It has been a long three years since Pixar’s last original movie. As good as Pixar fans found Toy Story 3 (though personally I was underwhelmed), it is always exciting to see new material from the groundbreaking animation film studio that brought us classics such as Finding Nemo, WALL-E, The Incredibles and Up. The latter was their last original effort and probably Pixar’s most grown-up film to date. The following two years, Pixar brought us two sequels, the long awaited Toy Story follow-up (good!) and the not-so-much anticipated Cars 2 (not that good). Next year we’ll be treated to yet another follow-up by Pixar – Monsters University (in this case actually a prequel). That’s quite a high sequel ratio for a studio that produced 10 mostly acclaimed and hugely successful CG animated films between 1995 and 2010, but only one sequel among them (Toy Story 2). The idea of Pixar giving us new material is extremely intriguing, considering that their original films prior to Toy Story 3 always attempted to break new grounds and push boundaries of animation. In Ratatouille Pixar made a loveable protagonist out of a rat, in WALL-E, we’ve been treated to the main character that cannot really talk and thus given an almost silent first half-hour, in Up Pixar delved into issues such as crushed dreams, miscarriages and death.
Brave presents something new for Pixar in more than one way. It is the first Pixar film with a female protagonist and their first movie with a period setting as well. It was also going to become Pixar’s first movie directed by a woman (fitting into the emancipation theme of the film). Brenda Chapman conceived the story, but eventually left the project due to creative differences. On top of that, Brave fits more with the classic Disney lore than any of Pixar’s previous works. Not only does it tell a classic fairy tale story, but the film’s protagonist, Princess Merida, is also Pixar’s first contribution to Disney’s Princess line.
The bad news for some fans is that this is pretty much where the innovations end. Audiences have come to expect Pixar to step up their game with each new film. Brave does not advance Pixar’s filmmaking in the way WALL-E and Up did. It doesn’t tread new paths. Instead it is a rather conventional moral tale. The good news is that it is still a blast of a movie marking one of Pixar’s highest points.
The interesting thing about Brave is that the marketing never gave away much about the plot. We knew it deals with a Scottish warrior princess, she is supposed to be married off after a competition among her suitors and a bear somehow figures into the whole thing. It is amazing in our day and age to give away this little about a major tentpole’s plot. What you see in the trailers basically encompasses the first 30 minutes of the film. If you don’t want to know anything about the remaining hour at all, I suggest you to skip this paragraph (and maybe the rest of the review). Brave is set in the Scottish Highlands in the 10th century. Merida (impeccably voiced by Kelly McDonald) is the daughter to Bear King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and his wife Elinor (Emma Thompson). When she was little, a raging bear attacked her clan and fending it off, Fergus gained fame and respect, but lost his leg. Fast-forward several years and Merida has grown up to be a headstrong independent lass with a temper as fiery as her flowing red hair. Her father (thanks to the glory over his brawl with the bear) has become the king of all clans, making Merida a full-blown princess. And a princess’ life isn’t easy. Constantly lectured, reprimanded and controlled by her well-meaning mother (“A princess does not chortle”, “A princess does not raise her voice”) Merida doesn’t have the freedom she is yearning for. If it were up to her, she would just spend all day riding through the Highlands and experience adventures. However when the day comes on which three different clans arrive to present suitors to compete for her, she won’t take it. When secretly enlisting into the archery competition herself enrages her mother, Merida flees the castle and comes upon a witch’s house from whom she buys a spell in the shape of a harmless cake. The spell is supposed to change her mother’s mind about the arranged marriage, but unfortunately it changes her mother’s species instead – into a huge bear. Now Merida has less than two days left to reverse the spell or her mother will remain in this shape forever, losing the memories of her old self in the process.
Interestingly enough, of all recent animated features, the one that Brave resembles most isn’t a work by Pixar, but by their main (and usually inferior) competitor DreamWorks. It is How to Train Your Dragon that I was constantly reminded of throughout the film. Both films feature a protagonist that doesn’t quite fit in with his/her surroundings. The Vikings from Dragon aren’t far off from the similarly brawny Scotsmen in Brave and the scene-stealer is a non-human, in Brave’s case the changed Elinor who, even in her ursine form, initially refuses to give up her ladylike demeanor and has to be taught by her daughter how to catch salmon. But the biggest similarity comes from the both films’ striking visuals and the focal points of their storytelling. Whereas How to Train Your Dragon depicted a troubled father-son relationship, Brave takes upon itself to deal with a centuries-old conflict – that between a mother and her teenage daughter. Luckily for us, How to Train Your Dragon is DreamWorks’ best film and there could be far worse movies for Pixar to work its ideas from.
The movie truly excels when it comes to the images seen on screen. The necessity of 3D can once again be disputed, but there is no denying that the animation of the Scottish Highlands is strikingly beautiful. The color palette is extremely rich and the sweeping shots of Merida riding through the forest are simply breathtaking. At least in the animation aspect Pixar might have just outdone itself again. Its second great strength is its memorable main character. I did say before that Brave tells a rather classic tale and does not break new grounds for Pixar. That, however, doesn’t mean that they didn’t put a spin or two on that classic tale. Merida is the first Disney princess that does not strive for a man of her dreams. In fact she could care less for marriage. Merida is feisty (even more accentuated McDonald’s very Scottish voice work), independent, but at the same time not entirely mature. Another spin is that the movie doesn’t offer a main antagonist. The witch that has set the events in motion did so because of her incompetence and not because of any ill wishes. In fact, the person Merida and her bear-mother need to fear most is king Fergus who would love little less than killing the bear and decorating his castle with his trophy, refusing to believe that the bear might be his beloved wife.
Aside from that, Brave does not attempt much new, but even the recycled plot points are done so in the typical Pixar manner. Humor doesn’t come short here, chiefly provided by the hijinks of Merida’s wee triplet brothers and the slapstick hat ensues once Merida and her turned mother try to flee the castle. The movie also appropriately and effectively tugs at heartstrings as well when Merida is faced with the prospect of losing her mother for good. The mother-daughter relationship is supremely worked out here. One might argue that the reconciliation comes too fast and Elinor’s sudden change of mind about her daughter is too well-rounded, but it is the process portrayed here that matters. Both realize the injustices they have caused upon one another, one out of love for her daughter, the other out of love for freedom. The mother-daughter bond is believably portrayed and should resonate not only with all mothers and daughters in the audience, but with all parents and children.
In the end, Brave might not be one of Pixar’s artsier works (the beautiful short film La Luna playing before the main feature comes closer to that description) and it admittedly does play safe most of the time. Moreover, its female empowerment aspect is just too simple and gets somewhat sidetracked by the mother-daughter story. At the same time it delivers in pretty much every other aspect. From great characters over lavish animation all the way to its very sincere emotional core, everything in this film works the way intended and should establish Merida alongside Buzz Lightyear, WALL-E, Nemo and Remy as one of Pixar’s iconic characters – and that not only because she is the first female among this band of brothers.