There is something you don’t know about “Brave,” the new movie from Disney/Pixar that opens in theaters this Friday. It’s not mentioned in the trailers or the television commercials, but it’s fundamental to the plot of the film. Discussing it on Twitter, Matt Patches from Hollywood.com said it wasn’t even a twist — more of an inciting incident. In other words, it’s big. And Disney has done an impressive job keeping it a secret.
Maybe too impressive a job. At HuffPost Entertainment, critic Mike Ryan says that he “felt a strange sense of betrayal in regards to the storyline” because the plot of the movie was so utterly unexpected. Explaining what he found remarkable about “Brave,” Ryan said:
“I can’t remember the last time a film’s main plot (not a twist ending) was purposely kept from an audience that wasn’t specifically part of the marketing. In other words: This isn’t ‘Super 8’ or ‘Cloverfield’ — movies that not knowing the plot is part of each film’s appeal.”
“Brave” caught Ryan completely off-guard, and he was kind of pissed off about it. If the tepid reactions of many other critics after the “Brave” press screening are any indication, he wasn’t alone either. Which is kind of fascinating.
Spoilers are the online critical community’s number one obsession; on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs like this one, people constantly debate their etiquette, morality, and efficacy. Part of that ongoing conversation involves the role of marketing in those spoilers; a lot of studios these days seem all-too-willing to reveal their films’ biggest secrets before they even open. Playing coy with details is now the exception in movie trailers, not the rule. Yet here is “Brave,” a movie that is truly surprising, and Ryan and others were upset about that, too. So why do we hate spoilers if we also hate surprises?
Though I don’t necessary agree with Ryan, I understand what he’s saying. He’s arguing that the marketing for “Brave” sold him (and anyone who goes to see it) a bill of goods. He expected a brave young woman on an adventure and he got… well, he got something that was not quite that.
Ryan specifically mentions his own expectations, but what we’re really talking about here is a movie keeping its promises. If you make a movie called “Titanic,” we better see that boat sink. If the director doesn’t deliver, is that the audience’s fault or the movie’s? All cinema is a cycle of setup and payoff. When a character is “casually” informed that the spaceship in “Prometheus” contains an auto-surgery machine, we expect someone use it to perform auto-surgery on themselves later. And sure enough, someone does. But if they hadn’t, wouldn’t that have been frustrating? (One could argue a variation on this theme is “Prometheus”‘ biggest problem: it begins as a serious science-fiction movie and ends as a silly monster mash; it raises a lot of questions and then never bothers to answer any of them.)
In the case of “Brave,” Ryan says he felt “betrayed” by the movie. If its trailer had revealed major chunks of what happened to the protagonist in the second and third acts, would he have liked it more? Probably not — that would have just set off the excessive spoiler alarm rather than the excessive surprise alarm. I suppose then that these twin demands are essentially opposite poles on one long continuum, and for a lot of people the ideal marketing would land somewhere in the middle — not revealing a movie’s secrets, but at least alluding to the fact that there are secrets in store, sort of the way films like the aforementioned “Super 8” or “Cloverfield” get sold.
Personally, I was glad Pixar surprised me — I just wasn’t necessarily all that pleased with what they surprised me with. Still, I think the way they handled that mystery speaks to the studio’s status as one of the most powerful brands in American entertainment. They don’t need celebrity voices or flashy plots to bring in viewers: their name and the line “From the studio that brought you ‘Toy Story'” will do the trick. As a result, they can take chances with how they sell their products — which is certainly what they’ve done with “Brave,” whose title describes its marketing campaign as effectively as it does anything in the actual film.