominated society. It’s about stubborn people finally embracing change — sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally. And all kinds of smaller touches reflect back on those themes in clear, clever ways. But ‘Brave’ also feels like a movie at the mercy of its own metaphors, which seem to dominate the narrative rather than emerge organically from it. For once, the storytelling experts at Pixar have made a movie in which the storytelling is the weakest part.
Its heroine suggests a classic Disney princess empowered for a new generation. Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is the heir to the throne of a clan of Scots. The time has come for her father Fergus (Billy Connolly) and mother Elinor (Emma Thompson) to find the next king — which also means finding a husband for Merida who, as a headstrong young girl who prefers riding through the forests with her bow and arrow than attending to a man, refuses to even entertain the idea of an arranged marriage.
Her need for freedom and her parents’ attempts to control her are symbolized by Merida’s gorgeous shock of scarlet hair, which is as wild and untamed as her spirit (and, in true Pixar fashion, is so stunningly animated it practically becomes a character on its own). When the suitors arrive to win Merida’s hand, her mother forces her into a dress that is too tight and hides her hair beneath a bonnet, an outward manifestation of her restrictive parenting style. As a small gesture of rebellion, Merida makes sure a single ruddy curl remains in view.
The set-up is old school Disney: generational conflict, the quest for a princess’ heart, and later, sinister looking witches and even a talking animal or two. So far, so good. But the plot begins to stumble when the suitors arrive, and every single one is a forgettable goof rather than a fully — or even partly — fleshed-out character. The contestants’ lack of compelling personalities certainly validates Merida’s belief that none of them are worthy to be her husband — but that sort of makes them unworthy of their screentime as well.
Before too long, the suitor subplot dead-ends and Merida goes off on another adventure, one that is surprising but also kind of unmotivated by everything that’s preceded it. Merida and her mother, repeatedly at odds over her future and her un-ladylike behavior, are forced to work together to accomplish a difficult task. Their journey is occasionally heartwarming, but the machinations required to set it in motion are incredibly clunky — and only make sense on a thematic level.
Even with the loftier lessons it wishes to impart, ‘Brave’ largely eschews the mature style of most Pixar movies in favor of a more kid-friendly, adult-exclusionary tone: lots of big, broad comedy involving rear nudity and preternaturally brilliant children (Merida has three brothers who get into all sorts of “adorable” mischief). Some of it is funny and some of it is shockingly immature, which is to say the movie should work just fine for younger kids.
Or maybe it won’t. Even as directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman aim ‘Brave”s humor at a more immature demographic, they also pepper the film with some very scary villains, most notably the enormous bear that takes Fergus’ leg in a prologue and later threatens Merida in an unnerving chase scene. The mixture of extremely intense fantasy horror and extremely juvenile comedy is another strange storytelling choice. Even stranger: making a film set largely at night in the dimly lit corridors of an old Scottish castle in 3D, which darkens large swatches of the film to the point of incoherence.
‘Brave’ does a nice job to paying homage to the tropes of the great Disney princesses while sprucing up their old formula with a little feminist spunk. But it also follows Merida down some strange detours, detours often undertaken at the behest of ghostly will-o’-the-wisps that pop up in the forest whenever is convenient to lead our heroine to “her destiny.” That about sums it up, doesn’t it? The character doesn’t find her destiny, it’s shown to her. I refer you to the last two words of Pixar Storytelling Rule #3.‘Brave′ hits theaters on June 22nd
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’