Decided to catch up on one of the few Pixar movies I still haven’t watched. I think it got a fairly muted response upon its release compared to most Pixar films, so having lowered expectations I actually enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.
The first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist, it dips its toe into the classic Disney territory with Pixar’s own princess, a headstrong flame-haired young girl named Merida. Unlike most Disney princesses, Merida actually has both living parents – the Scottish King Fergus (Robbie Coltrane) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). She has an easy, chummy relationship with her coarse but good-natured father, and a strained one with her strict mother, who is intent on grooming her into a perfect heiress while Merida would rather roam the countryside with her favourite horse and bow. One day, to Merida’s dismay, her parents announce that they plan to hold a tournament for the eldest sons from three Highland clans, with her hand in marriage as the prize. The sons turn out to be various degrees of losers, but Merida manages to turn things to her advantage, which angers the lords and Merida’s mother even more so. Fleeing her home after a spat with Elinor, Merida stumbles upon the cottage of an eccentric old witch and her sassy talking raven (who I wished we saw more of), and asks for a spell that would change Elinor into forgetting about the whole marriage thing. Because spells in fairy tales always have a nasty fine print, it backfires badly and now Merida must undo the curse before it’s too late.
Brave is a gorgeous-looking movie and my favourite thing in it was Merida’s unruly, glorious mane of hair. Lovingly and painstakingly animated, it floats around her head in shades of vivid red that I don’t think I’ve even seen onscreen before. It suits the free-spirited nature of the character, but I found it curious that Merida’s restlessness wasn’t entirely depicted as some sort of modern you go girl! ideal. Rather, it suggests that Merida, while rightly rebelling against a forced marriage, is also being childish and immature by refusing to grow up and face the responsibilities to her kingdom. Another refreshing aspect of the movie is that it focuses on a mother/daughter relationship, which rarely gets a look in animation (quick, count all the dead Disney mothers!), and accurately captures the mix of love and exasperation often prevalent in this dynamic.
Brave is more low-key and less ambitious and sophisticated than the best Pixar movies, and pretty much all of the plot developments are telegraphed well in advance – there is no clever subversion of tropes or Big Themes. Which is not necessarily a bad thing because a simple tale well told is nothing to sniff at, but I still think that the film could have done more with its premise and the relationship between Merida and Elinor. It simply feels like there isn’t that much for the characters to do or accomplish. Because their conflict is pretty standard and involves lack of communication rather than any real rift, it’s resolved quite easily, and I think that Frozen did a much better job with “character thinks that they can fix the problem like so, but it turns out to be something totally different”. Can there be a doubt in anyone’s mind about what really needs to be fixed in order for the spell to be broken? It’s not some silly tapestry, duh.
In the absence of a clear antagonist, the main threat in the movie comes in the shape of a giant evil bear, who turns out to be more than meets the eye, and for a bit I wondered if the movie was going to go into a different direction altogether. It doesn’t, and again, I was left with a vague feeling of a lost potential. Same goes for the witch: her appearance is disappointingly brief, and you’re left to wonder if something more interesting could have come out of the maiden-mother-crone setup. But while it lacks inventiveness and ambition of classic Pixar, Brave still has plenty going for it: beautiful visuals with a touch of Celtic mysticism, emotion, and humour, most of which involves the antics of Merida’s mischievous triplet brothers.