Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Missing the Target: A Lesson for Writers About How BRAVE Failed to Deliver

In the trailer to Brave, the story of Merida looks really awesome and intriguing. The young princess, who loves adventure and is an excellent archer, is bethrothed and three princes have to fight for her hand. But Merida is stubborn, and determined to change her fate, and she steps up to fight for her own hand in marriage. Also in the trailer, there's mention of her world being a land of magic and a brief nod toward "a spell to change my fate", but it's such a minor detail and glossed over that it doesn't seem as important since they spend more time painting the princess as stubborn, than anything else. (You can see the trailer here.)

I went into this movie with high expectations. I mean, a Disney/Pixar film about a girl protagonist who is a) a Princess b) knows how to shoot arrows and be awesome c) is Scottish/Viking and d) takes a stand to fight for her own hand in marriage and change the course of her life. It can only be good. However, I don't think I've been so disappointed in a movie for a long, long time.

As a writer, editor, and general reader/movie lover, I had to write this post. Ever since my viewing of the film on Sunday, it has bothered me so much. Brave was full of potential and missed opportunities--and this is something that every writer can learn from.

Disclaimer: This post contains spoilers to Brave (and Brother Bear) so if you haven't seen them and plan to and don't like spoilers, then you should probably stop reading this.

Based on the trailer, the story really seems to be about Merida fighting for herself. But, that's only the case for the first 30 minutes of the movie. After an argument with her mother, who fiercely wants her to marry, Merida storms off into the forest and the magic wisps lead her to a witch's house. There, Merida tells the witch she wants to a spell to change her mother so she can change her fate. And then, when the queen takes the potion, she turns into a bear. The rest of the movie is spent re-building the mother/daughter relationship as daughter/bear and trying to break the spell before time is spent.

(Note: There's also a subplot involved about a past king and his princes who were in battle with each other and destroyed the previous kingdom, as well as the current King who wants to get revenge on a bear who ate his foot.)

The major, over-arching problem with Brave was the "Promises Made Promises Kept" I talked about Monday. Brave had so much potential. So many things were introduced: the magic of the world, the wisps, Merida being bethrothed, her archery skills, the tournament for her hand, the story of the past kingdom with the princes, the witch, the bears, the mother's tie to the magic and the dad's disbelief in the magic. However, none of them were developed.

The focus of the story was not Merida's quest for to change her fate, but the story of her and her mother. While this isn’t a bad idea for a story, it’s already been done. Can anyone say Brother Bear? Instead of a boy turning into a bear and trying to save himself before he’s stuck as a bear forever, a girl turns her mother into a bear and they must save each other or be stuck that way forever.

In many ways, it was as if the writers had three ideas for a story: a girl fighting for her own hand, the story of the bears and the mother/daughter relationship. There was a lack of cohesion between story lines, and while they try to bring them together, the strongest story (the one Disney advertised) was left abandoned. It's the curse over plotting and unneeded subplots.

The major promise of the movie, which is part of the tagline, Are you brave enough to change your fate?, was the biggest disappointment. Merida was brave enough to change her fate--but the attempt of it is what causes all the problems and she was only brave when faced with loss. Did her fate actually change? We don't know because while she changed tradition (in a thrown together and unbelievable sort of way) we never see what was supposed to happen. I think, for me, I was promised this awesome adventure of a girl fighting for her own life and place in her world--but we never see that.

Again, she's painted as brave, but she was only brave when facing the bear who was really her mother. When she was facing actual danger, she never saved herself. She was saved by her mother or her father or her triplet brothers or the entire clan--but she never does anything to actively save herself. What is this bravery that she's supposed to have? Even in the end, when she is taken down by the bear and he's inches from her face, all Merida does is scream. Then, someone else saves her...again.

There was also a lack of character development. The queen and Merida are excluded, because since they were the major characters then they were the ones that changed. But the brothers, the boys who were fighting for Merida's hand, the other Vikings, the witch--none of them were more than side characters. They had lines, comedic relief, and names, but their involvement in the story was more decoration that an important aspect of moving the plot forward.

There was also no clear antagonist, which I believe you must have to move a story forward if you expect the antagonist to overcome something. They tried to make the antagonist the bear, but it wasn't an effective threat because it was not seeking to destroy or thwart the specific plot line. The mother was originally the antagonist, but only for the first 30 minutes. Once she becomes a bear, they attempt to have Merida play the role of antagonist but the protagonist can’t effectively be against herself for an entire movie.

By the end of the story, most of the promises were kept, but most of them were kept in unsatisfying ways. The major theme is that she didn't get to change her fate. Here's a story line, here's another, here's another--and here's the end. It was sloppily tied together as if it was one thing, but it obviously wasn't.

Disney/Pixar really missed the mark with the story, and blew a lot of potential. But they also failed to hit their target audience. Not only were things that were really inappropriate for small children, but the six year old that came with us didn’t like the movie. His favorite part was when the bears were fighting at the end—which had no relevance to the story. It was the subplot that they failed to develop and one of the moments where Merida was “brave” without being brave at all.

While I didn’t enjoy the movie, I think there are a lot of things writers can learn from Brave. All of them are what NOT to do. This movie could have been saved. It could have been an amazing movie. If they could have picked one plot line and developed it (preferably the one they advertised) then Brave could have lived up to the promise they made to me.

Writers, if you promise something and promote something, please, please, please deliver. Don’t have extraneous plots that don’t go together. Don’t have characters that you do not develop. Have clear roles for the world and the characters in the world you’ve created. Your story (and it’s audience) will thank you for it.

Did you guys see BRAVE? What did you think of it??


  1. I have yet to see Brave but I really want to, now even more so having read your review because I'd like to see what NOT to do. Personally, I think the best animated movie I've seen in ages is How to Train your Dragon. Nothing else seems to come close to topping that.

  2. I saw Brave in 3D a couple days ago, and I liked it a lot - but I wasn't as focused on the storyline as you were. The mysterious wisps, the ancient king and the curse, her father unwittingly trying to kill his own wife... for enjoyment purposes, it's excellent. As you say, though, perhaps it doesn't have literary merit. Also, they have cool accents, and the marriage thing was pretty prominent. Even when she snuck her mother bear upstairs, she stopped to make a speech about unity and why she should be allowed to choose her own fate. But overall, maybe no coherent storyline wasn't a bad thing for the movie. It's cool that you don't like it - you make several excellent points. But in my opinion, it was enjoyable.
    Have a blessed day! <3

  3. You are SPOT ON. We saw it this weekend and I felt frustrated -- poorly developed secondary characters, a lack of believable growth on Merida's part, an external conflict that didn't seem to tie into the inner conflict. As you say, they promised all sorts of things and didn't follow through. Such a wasted opportunity!

    The other thing I noticed is while Merida "changed tradition," the basic premise is the same: she must marry one of those buffoons eventually. She didn't change her fate, she only postponed it. None of the princes showed any kind of character growth that would indicate they'd ever be a decent choice, or that they even viewed Merida as a person. ARGH, I say. ARGH. It wasn't a terrible movie, but it was so much less than it could have been.

  4. I totally agree! Very well said, Danielle!