Review: Pixar's 'Brave', featuring Kelly MacDonald and Emma Thompson
If Brave were the product of any other studio, like maybe their parent company Disney, we'd be saying that the film's crimson-haired heroine, Princess Merida(Kelly MacDonald) fits neatly into a long line of strong, animated female protagonists. Brave is a throwback to the traditional Disney style, which we've all loved for decades and is a proven winner for both kids and adults. If this were a Disney film, Brave could probably skate through relatively unscathed as a solid, old school fairy tale. But this is Pixar we're talking about, and while that may be acceptable for a Disney film, Pixar are the folks that produce modern day classics. We expect the unexpected from them, and most of the time they've delivered. But all has not been perfect in the Pixar house over the last year, and Brave is an extension of what seems like an aimless period in the studio's history.
There's been no shortage of turmoil in the development of Brave, although in the beginning it was met with much promise and acclaim for the new ground Pixar was entering. For all of their genuinely amazing films over the years, Brave is their first attempt into fairy tale storytelling, but more important than that, it's their first to feature a female lead. Brenda Chapman would be the first woman to direct a Pixar feature, and given their track record, Brave was set to be an integral, forward moving step in the right direction. However, a controversial creative shake-up saw Chapman ousted, with Mark Andrews taking over. It's unclear just how much of an impact this had on the final result, but what we end up with is a film full of potential and missed opportunities.
Set in the Scottish highlands, we're first introduced to Merida at a young age, her flaming tresses always flowing in the wind behind her. She's a tomboy princess from the very beginning, who most closely resembles her manly father, King Fergus(Billy Connolly), which galls her doting mother, Queen Elinor(Emma Thompson). Elinor wants nothing more than to raise her daughter to be ready for the responsibilities of being a queen, which of course all require perfection in a number of boring activities, along with a reserved and regal demeanor. When Fergus gives Merida a bow for her birthday, it's like a door to a whole new world has been opened up, but an attack by a mythical demon bear ruins the festivities while also taking her father's leg. As the film flash forwards years ahead, we see that Merida has only grown to be more rebellious and adventurous.
Unfortunately, Merida's also at marrying age, and Elinor is quick to set her daughter up with any of the three sons of neighboring Kings. Merida doesn't want to be tied down, leading to a conflict with her mother, but the two headstrong women won't budge from their position. An archery contest is set up by Merida to help decide the man she'll marry, cleverly a way for her to upstage her male counterparts and prove herself worthy of independence. Not that it was difficult, as all three suitors are a motley crew of wimps and oddities. After her rebellious actions lead to a major dust up with her mother, Merida hops on her horse and hightails it outside of the safety of the kingdom's walls. Lured by a trail of inviting will o'the wisps, she meets an eccentric old witch with a fondness for bears. Convincing the witch to grant her one spell, Merida asks for something that will change Elinor's stubborn mind, allowing her to live the life she wants.
This being a fairy tale, you already know that witches can NEVER be relied on to do anything but stir up trouble, and that's exactly what happens here in a way that transforms Merida's relationship with her mother in a most unexpected way. Honestly, Pixar has done such an amazing job of keeping the finer points of the plot under wraps that it would be a shame to spoil them here. Suffice it to say, Merida and Elinor are forced to go off on an adventure to reverse the spell's unintended consequences.
Undoubtedly the best looking Pixar film yet, they've smartly tweaked their usual animation style just a little bit, giving the film more of a storybook look. As exceptional as it all looks, that's how ordinary the story turns out to be. It's perfectly fine, standard fairy tale stuff, and will no doubt please droves of children this weekend. But that's never been what Pixar has been all about. Imparting pearls of wisdom for the kids while staying just mature enough for adults has been their stock 'n trade, but Brave's story is so thin that grown ups will likely become bored after awhile. The message at the heart of the story, which is basically about parents and their children learning to understand and accept one another, is a strong, well-told one with heart to spare. There needed to be a larger journey to allow for that bond between Merida and Elinor to develop naturally. Also, the way Elinor accepts the extreme circumstances she's under doesn't quite ring true. Sure, it's a fairy tale and expecting logic to come into play is probably a mistake, but it would have made for a richer, more meaningful story if there was a little more conflict.
Brave is one of Pixar's lesser efforts, which still makes it better than the majority of animated films out there. With other studios rapidly catching up to Pixar's artistic and storytelling standards, they'd be well-served to start pushing the envelope again. Falling back on tradition now may make for a solid stop-gap effort parents can take their kids to, but it's not a way to stay ahead of the curve.