By Dave Beauchene
I'd already heard that the movie's narrative eventually became more narrow than expected, and after this opening I thought, YES, no, that's perfect! It should become narrow. It should come down to, say, that fireball Merida in a primal one-one-one struggle with the bear, off in the depths of the forrest. This seemed to be a movie ready to deliver giant strokes of theme (the title is even a giant stroke of theme) through an un-indulged, minimal narrative. In other words, they weren't going to come out and determine that killing the bear would save Merida's kingdom, or something. The experience of her conquering the bear, however simple, would carry resonant weight in an intuitive tale of bravery.
It took bravery for Merida to take up her own bow, to go heading into the forest after those ethereal blue whisps; bravery of her mother to know how to protect her and bravery of her father to stand there and fight. But her parent's issued definitive instances of bravery while Merida's beckoned an eventual definition. What would that bow mean for her? Where would that wandering awe take her? How would Merida wind up being brave?
From that opening on, Merida is depicted as a reluctant princess in training. Her mother instructs with dutiful, but warm insistence. Her father is distractedly supportive of her mother, a barbarian with a loyal and jocular heart. Merida remains plucky and covered in mounds of red hair. And then, soon enough, she's gracefully hurrying out of the castle on her day off, taking to horseback and returning to her well worn trail of targets through the woods. The scene is just wonderful. Merida's every move as an inevitable princess is turgid and strained, but in her day of freedom she's light and infalable as wind, portraying so well the joy we find when we can cut loose into the things we love to do, and abandon the things we're made to do.
Here is where I'm convinced the movie derails – where it almost seems to go get wound up in its own energy, stall, and then regroup unconvincingly. Merida's suiters for marriage have come in and they're competing for her favor. The competition, per Merida's choice (per her mother's demand to choose), is archery, and, as almost no one could have missed from the trailers, Merida eventually enters herself in the competition for her own hand. And, surprise, she's wins the competition. The only problem is that this moment means absolutely nothing to the story but a hickup. It's no sort of turning point, but the indirect catalyst for Merida and her mother's arguments to reach fever pitch, which is where the movie seems to decide it is about their relationship.
Don't tell me that's where the bow came into resonant play; it could have been anything that drew the pair to blow up at each other. It could have taken nothing but the situation of visiting suiters. The issue of Merida's profound connection with her bow and arrows was too largely invested in to simply wind up a hobby that enabled marginally greater defiance. Again, what it felt like, was the movie building up the archery thing (really well, too) and then not knowing what to do with it, and so then just handed things off the Merida-and-her-mother thing instead. All of the sudden, the movie is now entirely about them. Of course it had been partially about them, but it had partially been about lots of things. It had majorly, I'd expected, been about the broader issue of bravery.
The film that follows from this point has, beyond doubt, its moments. Of course it does – it's Pixar. The instance in which Merida's mother, turned without her own knowing, into a bear, only to see her shadow and immediately lunge to protect Merida, was excellent. The animation on the character's faces is profound, and especially in the case of that mother bear, who, its worth mentioning, doesn't actually get to communicate with a single line of dialog once she's transformed. For changing horses midstream, they at least really do some tricks on that second horse. It's just that, again, and I mean for pity sake, that first horse was going big places; that second horse is only going one.
I guess at least they didn't try to make Merida's untamable spirit, or whathaveyou, the point of the story; the lens of Merida and her mother reconciling toward better understanding at least makes things feel in-obvious along the way. I don't think we've heard quite this tale under quite these circumstances and there were genuinely moments of suspense I could not determine the obvious result of. Just ... if it's about the mother and daughter, make it about the mother and daughter top to bottom. We should know that's the score. We shouldn't slowly, gradually come to the conclusion as the other, often more interesting angles of the story just kind of fade off. As always, in terms of movies at large, this latest Pixar picture is at least pretty good. As you probably figured yourself, in terms of Pixar, it's not as good as it could or should be.