Alright, I’ve got to lay all cards on the table. I am a Disney fanatic. I can pretty much recite every classic animated Disney movie by heart, even The Black Cauldron. I am also a Pixar fanatic. I watch at least one of the Pixar films once a week. I laugh, I cry, I sing along and I don’t care. Does all this mean I can’t be fairly critical of Pixar-produced, Walt Disney Pictures-distributed Brave? Honestly, yeah, I’m a little biased. Does that mean this movie was incredible? Not sure yet, to continue to be honest. I will say that Pixar films are so rich in story and details and humor that you often can’t absorb it all in just one viewing, so that has to be taken into account. Luckily I was able to catch Brave at two different press screenings, so I feel like my assessment will be a little more grounded. Oh yes, one other card to reveal: my mom is dead.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. This review just took a strange shift. But it has to in order to explain my reception of this film. You see, my mom was killed in a car accident back in 2002. It was very sudden, and having just graduated from college and being in that limbo of “Crap, what do I do with my life now?” – it was a pretty rough blow. We were very close, with me being an only child, and her being an extremely amazing, loving, caring, woman to me and everyone around her. So yeah, mothers in movies, they tend to hit me where it hurts. And here is a movie with a very strong, though turbulent, but very real mother-daughter relationship.
When I first saw the previews for Brave, I was ecstatic. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) looked to be a fun, quirky main character, which is unusual in a Pixar flick. Disney, and even Pixar, has a habit of either not having a mom around or when they do, making her wicked/evil. Sometimes it’s not the mom but just some random evil lady who plays the villain. Yes, there are a few good moms speckled throughout who play integral roles in the story, but it doesn’t happen often. With the trailers for Brave I saw the potential for not only a great story, but one that involves a great mother. Bring on the tissues.
The movie starts off with Princess Merida as a young girl. It’s her birthday, and her father the king, Fergus (charmingly voiced by Billy Connolly), gives her a bow and arrow. Her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), doesn’t quite approve, but she encourages the bond between father and daughter. As Fergus teaches Merida how to shoot, she looses an arrow into the forest and runs off to retrieve it. While in the forest, she encounters a will-o’-the-wisp and follows subsequent wisps deeper into the forest. Before she gets too deep, Merida hears her mother calling and she runs back to her parents. Unfortunately, she has been followed by a fierce and legendary bear, Mor’du. Fergus, in an attempt to save his family, loses his leg in an excellently alluded-to battle.
This first scene does an amazing job at setting up the relationships and the characters in the movie. In just a few moments, we are able to discern Fergus is a loving father and husband who is strong and silly and wrapped around his little girl’s finger. Hey may be king, but he doesn’t care much for formality; he’s a warrior. We learn that Elinor loves her daughter, loves her husband, and that she only ever wants what’s best for Merida. But she places a little more weight on formality and custom. As the movie continues, we are further made aware (by an excellent montage) of how strong the sense of tradition and responsibility is with Elinor, and we see a rift being created in her and Merida’s relationship.
Merida is one of the most free-spirited and loveable princesses ever to grace the screen. Her hair has as much character as does her stubbornness and independence. While the film as a whole is visually breathtaking, the art of her locks were just as complex and stunning as the wind-blown grass in the forest and just as rich as the vast, beautiful landscapes of Scotland (where the film takes place). The animators really did a great job using the look of the different characters to highlight their different personalities. The character development and the depth to their relationships were taken to new levels with smart dialogue and fantastic editing. This is something that Pixar, no matter who is writing/directing, somehow manages to consistently get right.
As the story progresses, we learn that Merida is betrothed to one of three sons from different clans, the suitor to be determined by a challenge chosen by the princess. Merida wants none of this arrangement, but her mother Elinor insists that this is what she has been raised for; it’s tradition. In defiance, Merida chooses archery as the challenge and ends up being the victor herself, much to her mother’s horror and embarrassment. After an intense argument, Merida runs away from the castle and in to the forest, where she once again encounters the will-o’-the-wisps. This time she follows them all the way to a witch’s cottage, where she bargains for a spell to “change her mother.”
As does any interaction with a witch, things don’t go quite as expected, and Merida inadvertently turns her mother into a bear. This is an even trickier situation considering that Fergus is always either fighting a bear or talking about and acting out killing the infamous Mor’du. Some of the more humorous scenes in this film involve Merida’s attempt to hide her mother in bear form from the rest of the castle inhabitants (which now include the three different clans impatiently waiting to hear who she will choose as her husband). Eventually the two are able to escape the castle unseen and set out to find the witch in hopes that she will reverse the spell. Merida and Elinor do find their way to the cottage, only to find a cauldron voice-mail message controlled by potions (very cute). Turns out the witch is away for the season, which is quite unfortunate considering the message also informs the pair that the spell will be permanent in two sunrises. The only way to reverse the spell is to figure out a riddle.
So far, I’ve had nothing but praise for Brave. Yet now we come to the riddle which is one of the most disappointing elements of the film. Pixar has always been good at making movies that kids can follow and enjoy, but they pack in enough winks and nods to adults that we enjoy them just as much, if not more, because we get to take away a little more substance. There’s no lack for substance in this film, but the riddle itself seems so obvious and the solution so clear that I was a little taken aback. I wish there would have been a little more mystery and that we got to solve it along with Merida, but instead we just wait for her to catch up. Alternatively, one could argue that Merida and Elinor’s biggest faults are not listening well, and not seeing truths that are right in front of them, so I guess it fits within their character growth to miss something so seemingly evident and to need to have their eyes opened before they can understand what’s important. Alright, I’m convinced, I will harp on the ease of the riddle no longer.
Before they figure out what to do, they must resolve a more pressing issue: hunger. Another great montage occurs where Merida takes on a parenting/teaching role as she uses skills her mother never approved of to teach the bear queen how to catch fish. This is where I first lost it. Lying beneath the humor and incredible rendering of trout in a stream, we really get to see the love that mother and daughter have for each other. It’s the first in likely a long time that they have been able to be together without having to play the role of instructor/student. They are each able to strip away the formality of their upbringing and just be who they are. They learn about themselves, each other, and we get to go along for the ride. Through this interaction Merida realizes what needs to be done, but to hear the rest of the tale, you’ll just have to see the movie.
As expected, Pixar mixes humor, heartwarming moments, action and charm to keep up the pace of the story while allowing us to get lost in it. Has Brave been blessed with the same magic touch as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, or Up? That’s the hardest part of writing this review, because I’m just not sure. It all goes back to my previously listed biases, and my inability to objectively assess the success of this film. The marketing might turn some people off because it really doesn’t give much away about the story (oops, I kinda’ just did). I’m not sure if that will help or hurt the film in terms of attracting people to the theatre, but personally I loved it. I loved not knowing what was going to happen and where the conflict would come from. The only preformed opinions I had of this film were, “Pixar! YAAAAAAAAAAY! Must see!” Silly, I know, but honest.
I hope people go see this movie, and I hope it is considered a continuation of the standard of excellence Pixar has become known for. The tale is a little darker, and being their first venture into fairy-tale territory, I believe they created something original while feeling comfortingly familiar. Despite hitting a soft-spot with the whole mom deal, Brave will be added to the rotation and offer up a welcome cleansing cry, many laughs, and one or two sing-alongs. It gets 4.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls from me.