Brave (2012)

Between heavy-handed voiceovers that hand the audience the themes of the film on a platter and the decline in comedy standards, Brave initially gives the impression of being yet another juvenile Hollywood animated flick. However, with a mix of the unexpected and a handful of fantastic story beats, Brave manages to slog past its many faults to emerge, at the least, as an above average film.

The headstrong princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is faced with her most daunting and fearsome challenge when Elinor (Emma Thompson), her mother, decides it is time for her to be married off to a suitor from one of the tribes of the kingdom. But Merida has her own plans and strikes a deal with The Witch (Julie Walters) to change her fate, a plan that backfires and threatens to tear both her family and the kingdom asunder.

To say much more would to be to spoil the twist, which is part of what makes Brave a bit shocking, but also quite good. What initially comes off as the kind of low-brow, cornball plot twist aimed at cheap physical humor gives way to sheading the inhibitions and pride between mother and daughter that allows them to finally see and appreciate something they didn’t see in each other before. It ends up making the film much better than it has any right to be.

After all, this is a film where the mainstays of jokes are belching and bare buttocks. Besides being the kind of lowbrow gags that perpetuate enough childish humor, it overrides many of the smartly timed slapstick gags and quippy lines, both of which will be interpreted differently between children and adult audiences.

Another place where the jokes fall flat is in how they integrate with the world. The butt jokes, for as easy a laugh as they get, fit within the Scottish context of the film. Other jokes are little more than pop-culture references that have perpetuated the likes of Shrek for about a decade. With the right tone, these jokes can work, such as co-screenwriter Steve Purcell’s Sam and Max universe, but in the lore rich world of Brave, a telephone prompt line joke stands out as face-palm inducing.

It’s a shame because some of these elements stuff gets in the way of the fate heavy themes of the film. The delivery system is a bit overwrought, the bookend narrations tying it all off in a nice tidy bow, but the visuals also give a sinister suggestion to a wordless development of fate that is never fully explained or resolved. The end result is a Western heavy sensibility of fate and free will, but one that hints at fate as it would have been properly portrayed in Scottish lore.

Another admirable trait is a daring female portrayal of Merida. Far from the typical Disney princess, Merida moves past the likes of Mulan by also shackling her need  for a romantic interest. There are suitors, but Merida never seriously entertains any of them as a possibility, going so far as to defy tradition and her entire society by publicly shaming all the suitors.

It’s the most admirable element of the film, and a refreshing female character in children’s entertainment. Despite how rough around the edges and pedantically average as Brave is in many moments, it is able to upset and exceed the lackluster humor and storytelling devices that hold the film back. It still suffers the deadly misconception of many forms of children’s entertainment which is that one must be childish and juvenile in order to entertain children.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing