In the grand scheme of things it’s good to remember that Brave is just a movie. That’s not to dismiss it, rather it’s a statement of fact. The film’s purpose is, like almost any film, to stimulate its audience. In this case it aims mostly to entertain, as well as illicit and emotional reaction. It’s possible to judge the film on this level alone. Does it achieve these basic goals? How well does it achieve them? This is the level most people will settle on in terms of their appreciation for the film.
There’s another set of criteria that gets attached to certain films, though. The first is a placement within a group, in the case of Brave this would amount to a measurement against other Pixar films. For other films it might be a comparative evaluation within a director’s body of work. Or a writer. Or an actor. Or anything. This sort of judgement is both fair and not. Judging Brave as “not up to par for Pixar” means very little for the film itself despite what it may say about the film within the given grouping and from the critic’s perspective. I have issues with judging a film this way, though I do acknowledge the usefulness of this sort of comparison. More problematic is burdening a film with a weight of necessary importance. The way I see it, Brave has struggled greatly with this kind of unfair weight.
First of all, I should elaborate on the weight placed upon Brave. It’s coming from all angles, really. Related to the comparative judgements of the film, there’s the issue of Pixar needing to “prove something” after the critical failure of Cars 2. There’s also the fact that this was Pixar’s first film featuring a female protagonist. Along with that is the expectation that Brave fulfill an uplifting, feminist role for young girls. All three of these issues combine to place a level of importance on Brave that surely the film could never satisfy.
Satisfying these expectations is only part of the problem, though. That merely affects the simple “yay or nay” evaluation of the film. More concerning to me is that burdening the film with necessary importance shifts the conversation about the film away from what the film is actually doing. For example, looking more deeply at the feminist angle of the film— and discarding the various approaches to feminism—I think it’s clear there are parts of the film that work well as a commentary on the roles of women in society. In fact, I encourage using different theories and perspectives to analyze a film. But in a lot of the talk surrounding Brave, I see people evaluating the film in qualitative terms based on these readings. Is the movie some bold feminist screed? Maybe not, but it shouldn’t be considered a failure simply because it doesn’t meet those standards or even aspire to them.
It’s one thing to look at a film analytically and discover deeper themes, even ones unintended by the makers. It’s entirely another thing to hold the makers to a standard of addressing those themes, or meeting specific criteria. The filmmakers owe the audience nothing more than a commitment to telling a good story and telling it well. Brave may or may not succeed at this, but that’s completely separate from whether it manages to be an “important” film.
Being the first Pixar film with a female protagonist, a lot of people wanted and expected the film to be a revolutionary one. There was already disappointment when it turned out the film was a princess story, but still there was hope that the “geniuses” at Pixar could find some way to subvert the genre so thoroughly as to become something entirely new. Their first movie with a girl in the lead needed to be so much more. It needed to be a masterpiece for the ages, and anything short of that would be a disappointment. A failure.
That’s no way to approach art. The film should be taken on its own level. As it is, Brave is a surprisingly intimate story with a few “girl power” elements, but with a greater focus on rendering a relatable mother-daughter story. It’s a film about teenage rebelliousness more than it is about letting girls do tomboyish things. It’s a film about mutual understanding between parent and child more than it is about female empowerment. And even in the fairy tale realm, it’s more a story about a learning to take responsibility than it is about fantastic kingdoms and magic. The film does what it does, and just because it didn’t do these other, more “important” things is not a fault.
And all this gets back to a more general issue I noticed with critiques of Brave. A lot of the response came down to what people expected from Pixar and what they wanted the film to be rather than taking it for what it is. Take this bit from Devin Faraci’s review of the film over at Badass Digest:
Brave isn’t a bad movie. Were this film to be released by another animation house (and sometimes the movie does feel like it’s drifting into Dreamworks territory with a cavalcade of bad slapstick and bare butts), we’d be applauding.
So basically, what he’s saying is that it’s actually a pretty good movie, one worthy of praise, except that it’s not because we expected so much more. That doesn’t even make sense. If the movie is good, the movie is good. It should be as simple as that. I could accept discussing the film in the context of other Pixar films, saying that it’s not as good, but to qualitatively demote the film for being relatively lesser is faulty logic and bad form from a critic. The review becomes a commentary on the writer’s expectations and the film’s ability to meet them rather than a true piece of criticism.
And it truly isn’t just critics complaining that Brave isn’t up to the Pixar standard of quality. That’s bad enough. Critics really have taken the film to task for not living up to its “important” status. Literally. Take a look at this line from the conclusion of Drew Taylor’s review at IndieWire:
While “Brave” would have just been a cute, visually dazzling but ultimately disappointing Pixar movie, it feels graver and more serious because it’s been this long since they’ve taken on a female protagonist and this really should have been a bolder, more experimental exercise.
It should have been bolder and more experimental? Really? Who decided that? I could understand it if Taylor had said, “Brave would be a stronger movie had the filmmakers been more bold and experimental.” That would be taking the film on its own terms and offering a suggestion as to why it doesn’t reach greater heights. But Taylor’s critique is much less insightful and much more crass. He’s essentially saying that regardless of actual quality, Pixar had a duty to make the film live up to its status as their first female-centric film. Is it an artistic duty? Not according to Taylor, who claims the film could have gotten away with being “visually dazzling but ultimately disappointing.” No, Brave had a duty to society, to its audience, to the critics who care about this sort of thing. It needed to meet a specific set of weighty expectations, and it didn’t, so it’s a great failure.
I call shenanigans on the whole thing.