With its first ‘princess’ movie, Brave, Pixar recovers from the creative (though not financial) disaster that was Cars 2. The story of Merida, the tomboy teen at the heart of Brave, takes familiar princess tropes and spins them enough to feel fresh and fun. And, as always, the animation is stunning.
Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a feisty lass who loathes her mother’s efforts to turn her into (shudder) a perfect princess. She’d rather be galloping through the forest on her massive horse, Angus, and honing her archery skills than learning etiquette and needlepoint.
Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) despairs at her daughter’s rambunctious behavior – she even helps her triplet brothers, Hamish, Hubert and Harris, get away with their mischief. Worse, to Elinor’s way of thinking, Merida’s father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly, because, who else?) – a great thumping behemoth of a man (and endearingly oafish) who lost a leg to a mad bear (pay attention, this is important!) – condones her behavior.
Unfortunately, things come to a head when tradition demands that the sons of the three allied kings take part in a contest to win Merida’s hand. After shaming all three boys with her archery skills, and the four kings and their entourages (a polite word for them) take to telling tales and drinking, Merida flees into the forest where she is led by some willow-the-wisps to the home (and carving shop) of a witch (Julie Walters) where she buys a spell to change her fate.
The spell, of course, works as advertised but not as expected. Chaos (along with some hilarity and as much drama) ensues.
Given their predilection for mischief and/or contrary behavior, it makes sense that Merida and the triplets are redheads. Just sayin’…
Anyroad, what seems to be a pretty straightforward princess movie with a feminist twist that makes perfect sense now, but wouldn’t have in the movie’s time, turns out to be an exploration of the love/hate relationship between a mother and daughter.
Sure, there’s action – see mad bear; drinking Scots – and a great deal of humor, but the emotional depth that was lacking in Cars 2 is at the heart of Brave. Only exasperation at her mother’s seeming unwillingness to listen to her could possibly spark the kind of impetuous action Merida takes – and only a mother’s love for her daughter could possibly inspire a mother to risk everything for her. (Notice how vague that is?)
While all the mother-daughter drama is going on, poor Fergus gets stuck with drunken Scots politics. I expect Connolly went off book frequently – Fergus just seems so merrily unscripted. There are some great moments when Merida needs to create a distraction and goes for a fine Scots tradition (booze!) that earns a terrific throwaway line from her dad. But first, the best use of charades in a movie ever!
The animation is Pixar standard, which is to say, incredibly good. Watching animals moving (Angus, the bear) is a joy, and the wisps are delightful. The design of the castle, the forest, the standing stones (it’s Scotland – of course there are standing stones) and the witch’s house are meticulously detailed. The designs might be unlike anything Pixar has done before, but that doesn’t mean anyone phoned it in.
When there’s sufficient light, the film is a wondrous world, indeed. Which brings me to my major complaint about the film: the biggest flaw with Brave is the use of 3D in a film that is set largely in dark places, like forests or poorly lit castles, or at night (in dark forests and poorly lit castles). There are several places where the film will be much more distinct if you see it in 2D.
As for Pixar’s first attempt at a princess movie – let alone a movie with a female protagonist of any kind – it’s mostly a success. In terms of the actual story, the only real problem is that the men and the politics of the alliance of the four kings are a bit too cartoony when compared with the mother-daughter story. Each works as its own entity but there are a few places where the joins are not quite as seamless as one expects from Pixar.
The directorial change – from Brenda Chapman (upon whose story the script – by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Chapman and Irene Mecchi – was based) to Andrews (over the catch-all of creative differences) – may have hurt the film but, if so, it’s pretty difficult to tell how. But then, I always was a sucker for the Celtic…
Overall, then, Brave is a hugely entertaining movie that announces that Pixar is back on the creative track again.
Final Grade: A-
Photos courtesy of Pixar.