Armchair Script Doctor: Why “Brave” Didn’t Feel Right

14 Aug

Image from wikimedia commons.

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved “Brave.”  I’ve been looking forward to it since I wrote to Pete Docter in 2008 about why they didn’t have any female protagonists and got a hand-written response back, in which he told me about the upcoming film.

I think it was fun, touching (I was crying like a baby at the end), and discussed what it means to be feminine, and particularly a princess, in a very intelligent and relevant way.  It’s not just being pretty and sweet, or being strong and active.  There’s a place for both kinds of women, and the wisest ones find a way to tap into both personas when they need to.  Can’t argue with that.

I love Merida.  She’s got a great look (the whole film is visually stunning, of course).  She’s strong willed.  And she can rock a bow and arrow like nobody’s business.  The trailer with the archery contest made me eager to see the film:

But when I saw it, something wasn’t right.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I felt like I’d missed something, like part of the movie was cut out, or that they didn’t tell the right story.  Maybe it was because none of the marketing so far had mentioned anything about a bear or a witch, so the story wasn’t what I was expecting.  But I don’t think so.  When I leave a movie feeling like something was just “off,” I usually look to the structure.

All stories have a structure.  There’s the Hero’s Journey, the monomyth, that fits into every story humans tell.  But screenplays, especially Hollywood-style films, have a very set three act structure.  It’s like the rhythm of a song.  Things happen at set parts of the structure, and we’ve become accustomed to them.  Just like when you listen to a song with a weird time signature, if you watch a film with an incorrect structure, you feel like you’ve skipped a beat somewhere.

Image from elementsofcinema.com

So let’s look at the structure for “Brave.”  Now, keep in mind, I’ve seen the movie once, so I used the synopsis from Wikipedia to supplement my failing brain.  I’ve highlighted the turning points that push the plot into the next act.

(oh, and spoilers, natch)

Act 1 Act 2a Act 2b Act 3
Merida as a child

  • Gets a bow from her father’
  • Sees the will o’ the wisp
  • Fergus saves her from Mordu, losing his leg in the process

Merida is a teenager and butts heads with her mother.

Elinor tells Merida that the other three clans will come to compete for her hand.

Merida outshoots everyone.

Elinor and Merida argue; Merida cuts the family tapestry.

Merida finds the witch and gets a cake to “change her fate”

Elinor eats the cake and turns into a bear.

Merida hides her motherMerida and Elinor bond over fishing

Merida finds the witch by following the will o the wisp.

Merida learns she must change her mother back or she’ll be a bear forever.

Merida finds the castle ruins and Mor’du.Merida speaks for her mother to calm the clans.

Fergus locks Merida up and goes to hunt Elinor.

Merida escapes with her brothers’ help and fixes the tapestry.

Fergus traps Elinor and is about to kill her when Mor’du attacks Merida.

 

Elinor fights and kills Mor’duMerida covers her with the tapestry, but it doesn’t work.

But it does, and she turns human again, along with her three naked little brothers.

The clans leave, having decided to let their kids decide for themselves.  Merida and Elinor ride horses together.

The biggest problems that I see with Brave, then, are that the problems we solve in Act 3 aren’t made important enough in Act 1.

  • The Clans: We’re supposed to be concerned that they’re going to go to war, but they feel more like wrestling siblings than tribes ready to destroy each other.
  • The Wedding:  I really didn’t believe that Merida was going to end up marrying one of those guys.  I couldn’t see Fergus making his favorite daughter marry against her will.
  • The Tapestry: It’s just in the background until Merida destroys it.  It didn’t seem to have any more importance than anything else in the house, except that it had the family depicted on it.  Nice, but it could do more.
  • Mor’du: Yeah, he’s a big scary bear, but in Act 1, we haven’t seen him since Merida was a kid, and we’re pretty sure that Fergus would take care of him if he did show up.

By putting Merida and her family in a bit more trouble, I think Pixar would ensure that more of us left the theatre satisfied.

1.      Use a stronger symbol.

The family tapestry is a key symbol in Brave.  It stands for the family itself that Elinor feels she is fighting to protect, and which Merida is threatening.  So it makes sense that the problem would be solved by having Merida fix the tapestry.  The problem is that the tapestry doesn’t mean as much for us.  We only see it once, as something that Elinor is working on, and aren’t terribly emotionally invested in it.

What if we made it a wedding dress instead?  You can immediately feel that this resonates more.  A wedding dress means more to a modern audience than a tapestry.  It’s a symbol of womanhood and maturity, but also has that “princess” vibe to it, too.  Now it stands for the future that Elinor envisons for Merida.

So, Elinor spends Act 1 working on Merida’s wedding dress, embroidering the insignia of Clan DunBroch on the front in golden thread.  When Merida slices it, she cuts right through the insignia.  And when she uses it to reverse the spell, the dress is dirty and ragged, but Merida protects the clan insignia and it can glow magically or something.

2.      Raise the Stakes.

They tried to show that there would be consequences for Merida’s defiance.  If she didn’t agree to marry one of the other sons, they would go to war.  But since they were comical, and kind of warlike anyway, I got the feeling that the war would be something they’d do before dinner for fun.  For these guys, war was just a more enthusiastic rugby game.  And I never really thought that Fergus was going to make her marry someone she didn’t like.

What if we made the threat more real?

Mor’du.  Let’s say that after being gone for about ten years, Mor’du has shown up again, attacking the clans.   This makes him a more powerful presence, since he’s not a real threat if the last time anyone saw him was when Merida was a kid.   He can show up when the clans arrive  for the Highland Games, and perhaps threaten Elinor and Merida when they try to find the witch.  (This also makes Merida’s ride alone more reckless–there’s a magical, man-eating bear out there!)

*and to make this even stronger, tie this to the witch, who also is a little convenient.  Perhaps she only appears every ten years, or when the stars align or something, so Mor’du has returned to find her

The clans.   We’re told that at least one of the reasons that the clans made Fergus king was because he faced Mor’du.  Now that he’s back, Fergus’ position is weaker. I’d change it so there are only three clans total: DunBroch, Macintosh, and Dingwall.  Dingwall  says straight up that if Fergus doesn’t do something about Mor’du, he’s going to challenge him for the throne.  Macintosh is a swing vote; if he sides with Fergus, DunBroch will be safe, but if he sides with Dingwall, they’re out.  So now, there’s more pressure on Merida not to let her father down.

Now Merida is really in trouble.  She needs to marry one of the suitors from the other clans to keep her family in power, but she’s just destroyed her wedding dress and insulted both clans.  And her mother now looks exactly like the man-eating bear that her father has to kill.

Leave everything else exactly how it is, and I think you’d have a near-perfect movie.

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2 Responses to “Armchair Script Doctor: Why “Brave” Didn’t Feel Right”

  1. Tracy August 14, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Good analysis. I was dissatisfied with the movie too, and couldn’t quite put my finger on why. I think you got at some of the key reasons. A few of the details, too, were problematic for me. Parts of it felt a little too derivative (I’ve read this story in “Free to Be You and Me”; I’ve seen this plot device in “Brother Bear”; etc.). The part where the tapestry doesn’t work and then does for no very obvious reason felt contrived. It just didn’t hang together like Pixar stories usually do.

    That said, I can’t even begin to express how much I love that there is a Disney princess who doesn’t have a prince, doesn’t need a prince, and is having a better life precisely because of the lack of a prince. That is supremely refreshing.

    My overall take: Brave is a really good movie; it’s just not a really good *Pixar* movie. 🙂

  2. shireenrb August 14, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I actually think the tapestry didn’t mean anything in the movie either. Merida just assumed it was what the witch meant when she said “mend the bond torn by pride.” The mother had done her part in mending it by changing her position on Merida having to marry, it was then up to Merida to apologize to her mother and admit how much she needed her, and it wasn’t until that happened that her mother was turned back. I think the writers were being perhaps too subtle about this point, but the bond needing mending was their relationship, not the tapestry.

    I agree about the witch, she was too convenient, I think making it an every ten years thing would have made more sense.

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