For Pixar fans, Brave marks a crucial watershed. The studio’s first fairy-tale film and first feature with a female protagonist, it’s also Pixar’s first non-sequel since being bought by Disney. Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 were both products of post-purchase Pixar — and, as well done as Toy Story 3 was, the willingness to keep going back to the same well (combined with the mediocrity of Cars 2) raised disquieting questions about whether a Disney-owned Pixar still had the vision and daring for unconventional projects like Wall-E or Up.
Speed bumps on Brave’s path to the screen raised further concerns. First came word that the original title, The Bear and the Bow, had been scuttled for another one-word concept title like Up or Tangled. I thought The Bear and the Bow lovely and evocative, and while Up struck me as a daringly unconventional title, a trend toward such terse titles could quickly become dull. (Have minimalist names like John Carter, The Muppets and Winnie the Pooh helped or hurt those films at the box office?)
Then it was announced that writer-director Brenda Chapman (one of three directors on The Prince of Egypt and head of story on The Lion King), slated to be the first woman to direct a Pixar film, had been removed over creative differences and replaced with Mark Andrews. Pixar’s willingness to take a film from one director and give it to another has worked in the past (moving Ratatouille from Jan Pinkava to Brad Bird was, I’m convinced, the right move), but taking Pixar’s first woman director off their first girl-centric film seemed off to many.
Finally, the American trailers, alas, made Brave look like yet another retread of the overworn theme of a headstrong, rebellious young protagonist resisting a domineering parent’s vision of the child’s future — a theme all too familiar from everything from The Little Mermaid to How to Train Your Dragon.
Indeed, for the first half hour or so, Brave plays much like a movie of that sort: a movie more like what I expect from DreamWorks than what I hope for from Pixar. (The DreamWorks' vibe is enhanced by the Scots burrs, and even by King Fergus’ massive build and peg leg, all familiar from How to Train Your Dragon.) There is even a "Corset Lament" scene in which the heroine gasps that she can’t breathe while her mother declares the restrictive gown “perfect.”
But then comes a twist that makes the familiar first act prologue, and Brave becomes a very different movie indeed. I would go so far as to call it, to an extent, a commentary on or critique of the “Junior Knows Best” trope. This is one tale of parent-child conflict that doesn’t end with the chastened parent admitting that Junior was right all along … far from it.
The setup: On the rugged Scottish highlands, Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) chafes under the watchful eye of her mother, elegant Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida resents the weight of responsibility that falls to her as the eldest — she envies the freedom of her triplet younger brothers, a trio of interchangeable rascals who never speak but execute mischief with commando precision — and her mother’s tutelage in ladylike deportment suits Merida as ill as the constricting gown and wimple that she’s forced to wear for a special occasion.
Tomboyish Merida takes more after her rough-hewn, bear-like father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), than her coiffed and tailored mother. Merida’s most prized possession, a birthday present from her father when she was a wee bairn, is a bow that she has learned to shoot with deadly accuracy. Notably, the princess’ bantering, mischievous relationship with her father is the year’s second endearing father-daughter bond in an animated family film, after The Secret World of Arrietty.
Then comes the unwanted betrothal: To keep peace in the kingdom, it is Merida’s “fate” to marry the firstborn son of one of the three lords, Macguffin, Macintosh and Dingwall (respectively, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane). Appalled, Merida protests that she’s not ready for her “life to be over,” that she wants her “freedom” (by which she means … well, see her father’s hilarious falsetto paraphrase).
So far, so familiar — and then the twist. It’s no spoiler to say that magic is involved; we meet the ghostly will-o’-the-wisp fairy lights in the opening scene, when little Merida gets her bow and King Fergus loses his leg to a monstrous black bear.
In folklore, fairy lights that recede or extinguish as one approaches are often thought to mischievously lead travelers astray from well-trodden paths into marshes or bogs (compare the elvish camp fires in The Hobbit) — but Elinor tells Merida that some say the wisps can lead you to your “fate.” Where the fairy lights lead Merida now, and what happens as a result, too many reviews have casually revealed — an act of critical violence to unsuspecting readers who haven’t seen the film.
Suffice to say, Merida and her mother’s relationship enters a new phase. Earlier in the film, each had complained about the other not listening; now a crisis compels each to listen to the other. If Elinor is challenged to rethink her priorities and notions of ladylike behavior, Merida is confronted with the rising gravity of the consequences of her actions, and her protestations that it’s all not her fault ring increasingly hollow.
Merida is even challenged, in a rhyming oracle, to “look inside / Mend the bond torn by pride.” This oracle offers both a literal and a figurative interpretation, and the way forward for Merida involves both a humbling repentance and the embracing of a traditionally feminine task.
Much of this is fairly uncharted moral terrain in modern Hollywood family films. Ironically, some critics are complaining about the very thing that makes Brave so refreshing: that it’s not another tale of teen rebellion and parents learning the error of their ways. Merida finds empowerment not through self-fulfillment, but through acceptance of responsibility in more ways than one.
Remarkably, both Elinor and even Merida are more empowered by moral authority than physical prowess; neither has to lift a hand or even raise their voices to assert themselves over a roomful of roughneck nobles and their entourages. When was the last family film — or Hollywood film of any kind — that celebrated chivalry, even of a highly imperfect sort?
Intriguing ambiguities and tensions run through the film. On the one hand, “traditions” may at times be altered or broken; on the other, “legends are lessons” that “ring with truths.” The world of unseen powers can be both benevolent and dangerous; resorting to magical spells, especially to manipulate others, is (Harry Potter critics take note) dangerous and wrong — but there seems to be a larger grace at work in the world, one that can bring redemption even to the most wretched. Questioning the nature of “fate” or destiny, Merida ultimately concludes that it’s “inside us” and that we can make of it what we will … but the film pointedly observes that without a benevolent power at work she and her family would have been undone.
Of course it looks magnificent. Merida’s unruly cataract of kinky red hair — a tangle of Celtic knotwork brought to flaming life — is an especially fine achievement and a key manifestation of her personality. One of my favorite visual touches is an early scene in which Merida climbs a rugged stone tower and dances before a waterfall; look closely for her flickering shadow on the cascading water behind her.
Other nifty sequences include a virtual discussion by proxy between Merida and her mother at the point where they aren’t listening to one another and a sort of joint speech by Merida and her mother in which Merida acts in part as proxy to her mother.
For all this, Brave falls short of the greatness of Pixar’s best achievements. The mother-daughter relationship in the first act is too one-sided, detracting from a key reference later on to a side of their relationship that hasn’t been established. While Merida is certainly right to reproach herself in her dealings with her mother, the film could be clearer about what it thinks about the arranged betrothal and her method of dealing with it. Merida’s contrition in a key scene is somewhat undercut by the sweeping social experiment that follows, and her efforts to unravel the magical bind she has created aren’t as intuitive as they should be. And darn it, The Bear and the Bow was a better title.
On the other hand, for once the heroine of a Hollywood animated film has both her parents, and both matter and are ultimately entirely sympathetic. Brave places welcome emphasis both on the harmony of the family and also responsibilities toward and harmony with the larger community. Among Hollywood animated films, it may be the most positive affirmation of family since The Incredibles and the best fairy tale since Beauty and the Beast.
P.S. Brave is preceded by “La Luna,” a typically Pixar-y exercise in short-form wordless whimsy and wonder that echoes some of the main feature’s themes and ends with what could be read as a sly inversion of a DreamWorks hallmark.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Some animated violence and scary imagery; mild suggestive humor, including brief comic rear nudity; a sequence of fantasy magic; fleeting spiritual implications requiring some perspective. Might be too intense for sensitive youngsters.