Pixar’s first fairy tale is a simple story about family, traditions and magic. While it may be a lesser effort by the studio responsible for “Toy Story 3’ and “The Incredibles,” it’s nonetheless charming, visually ravishing and far superior to any of this year’s other animated films.
Scottish Princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald) is tired of listening to her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), nitpick her every action and force her into the prim and proper behavior of a princess. Merida would much rather be riding her horse through the woods, shooting arrows with her father (Billy Connolly) or stealing cookies with her three younger brothers. When the King and Queen welcome suitors from their country’s four clans to compete for Merida’s hand, the feisty princess will have none of it and fights for her own honor. It’s a choice that—with a little pride and some magic—will have a major effect on the family, sending Merida and her mother on a quest to make things right.
The film’s first half hour is one of the most enjoyable that Pixar has ever created. “Brave” opens with an exciting prologue involving a family dinner interrupted by a ferocious bear and then jumps right into a breathtaking sequence where Merida breaks free of her etiquette training and heads off for adventure. Connolly is a hoot as the daffy, ribald King and audiences will love the slapstick antics of Merida’s younger triplet brothers. There’s great humor as the various clans compete for her hand—when you get a bunch of rowdy men in one room fighting for a lady, it doesn’t take too long for chaos to erupt.
The film’s first act is so much fun and packed with such energy that it’s a tad deflating when the film leaves the castle and focuses more on Merida and her mother’s adventure. I’m skirting plot details (even though some of the film’s marketing gives it away) because the twist that sets everything into motion will probably be enjoyed more by those who don’t see it coming. It takes what had heretofore been a rowdy, funny story of female independence and turns it into a soft, quiet fairy tale about family bonds, childish pride and the importance of heritage.
Some may find it a bit disappointing that “Brave” turns into a simple story aimed at kids and without the usual nuance and brilliance that made films like “WALL-E” and “Up” masterpieces for all ages. To be fair, the story is a bit weaker than we’re used to from Pixar, and on the surface seems more like something Disney did in the late sixties. The choices that director Mark Andrews makes in telling the story limit the potential for subtlety that we’ve come to expect from the studio. Merida and her mother have problems communicating—that’s set up in the film’s first act—and rather than move beyond that and look deeper, the film continues inhibiting their communication, stretching out the problem instead of finding something new to say.
But there can be depth in simplicity, and if “Brave” doesn’t say anything new about families and pride, its message of honoring your elders and respecting tradition still resonates. While the “choose your own destiny” theme has been down several times before, it’s handled well here and the film’s sweeping look gives it a heft that the narrative can’t always provide.
It helps that “Brave” is ravishing, possibly one of the best-looking movies Pixar has ever made. The Scottish countryside, with its ruins, castles and forests, is a sight to behold and the film is a visual feast from the first frame. Whether we’re watching Merida climb a crashing waterfall or pursue mysterious willow-wisps in the woods, there’s a dark beauty to “Brave,” and the film can turn from a warm-hearted comedy to a breathtaking adventure on a moment’s notice.
Merida is Pixar’s first princess, and she’s a feisty, funny heroine with a tangle of red curls that are characters of their own. MacDonald ably brings to life the character’s sparky spirit and it’s refreshing to see a Disney princess who carries a weapon and doesn’t spend two hours pining for a boy. Merida’s relationship with Queen Elinor is the film’s heart, and the story sets up a challenge where the two are placed in a situation where normal communication is impossible. Pixar’s wizards ably handle the challenge, and I was surprised at how much emotion could still be felt even with the constrictions.
The ever-escalating conflict between Connolly, the triplets and the warring clans is the film’s strongest and most entertaining material. The uncouth clansmen—and their penchant for flashing what’s under their kilts—are a reliable source of humor, and the film has a slightly rude and crass sense of humor that’s surprising for Pixar, although it never descends into innuendo or vulgarity. The material back at the castle never really meshes well with the rest of the story, unfortunately, but it’s a highlight whenever the movie heads back there.
Since “Toy Story,” Pixar has reliable been run by the best storytellers in Hollywood. So it’s surprising that “Brave’s” weakness originally seems to stem from narrative issues. But there’s so much to love about “Brave”—its humor, characters and visuals—that the story stumbles are never too big of a problem. The film is never as lazy or commercially-driven as ‘Cars 2,’ and I think it’s easy to mistake simplicity for shallowness. “Brave” may not have a lot of nuance, but there’s real emotion and resonance in Merida’s tale.
At the end of the day, the film will likely be considered minor Pixar. The good news there is that the worst of Pixar is better than some of Hollywood’s best, and I have a feeling “Brave” will thrill quite a few families.
Originally published in the Source Newspapers.