Searching for Answers

A Look at 'Brave' Using the Rules of Storytelling According to a Pixar Storyboard Artist

We've got the rules, now let's see if they apply

Merida in Brave
Merida in Brave
Photo: Disney / Pixar

NOTE: This article is loaded with spoilers for Brave. If you haven't seen the film yet, you may not want to read on.

The timing on storyboard artist Emma Coats' list of rules to storytelling she has learned while working at Pixar couldn't have come at a better time. Coats tweeted the following rules in recent months (and continues to do so daily), which were then compiled by Pixar Touch and I've taken the first 22 of them and decided to see how they work while examining Pixar's newest film, Brave.

Brave was the first time I've ever sat down to watch a Pixar story and been utterly and entirely baffled at how pedestrian and second rate the storytelling was. Even if you wanted to dig deeper and try to make up your own reasons as to why it was good you'd come away empty.

It's hard to say it's about the bond between a mother and her daughter, especially when the daughter willingly feeds her mother a poisoned pastry because she doesn't want to get married. Of course, as would happen with all poisoned treats, the pastry doesn't kill her mother, but does turn her into a bear... which her father will, naturally, try and kill.

Admittedly, there is one scene in the film where you saw that touch of Pixar magic their films are normally loaded with. That sense of humanity that's always so hard to believe is coming from animated characters. I'm talking of the scene where Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) and her mother (as a bear at this point in the story) are fishing in a river. If anything, it was at this moment the magical bond should have been broken, or whatever the hell it was that was keeping her mother as a bear until the tapestry had to be sewn together or... ugh, it's just so irritating.

The question has been, and will continue to be, asked, Do we hold Pixar to a higher standard? Yes, perhaps we do, but that standard doesn't change the fact Brave is a bad movie. That standard only serves to disappoint us when Pixar makes a bad movie. Standards are one thing, quality is another.

So, with that in mind let's take a look at Pixar's rules of storytelling per Emma Coats and take a closer look at Brave, or, as I like to call it, The Movie about a Girl Who Turns Her Mother into a Bear.

Merida will shoot for her own hand
Merida will shoot for her own hand
Photo: Disney / Pixar

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

What does Merida try to do? She tries to convince her mother to leave her alone and let her get married when and if she wants to. What is she successful at? Turning her mother into a bear and almost getting her killed by her bear-hating father.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be [very] different.

What's interesting to an audience? I'll be kind and in this case say animated film audiences are interested in fun, adventurous stories. Thinking as the audience, the writers thought it would be fun to turn Merida's mother into a bear. Perhaps I've overestimated audience interest.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.

The theme of Brave is to acknowledge the importance of history, respect your parents and, above all else, get your way, but try to do so without turning your mother into a bear.

#4: Once upon a time there was _____. Every day, _____. One day _____. Because of that, _____. Because of that, _____. Until finally _____.

Once upon a time there was a princess. Every day, her mother made her do princess things and learn to be a "proper" woman, while only sometimes letting her be a kid. One day the princess asks a witch to "change" her mother. Because of that, her mother turns into a bear. Because of that, her father almost kills her mother. Until finally he doesn't.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

We have a bear and a queen. Focus. Can we turn the queen into a bear? Sure, but how? Magic pastry. Why is this happening? The end. FREEDOM!

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

Merida is good at archery and complaining. So let's burn her bow (and never deal with how she got it back) and tell her she has to marry one of three idiots. She rebels and turns her mother into a bear.

Triplets as bears in Brave
The triplets turn into bears in Brave also, somehow they also return to human form...
I don't know how that worked, but look how cute their little butts are... Awwwww.
Photo: Disney / Pixar

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

Bear turns back into mother (and so do the triplets... somehow). How did she turn into a bear? Magic pastry. Problem solved!

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

The script is finished! Is it perfect? Nope, but I'm letting it go and moving on, hopefully Monsters University will be better.

#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

The dad is going to kill the bear that is actually his wife. No he's not. The end.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.

Brenda Chapman to John Lasseter, "I liked Grizzly Man until the part where he got eaten and died." Lasster replies, "Let's cut the last part."

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.

I made a crude storyboard drawing to illustrate this point.

Queen + Bear = QueenBear.
Queen + Bear = QueenBear.
Photo: Brad Brevet (the best artist in the world)

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th -- get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

Princess doesn't want to marry suitors, now what?

Well, after we get past the part where the lead character is a princess, which is never used in animated movies, and the fact someone is turned into an animal, which I don't think has ever been done either... let's see what other story ideas were left on the cutting room floor.

  1. Princess is forced to marry one of the suitors anyway and they eventually fall in love.
  2. Princess is forced to marry one of the suitors anyway and he turns out to be an evil dragon. Her true love comes to save her.
  3. Princess is forced to marry one of the suitors anyway, runs away on her wedding night, is captured by an evil troll and the man she never thought she wanted to marry ends up saving her. (Or she falls in love with the troll, kisses him and he turns into a prince, but I think that's been done before...)
  4. Same as above, but they eventually realize they aren't in love. She marries her true love and the original suitor falls in love with the princess's sassy best friend. That gurl is so craaaazy!
  5. Princess confronts the castle nurse, who turns out to be a witch on the side. But not a bad witch, a good witch, and when she tries to conjure a spell that will force her mother to change her mind she accidentally pulls a body switch where the queen is now in the princess's body and the princess is in the queen's body and the two learn valuable lessons living one another's life.

With the obvious out of the way what do we do? Turn the mother into a bear.

Cick to page two for the final ten rules.

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  • Susan

    Are the prints of your drawings for sale and where can I buy them?

  • Jack

    I have to say, Brad, that your complaints (and this editorial) about the film are far more annoying than the film itself.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      I can handle that critique, but whatever you do, don't turn me into a bear! :)

      • Joshua Ryan

        I will retort a little bit then I will shut up, but I would like to actually comment against some of your points in this article if that is cool. A lot of the points have been touched on already so I will focus on just a couple.
        #6. The fact that she is responsible for her mother when she becomes a Bear and has to teach her how to live in the wild seems pretty opposite to anything she has ever done. While it is never explicitly stated, I got the vibe that she appreciated her mum more because of being in her shoes as the teacher.
        #14. I think other people have touched on this one already, but you are too focused on the aspects of Merida turning the mum into a bear. The relationship between mother and daughter, family, compromise, standing up for one's beliefs, breaking tradition. I thought there was a lot of heart to the movie.
        #15. I guess I just saw her reaction differently than you, she acted very much like a teenage girl. I can't say I approved of her reaction for the most part, but it felt real.
        #16. Haha, humor aside, I thought the stakes were very high, but I also didn't see Merida as a brat as you did, which I think is the main thing dividing everyone.
        #19. I'm not sure that this is fair, The old bear showing up isn't a complete coincidence that get them out of a situation because the dad was already realizing he was wrong because he saw the boys running around. Though if it had been him being talked down by Merida and finally believing her that would have been more effective I think. And Merida's skills holding off her father were established early and were apart of her character, I wouldn't call that a coincidence. That's like saying Princess Lea knowing how to handle weapons and helping in the escape from the Death Star is a coincidence, it's established early on in that film too.
        #21-22. I think this is were it is divided. You feel that she was a spoiled brat that simply wasn't getting her way, turned her mom into a bear and got everything she wanted. I saw it that yes, she was a bit spoiled, probably hard not to be since she has grown up in royalty, but she was faced with an unfair fate, tried to change it and ended up comprising her mom her father and her kingdom, which she acknowledges later on. And no, she doesn't just get away with anything. If you really pay attention during the big tradition breaking speech, what I got from it was that ultimately she will still have to get married. While now she gets to wait and hopefully choose a worthy suitor in time, at some point she could still be stuck. And it is notable that she was willing then to marry someone to prevent war.
        Anyway, sorry started rambling a bit. Still check out your reviews all the time, disagreed with ya on this one, but I will still be checking out your reviews, keep up the good work.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

          I cannot and will not argue against any of this. I understand your opinion, but just disagree. Where we differ seems to be on a level of effectiveness and willingness to go with what is on screen, which is entirely reasonable because I know I have argued as you have done for other films against people that have complained as I have done.

          Thanks for adding to the conversation.

    • Joshua Ryan

      I have to agree with Jack Brad, this feels more like an attempt to simply bad-mouth a film you didn't like rather than actually critique the flaws that you believe the film has. I'm sure that is not how you meant for this to come across, but for me at least it feels that way.
      I would agree that the film isn't perfect, but after really thinking about it, Merida's actions are not one of the problems. She's a teenage girl who is faced with a daunting and unfair prospect ahead of her and she reacts by trying to change her fate. She is incredibly short sighted for giving her mother that potion without know what will happen, but she was definitely not trying to poison her.

  • m1

    Someone feels nitpicky today.

  • Chris

    #1: Speaking now as a man, I found it a little disconcertingly paternalistic that trying to get out of arranged marriages can be dismissed so condescendingly by Mr. Brevet.

    #3: Sorry Mr. Brevet, but you're dead wrong ("importance of history" not compatible with "break tradition".)

    $6: Again, you've missed the point. Merida is comfortable being free and individualistic (see initial riding montage), and her "polar opposite" challenge is to listen to the views of others and reconciling them (see speech in hall with other chieftains.) The Queen is comfortable within her socially constructed role as matriarch; her challenge is to deal with the bestial arbitrariness of life as a bear.

    #16: = incoherent gibberish. I know the next rule says "no work is ever wasted," but Brevit's work in answering #16 might be an exception.

    #19: How are Merida's fighting skills coincidental? They're very much an intrinsic component of the character.

    #21: You've also probably never faced an arranged marriage? (Btw, who says the pastry is "poisoned"? We - and Merida - found out that it had transmogrificative properties only afterwards, but before that Merida had just assumed it would cause a chance in her mother's disposition.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      You're dinging me for never having faced an arranged marriage? I really can't argue with you on that point Chris, because no, I haven't been. As far as dismissing arranged marriages, that wasn't my intent so I apologize if that's how you took it.

      Otherwise, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

  • Jeff

    I agree 100% Brad. I can't believe they would spend so much money on a terrible story. Maybe they should take some of the 200 million they spent on graphics and applied them to a writer.

  • Jeremy

    I didn't think she was a brat...

  • Owen

    Brad, I agree 100%. The writers made some truly baffling story choices, and the whole movie felt like such a waste.

  • aguywhoturnsyouintoabear

    mister brad. so much animocity. you forget to mention that she's not like, "oh you're a bear now, yay, i don't have to get married," she's like, "OH DAMN, I'M REALLY SORRY LET'S GO REVERSE THIS SPELL!" I really can't tell if this is supposed to be a humor piece that we take with a grain of salt (or sand, or wheat), or an actual representation of what you think of the film, because if it really is the latter, it's really bad. take the story note, "You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be [very] different." Would you want to see another writer rudely defecate all over something that you enjoyed? like, "oh, 'a prophet' is dumb because he thinks a dear is gonna hit the car and then by sheer coincidence, it does!" riddle me that?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      You can say whatever you like about any movie I like, it doesn't affect my opinion of it. I wrote my review of Brave without touching on the latter 65% or so because I didn't want to spoil it for people. Take this piece however you like, as far as I'm concerned it points out the major flaws in the storytelling. Feel free to disagree.

      It's not animosity, it's disappointment.

  • aguywhoturnsyouintoabear

    I meant deer, just in case you were gonna nitpick my grammar too.

  • Steve J

    Regardless of what critics say, $66M, with a 75% RT score and "A" Cinemascore shows they made a good movie for the target audience that they enjoyed.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Not at all the point of the piece and if we went by that then I guess there is no point in discussing any film.

  • rewster79

    I saw Brave yesterday and I'm sad to say you're right. I say "sad" because I'm a huge fan of Pixar's original stories. Although Toy Story 3 was good and Cars 2 was much better than it seemed on the surface, ever since Up I had my sights set next on Brave since it was the next original flick on Pixar's slate. And with such a great setting, how could this go wrong?

    Boy, did it fizzle to nothing. And yes, it is a victim of holding Pixar to a higher standard. The movie was fine, and kept me passively interested until the third act. Which is usually my exact description of the Pixar wannabe studios (including Disney Animation). We've all just become to expect MORE from them than this.

    Sadly, I guess the next hope for Pixar originality lies in Pete Doctor's hard-to-grasp "human brain" concept. Here's to hoping he pulls it out...

  • dfghjk

    'So let's burn her bow (and never deal with how she got it back)'
    Obviously you weren't paying attention to the movie. The bow that she was using was different to the one her mother burned, and I am assuming she got another bow because she is a princess and she probaby had backups.

  • Ickevinchase

    I agree with everything said by Brad... This is the second worst film by the great Pixar, right behind "Cars 2"...

  • kyle coley

    Cars 2 was better

  • Carson Dyle

    Are you trying to say, Brad, that you've got some sort of issue with the fact that in the film, the mother turns into a bear?

    I'm not sure if you're getting your point across clearly, is all.

  • Ickevinchase

    The mother turning into a bear isn't the real problem... Since Toy Story first came out, Pixar had a weird trackrecord of creating characters that not only kids love, but adults too... And all of us wants to root for them... But it's hard to root for someone once they poison their her own mother...

    Plus the countless holes the script has...

  • Buddy

    I respect critics.
    But i've seen this movie twice and had a lot of fun with it( the whole theater laughed and shed tears at the end)
    I guess, the one that puts negative review towards this film didn't fully understand the message of this movie.
    Merida wasn't intentionally poisoned her mother. She was trying to change her mind about the marriage. She is forced to be someone she's not.
    It's about faith and life choices.
    It's proven with A cinemascore that audience loved it. Simple.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      She intentionally handed her mother a pastry knowing it had a spell on it (call it poisoning or whatever you want) and not knowing what it would do. Sorry, I'm not handing someone I love anything given to me by a creepy, disappearing witch in the forest without knowing what it is. But that's just me, we're clearly different in that respect.

      • Buddy

        I get it. But the relationship between merida and her mother wasn't great when she "ask" the witch to sell her all her craft plus 1 spell. I think merida (given she's still young and naive) thought that the spell would only change her mother's mind. Again, their relationship is troubled when it happened. She even considered to not give the pastry to her mother when the queen said "you're home now, and that's all there is....".
        But when the queen continue with "of course decision must be made..." then merida give the cake to her.
        The one problem with the spell is just her brother transformations, but since i guess there's no "broken relationship" and the way they help merida to "fix" the problem transformed them back and lift the spell.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

          I understand where you're coming from. I just don't accept what Merida did to her mother and I didn't believe she learned anything from it.

  • Ickevinchase

    The funny thing is, the animated short (La Luna) that played before Brave had a better story to tell... Brave is about an hour and thirty minutes long... I would have prefered to watch La Luna in repeat instead of that debacle...

    Wow... The more I think about it, the more I can easily say "It's the worst Pixar movie ever... I have to watch Cars 2 again, just to make sure...

  • Brett McNeill

    Just one little thing that I also had to explain to my friend when we saw it (we weren't really fussy on it, although we didn't hate it). The brothers turn back because the spell was meant for the mom. When the brothers ate it, there had to pray that Merida fixed "the rip cause by pride" (omg that was so stupid) with her mother or else they were stuck. Because she did (SPOILERS....but not really) they were able to turn back instantly. I don't really know if that makes sense (it did to me), but that where I think they were going with that.

    ALSO: YES the short (La Luna) WAS SO MUCH BETTER THAN BRAVE!!!!!!!!! Not to mention more interesting and original.

    And another which I CANNOT BELIEVE Brad didn't mention: Merida thinking she had so sew the tapestry to save her mother. So what does she do? SEW IT WHILE SHE GALLOPING ON HORSE BACK WITH HER THREE BROTHERS!!!!! Why not just sew it the castle...maybe cause it wasn't gunna work and she needed to be there to have her mother's life. Clunkiest storytelling aspect of all!

    Final thought: I don't think the stupidest part on Merida's part was feeding her mother a cake that could have potentially poisoned her. IT WAS THE FACT THAT IF SHE HAD AN OUNCE OF SENSE SHE WOULD KNOW THAT "THE BOND BROKEN BY PRIDE" WAS THE FACT SHE WAS A TWIT TO HER MOM!!!!!!!!! AND SHE COULD HAVE JUST MADE UP WITH HER!!!!! BUT KNOW, LETS GO TO THREW THE FORESTS OF SCOTLAND TO FIND THE WITCH AND SNEAK THE MOM BACK INTO THE CASTLE AND-

    sorry but if I don't stop now I won't ever. Brad, I'm kinda surprised you didn't bring this stuff up (or maybe you thought you'd slammed it enough). But I'm sure you saw it.

    Cheers.

  • http://www.lucky9studios.com Ivan

    The most frustrating thing about Brave is that it could have been good (even with the whole Bear thing).

    I wrote an article highlighting how I think it could be fixed.
    http://lucky9studios.com/2012/06/28/how-to-fix-pixars-brave-in-6-easy-steps/?preview=true&preview_id=689&preview_nonce=9916badf1d

  • http://meesacat.tumblr.com Marisa

    I'd just like to say this article has a few good points, but it's overall b.s. How do you know how to make a successful movie? Are you the Ms. Know It All of storytelling? This movie is touching and well done. It's very different from all the other Disney movies, yes, but in it's own way touches many people in ways the other Disney movies couldn't. Honestly Merida reminded of me, because I'm one of those spiteful rebellious teenagers who goes against whatever Mom says. And putting myself in her shoes, the fact that she didn't realize what she had done to her mother just for her fate to change made me feel awful! I would never want to do that to my mom! So this movie isn't bad, its fantastic. You didn't understand anything from the movie, that's why you may think the movie is bad. Well your wrong, and you should probably re watch the movie to get it.

  • http://meesacat.tumblr.com Marisa

    Sorry, made a few mistakes while writing my previous one. Here's an edited one:

    I'd just like to say this article has a few good points, but it's overall b.s. How do you know how to make a successful movie? Are you the Mr. Know It All of storytelling? This movie is touching and well done. It's very different from all the other Disney movies, yes, but in it's own way touches many people in ways the other Disney movies couldn't. Honestly Merida reminded of me, because I'm one of those spiteful rebellious teenagers who goes against whatever Mom says. And putting myself in her shoes, the fact that she didn't realize what she had done to her mother just for her fate to change made me feel awful! I would never want to do that to my mom! So this movie isn't bad, its fantastic. You didn't understand anything from the movie, that's why you may think the movie is bad. Well your wrong, and you should probably re watch the movie to get it. It's a simple, cute movie and the lesson is easy to see. Stop trying to be smart about it and making it more difficult or stupid. Plus, Merida's hair is awesome. Seriously.