Since releasing the first Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has done everything to earn both the highest of reputations as well as the greatest of expectations. In the last 17 years we’ve seen them craft brilliant tales about cooking rats, robots lost in space, frantic fish looking for a child and superheroes in trouble, but those triumphs have led us to anticipate more out of the studio than any other, which is a sword that cuts both ways. Brave, the new film from Pixar directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman, does lack some of the spark present in the studio’s greater projects, but the movie is still fun, engaging, and emotional while featuring some stunning animation and a terrific lead character.
Set in medieval Scotland, the story follows Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald), an incorrigible young woman who wishes to do nothing more than ride her horse through the forest and practice her bow-and-arrow, but who is forced by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) to marry one of three suitors from neighboring kingdoms. Sick of her mother’s conservative rules, Merida sets out into the wilderness so that she can find a way to change her fate. She meets an old witch (Julie Walters) who agrees to do what she asks, but after a major transformation Merida gets more than she bargained for and must work to prevent her kingdom from going to war.
Visually, Brave is the greatest thing that Pixar has accomplished. Andrews, Chapman and their team on this project clearly threw out the book in an attempt to create something vibrant and new and though the movie never abandons that intangible quality that reminds us we are watching animation, Brave is the studio’s most photorealistic movie yet, capturing the Scottish forests and castles. The crisp feel puts you right behind the saddle with Merida as she rides through the woods slinging arrows into targets hanging in the trees.
But the true moment when you discover the film’s beauty is when the fully-grown Merida is revealed and we see her incredible, curly red hair. In every shot the follicles seem to have a life of their own and are orchestrated beautifully, but more importantly tell us everything we need to know about the princess in an instant. She is more than just petulant and rebellious or a square peg in a round hole, but rather a ball of energy that can’t and won’t be contained (illustrated beautifully when the Queen tucks all of Merida’s hair into a wimple and Merida secretly drags out a strand to hang on her forehead). Kelly MacDonald does a great job bringing the character to life by providing the heroine with a voice that’s both brash and sweet and with an accent that resonates but is never hard to understand. As Pixar’s first lead female character it was important that Merida make a deep impression on the audience. They succeeded.
At the heart of the movie is the eternal struggle between mother and daughter, but the material is treated in such a way that it becomes emotionally relatable (I was affected and have never been at any time either a daughter or a mother). Without giving away the twist at the core of the story, the aforementioned “major transformation” forces Elinor and Merida together, and the two are not only able to bond but see things from each other’s perspective. The tension ramps up wonderfully at the start of the story, as Merida’s wildness conflicts with the Queen’s traditional values, and the end is just as passionate and tear-jerking as any other movie in the Pixar catalog. But what prevents the movie from reaching the highest levels of our standards is a certain spark that introduces the ordinary to the extraordinary. Where the titular character of Wall-E found himself in the stars among the last vestiges of man; Remy of Ratatouille landed in one of the world’s great French kitchens; and Carl of Up traveled far and wide with his balloon house, the adventures of Merida seem smaller and more contained. The middle hour feels more like a Disney movie than a Pixar movie - not just with the princess and magic, which have been hallmarks of Disney since Snow White - but with goofy humor and sensibilities that seem slightly tweaked from the Pixar standard. That’s no insult to Disney.
Brave is neither Pixar’s greatest movie, nor their worst, but like all the others is better than 95% of what we typically see in theaters. The film itself follows a character that wants her independence and the chance to prove her strengths as an individual. Perhaps that’s the best way to view Brave as well.
For our To 3D or not to 3D guide to Brave, go HERE