December 31, 2012
Ever since Toy Story, Disney's in-house animation studio has been playing second fiddle to Pixar. The expectation has grown that whatever Disney does, Pixar will do better even when, like Procter & Gamble, they're selling the same product lines under the same roof.
But Disney and Pixar recently released two films with similar themes: Tangled and Brave. And this time, Disney produced a true work of art, while Pixar cranked out a $185 million episode of The Simpsons. And an only average episode at that.
Brave starts with the same problem as John Carter: an utterly useless title. At least John Carter is the name of the main character. But who does anything brave in Brave? It's a bait and switch: promise monomyth and instead deliver a mother/daughter squabble.
A teenager desperately trying to fix a problem she caused entirely by herself and in peevish snit is not "brave." As I said, it's sitcom material, like Lisa and her mother resolving some mother/daughter issue while Homer and Bart bumble around causing small disasters.
The male characters in Brave make Homer and Bart look droll and witty by comparison. At least Homer often gets the last word (if only despite himself). And when Bart screws up and nearly destroys Springfield (again), at least Homer gets to literally throttle him.
And here we get to the most troubling failing of Brave, and it's a profound moral failing: there are no consequences proportional to the damage caused.
It's one thing to end an family sitcom episode revolving around some parent/child misunderstanding with a round of apologies. But a couple of "I'm sorries" won't cut it when the dumb teenager pulls a stupid stunt that almost gets her whole family killed! As in DEAD!
Unlike The Simpsons, this isn't a Looney Tunes universe that resets itself every week. We are fully intended to believe that these are life and death stakes.
By comparison, in Tangled, Rapunzel's defiance of her "mother" (who really is wicked, not just bossy and overbearing) leaves her torn inbetwixt and inbetween, even when we're rooting for her to run away. A few apologies at the end certainly won't resolve the conflict.
There are a host of other problems with Brave. To start with, the story turns entirely on deus ex machina plot points. The witch conveniently shows up to grant Merida's dumb wish and then conveniently leaves town (though that is one of the funniest scenes).
Then Mor'du turns out not to be a legend after all. Other than being bewitched by the witch, what's the connection? I don't know. There's no firm chain of cause and effect that ties all the supernatural elements together in a way that guides the plot in a specific direction.
And to top it off, the big climax has two black bears fighting at night. I honestly could not make out what was happening on the screen until Mor'du gets killed. I think. And his spirit goes to heaven. Or something.
I thought they were going to riff off the old "quest for the hand of the princess" thing, in which case Merida entering the quest to win her own hand would be quite clever. The quest would be to bring back the head of Mor'du, who's been terrorizing the countryside.
Since the witch is responsible for Mor'du's state, she'd have a vested interest in the outcome. In the climax, the brave thing Merida would have to do is not shoot it, at some cost to herself. Heartfelt sacrifice is what makes Tangled more than just another Disney cartoon.
Merida ends up getting everything she wants without having to sacrifice anything. And while that might be the way we wish our own lives would turn out, it makes for lousy storytelling.