Theatrical Review: “Brave”
Produced by: Katherine Sarafian; Pete Docter, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton (executive); Mary Alice Drumm (associate)
Written by: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi (screenplay); Brenda Chapman (story)
Art Department: Emma Coats, Nick Sung (storyboard artists); Mark Cordell Holmes (graphic artist); Jason Merck (artist)
Music by: Patrick Doyle
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Julie Walters, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, John Ratzenberger
Many have worried, and even after seeing the film continue to assert, that Brave is a step backward for Pixar in terms of quality and storytelling. The film’s current score of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, while nowhere near as low as last year’s 38%-scoring Cars 2, still puts the film just barely above the first Cars (74%), and just below the recent Madagascar 3 (76%), and though I haven’t seen the latter, I doubt these films would ever be considered in the same league as Pixar’s masterpieces like Up, The Incredibles, the Toy Story films, and Finding Nemo. Audiences and critics alike are seemingly seeing signs that this studio, once heralded as being home to the kings (and queens) of their craft, is taking its first steps towards the abyss of mediocrity — an assertion only further enforced by the fact that Brave had Pixar’s lowest grossing opening weekend of any of their films, despite taking the number one spot. But is Brave really the harbinger of a string of “just average” films to come? Has Pixar lost its edge, its brilliance, its originality? To be quite honest, I don’t see Brave in that light at all.
With Brave, Pixar does indeed break their high-concept streak and steps into unknown territory. Aside from the fact that, yes, this is finally a Pixar film where the primary protagonist is a female, what I’m talking about is that, after years spent examining the lives of living toys, anthropomorphic vehicles, monsters in your closet, and all sorts of other fantastical creatures, Pixar has for the first time taken a dip into the Disney pool and is telling a story set in a traditional fantasy world, full of princesses, warriors, kingdoms, magical spells and curses, and enchanted forests. Also, in the real world, there’s even talk about the film’s hero, the flame-haired Princess Merida, soon joining the ranks of the Little Mermaid, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty in the Disney Princess brand lineup, so there you have your marketing motivation to fuel the rumors of Pixar’s decline. But while Brave uses plenty of the same staples used by those princesses’ films, what was once familiar is luckily new again with Brave, thanks to the thoughtful production values put into this film.
First of all, what we get in Merida is a tomboy princess who desires to cast off her girdle and go for a bit of target practice with her bow from the back of her mighty horse. If that sounds like nothing new, it really isn’t, I admit. The tomboy girl who kicks butt is almost as much of a cliche these days as it is to have a damsel princess who, despite being the star of her film, requires an outside source of strength to save her from a bloody fate, but it’s how Pixar handles the princess that’s most interesting. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Merida’s tomboyish and adventurous spirit comes from an indulgent and loving father, but, with co-director and writer Brenda Chapman drawing inspiration from her own relationship with her own daughter, what we get inBraveis possibly the first princess film to really focus on the relationship between the princess and her mother — in this case, the graceful but commanding Queen Elinor.
Elinor has been prepping Merida all her life for the day when she will be married off to a rival clan’s best man in order to bring peace to the kingdoms. Of course, Merida has her own plans and not only rejects the path that has been laid out for her, but also her mother, who is forcing this life upon her. When Merida rushes off into the enchanted woods after a terrible argument, she comes across the house of a witch, who grants her a spell that will change Merida’s, and her mother’s, fate forever. Of course there are unforeseen consequences to always getting what you want, and Merida now needs to come face-to-face with her own mistakes and change her perspective on life while still remaining true to herself.
Indeed, all this sounds like typical fairy tale territory, and I believe that’s kind of the point. There are even ancient legends that turn out to be true and happen to factor both literally and metaphorically into the story of Merida’s dilemma, but other than these familiar trappings, Pixar has taken the format and created a fantastical version of medieval Scotland that is completely original and stands apart from its animated peers by allowing its protagonist to be incredibly flawed, standing in stark contrast with the noble princess who stands as a moral pillar throughout. Though Merida is quite capable and likely could lead a band of warriors into battle and come out on the winning side (to her mother’s horror, no doubt), she’s not presented as a Mary Sue type either, and the blame for much of the conflict between she and her mother lies just as much upon her own shoulders as it does the queen’s, if not even more so.
When the film does afford her a single moment to make a speech, instead of having her already be at the correct conclusion so that she may teach others (and the audience) a lesson, Pixar wisely chose to use the moment to teach her a lesson, a lesson relayed to her her by her mother, no less, allowing Merida to grow as a person and realize that the decisions she makes in life will often have unforeseen impact upon others, both good and bad. For once in a fantasy film, the main conflict isn’t with an evil witch or powerful sorcerer or revolving around a mystical object, but instead stems from the main characters themselves, which is, I might add, a very Pixar-like thing to do, all you naysayers who think that they’re becoming too dissimilar from the primary Disney films.
Happily, the film isn’t just moral lessons, family drama, and ancient politics. There’s plenty of comedy to be had, though I admit your mileage may vary, as Pixar has taken this film in a more slapstick direction than most of their other films. (I’ve also not seen so many depictions of nudity in a family film since the pastoral sequence of Fantasia!) It wasn’t juvenile to the point of turning me off — don’t expect Mater wetting himself in public levels of juvenile humor, luckily — but if that’s not your thing, then, yeah, maybe you won’t be as entertained. The sight gags with one character constantly tripping and falling are a little over done, but Merida’s scheming little brothers are just the right amount of mischievous, cute, and funny and are hard to hate. Anachronistic jokes are kept at a bare minimum (I think I can remember one involving a magic cauldron, and it wasn’t even a bad one), so don’t expect a bombardment of pop culture references and slang either. I would typically consider this to be a good thing, and Pixar is usually very good at not doing this too much. Also, the songs are restricted to some lovely ones from Julie Fowlis and Birdy with Mumford and Sons, without a character breaking out into song, so all you musical haters can stop worrying, as well.
The familial relationships are obviously a key component of the film, and luckily each of the characters is wonderful, and the voice actors are endearing in their roles. Kelly Macdonald in particular puts in a wonderful performance as Merida (once to be filled by Reese Witherspoon, who I cannot see in the role). Merida is instantly an appealing character in both personality and design (the wild hair effects are stunning), and she feels authentic as a rebellious teenager who doesn’t hate her parents but wishes to go her own way — in other words, a typical teenage girl. Likewise, Emma Thompson and Billy Connolly make for affective and affectionate parents, both to their kids and toward each other. Like Merida, Queen Elinor is not a perfect mother, and the lessons she bestows upon her daughter are organically balanced with what she in turn learns from Merida as they work through their ordeal. King Fergus may be fun-loving and a bit of a he-man, but he doesn’t fall into the stereotype of an incompetent father or an oaf. He may like to wrestle with the dogs and brag about the time that a bear stole his leg and he survived, but he’s also a competent, fearsome leader who has an equally wise queen by his side, and the two seem to play an equal part in providing for the safety of her kids and their kingdom.
A character unto itself is the beautiful imagery in the film. I mentioned before Merida’s wild red hair, but the world of Brave is simultaneously ethereal in its natural-looking beauty as it is mysterious and filled with danger. Mist, shadows, dingy lighting, waving leaves, and other natural elemental effects are employed throughout the film to make this feel like a real, living world, but not in a sense that it falls into the uncanny valley — just that it is so fully realized, it feels as if it exists. Again just another thing that Pixar excels at. It’s just a shame that we have to leave this world so soon, as the film is relatively short at 93 minutes and maybe could’ve used a few extra scenes to eliminate the sense that the filmmakers maybe felt the need to speed up the plot to make up for the fact that this doesn’t have any race cars in it. It’s not that it feels incomplete — just that I would’ve liked a few more slower moments to take it all in and let the characters develop more slowly. As it is, it feels like there’s a more methodical director’s cut waiting to come out. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind that at all.
So, to summarize, Brave easily makes for an entertaining, high quality fantasy film put out by one of the greatest animation studios to ever exist. Sure, they faltered with Cars 2, and, sure, Brave doesn’t reach the levels of originality and quality as some of its more celebrated predecessors, but neither does the often forgotten A Bug’s Life or Ratatouille, but those are still fantastic films in their own right, and both feature similar messages as Brave as well. The only thing that makes Brave stand out is its Disney Princess vibe, and even that is given a shake up with an appealing but flawed lead. Heck, the only animal companion in the film isn’t even what you would expect it to be!
The fact of the matter is that no other animation studio has the same pedigree or track record as Pixar for putting out high quality, entertaining films — not even the oft revered Studio Ghibli, whose flawed and often dull Tales of Earthsea didn’t get people all up in a frenzy about the studios’ decline as much as the far more entertaining and enjoyable Brave is, and even that studio came back in full force with the wonderful Secret World of Arrietty, which wasn’t even directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself. Brave doesn’t elevate itself to Up-levels of quality, true, but it is a wonderful film in its own right, and I would gladly be there on day one to buy it for my own collection.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5