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Saturday, June 23, 2012

Brave is not good

I'm not exactly an avid film critic and I don't make a habit of getting very opinionated and shouting it to the skies (about anything). But Pixar's Brave came out the other day; I really wanted to love it and I went to the midnight premiere, and by golly, I really did not like it. Normally I'd be content to not like it and leave it there, but what bothers me is that nobody else seems to see what I see. All I've seen are fanatical postings of how spectacular is, and how GREAT the main character is, and I've even seen people suggest it may be Pixar's best film yet. What?!

So I want to just take a moment here and go through the film and outline by biggest issues. If nothing else, it will be cathartic for me. And if anyone ever feels like rebutting me on it, be my guest. I would love for somebody to explain to me what I'm missing here.

Yes, there are spoilers. Just keep in mind I'm going to be doing this by memory based on a single viewing so there may be some errors. Sorry.

The basic plot is this: Merida, fiery princess extraordinaire, has issues with her mom, Elinor. Elinor wants Merida to get married off to one of three really sucky boys from three other clans because it's tradition. So Merida runs away and strikes a deal with a witch to get a magic cake intended to "change" her mother, but (plot twist!) it turns her mom into a bear. Cue shenanigans as she has to hide her mother from her bear-hunter father and break the curse. Eventually she does, her mom understands that she doesn't want to get married, and the family lives happily ever after.

One of the major flaws with the whole arc is that Merida, the main character, undergoes absolutely no character development for the whole movie. Her mother Elinor is set up as the one source of unhappiness in Merida's whole life, and the film takes Merida's side from the first scene until the very end. Everyone else just has to conform to what she wants; it doesn't make for a very compelling character.

That's not to say there are no consequences at all for Merida's mistakes. Merida's mom gets turned into a bear. But that gets reversed by the end of the film. And the fact that her mom gets turned into a bear isn't really a consequence of trying to break tradition, which was her original intention and motivation. It's a consequence of Merida making a bad deal with a witch. See, Merida shows up at the witch's cottage and sees that it's full of wooden bear carvings. The witch wants to sell her carvings, and Merida wants a spell. So Merida agrees to buy every single wood carving, and gives the witch a shiny silver medallion in exchange--the camera closes up on it to show us how important it is, though we haven't yet seen it in the film. The witch agrees enthusiastically and takes the silver piece, promising to deliver the carvings in a fortnight.  Merida returns with a spell-infused cake and when her mom turns into a bear Merida feels mostly like she was tricked by the witch; it wasn't that she tried to break tradition, just that her particularly strategy to do so was flawed.

(The witch doesn't make another physical appearance in the film after this. The medallion Merida gave away is never mentioned. The carvings are never delivered or mentioned again, either. So many plot details and backstory elements like this seem to just exist in a black hole; like it was all made up as they went, and they never went back over it to see if anything connected. Everything's left unresolved, or if something is resolved it's resolved unenthusiastically like the filmmakers didn't even really care how it went.)

Her mom's argument for why it's essential that Merida gets married is this old fable about the last time somebody broke tradition. See, there used to be 4 clans, but then one brother wanted to be the king of the others so he broke tradition and tried to take over them. There was lots of warring, and he vanished, and they decided never to break tradition ever again (I guess). We get the sense that the alliance between the clans is still unstable today, since they constantly bicker and fight from the moment they enter the film. So it's reasonable that Merida should conform to tradition to maintain their tenuous peace. But once she does leave, we never see any consequences for it. Actually, Merida comes back and gives the clanspeople an impassioned speech where she tells them about all the good times when they were friends, and they make up and become friends forever after that. Brilliant. First of all, we never even see the clans being friendly before this; we're just told about it. So conveyance is more or less thrown out the window. Secondly, there were never any consequences for trying to break tradition; the film proves that Merida ws pretty much right all along, and everyone then agrees that she was right all along. Which brings us to thirdly; suddenly the film's lost it's whole point. The whole premise was based on how Merida resisted breaking tradition and had to face the consequences for it, and once everyone (including her mom!) admits she was right all along and all consequences are waived the original drive of the movie is sort of vaporized. And it's not even in the third act of the movie.

So, what DOES happen in the third act? Well, Merida's dad discovers her mom is a bear and hunts her down into the forest. Merida gives chase and while trying to defend her mom from her dad, a big bear shows up!! It's a bear who showed up in the first scene and again in the middle, and we had found out that he was actually the one brother from the fable who tried to take over the other brothers, who also got turned into a bear by the witch! You may notice that I didn't have cause to mention him until now, and that would be because he wasn't really tied into the film's central conflict at all. He was more like this bear that just showed up once in a while. Actually, that's exactly what he was. Putting a fight against him here in the climax of the movie seems to suggest that he was supposed to be the main villain, which is really lame when literally his only reason for ever being around is that he just happened to wander by. Defeating him resolves absolutely nothing, except that there is one less bear in the forest.

Want to guess how they beat him? Merida is a super great archer and that was played up a lot in the trailer, so she probably gets to use that, right? Nope! She only makes effective use of her archery once in the whole movie, and it's actually the best scene in the whole movie, and whoops Pixar already uploaded it to YouTube themselves so I guess there's no reason to go see it now huh. Merida's dad has a long standing grudge with the bear and talks incessantly about taking his revenge, but nope, he is completely uninvolved with its demise.  This could have been a great time to do that whole thing where the clanspeople all realize that they should work together, and join against the bear, showing their newfound companionship! But, no, that was already resolved a long time ago, so everyone just stands around and watches during the final boss battle.

Merida's mom kills the bear by pushing a rock onto it. Not just any rock, but one of these stonehedge rocks, which before seemed to have some kind of relationship with the whole theme of changing fate or somethingoranother. It's kind of confusing, thematically. And then we see the spirit of the brother above the bear, and he gives Merida this nod that's a mix between solemn and thankful, and then disappears. It's thus confirmed that at no point in this film did true, intentional antagonism take place; just a nice dude trapped in the body of a wild bear acting on whim, and bickering clanspeople who temporarily forgot that they were actually friends the whole time.

This is already starting to drag on in the writing, and I didn't even start on how everything was heavily telegraphed and predictable, or the comedy relief triplet brother who ALSO were turned into bears but everyone expressed far far less concern for than the mom (at the end Merida is crying on her mom's shoulder, under the impression that she has just become a bear forever. Her three brothers, also apparently bears forever, watch this scene from the sidelines uncomforted). I didn't mention how the mom was constantly knocking things over as a bear and that didn't stop being used as a cheap gag; I didn't mention the INCREDIBLY CHEESY montages set over SICKENIINGLY CHEESY female vocal tracks while Merida rides around on her pony.

And what about all that talk about changing her fate? It actually just sounds like gibberish whenever she talks about how you change fate or how how she wants to change her fate and all of that. Who actually says they want to "change my fate" like that's an actual, concrete thing that people do? It's not even something that comes up anywhere else--Merida's parents never refer to her plight as having to do with her fate or anything. Merida just decides that for herself at some point midway in the film, and it seems to become a theme only through annoying repetition in Merida's dialogue as opposed to actually materializing in any meaningful way during the film.

There's just too many issues to cover in this format!

The whole film in essence felt like a first draft. There was way too much extra stuff and nothing was made to connect or make sense as it built up. And it really freaks me out that nobody cares, or maybe nobody notices. Pixar was making truly good movies, like, two years ago! Then they dumped Cars 2 on us last year and now they've dumped this and they're probably going to keep making buttloads of cash off of it and never look back. Seriously, don't see Brave. It's a very pretty film and I'm sure it seems very alluring but that's all it is; there's no depth here, no thought.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Phantasmaburbia Trailer & Year 20

Hey! It's been a while, hasn't it? I guess between maintaining the Phanta website and of course my now "official" site it gets harder and harder to manage this old blog. Which is a bit of shame, because I really do like it!

Well, work on Phantasmaburbia's been especially strong lately. I actually finished the main game content this week--so the rest of my time goes to tweaking, bugfixing, beta testing, and bonus content while Jason works on the sound. And of course, I'll be doing marketing! To that end I've actually produced a new trailer:
A friend did the excellent voiceover. It was a blast to record.

 I'm a bit miffed that I didn't post around my 20th birthday, which was a couple weeks ago in May. I have a very proud tradition of those birthday blog posts. I suppose this one will have to count for my 20th birthday. The most amazing thing to me is that 3 years ago the post was about starting Dubloon, 2 years ago the post was about finishing Dubloon, 1 year ago it was about starting Phantasmaburbia, and this year it's finishing Phanta. Seriously, that's kinda crazy! Will the pattern continue forever? (I kinda hope not!!)

But in all seriousness I'm really excited about Phanta. It's my biggest and most ambitious game, and a huge improvement over where Dubloon left off. I've grown so much as a game designer over the course of its development, too. This year's looking to be a bright one!