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 the first Pixar 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 Bow and the Bear, was scuttled for the current monosyllabic concept title. I found the original title lovely and evocative, and while I thought Up was a bravely unconventional title, a trend toward such terse titles (see Tangled, The Muppets and even John Carter) could quickly become dull.
Not long after, 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. (For what it’s worth, the credits read “Directed by Brenda Chapman; co-directed by 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 removing Pixar’s first woman director from their first girl-centric film seemed off to many.
Finally, the trailers, alas, made Brave look like yet another retread of the over-worn theme of a headstrong, rebellious young protagonist resisting a domineering parent’s vision of the child’s future — a theme all too familiar in everything from The Little Mermaid to How to Train Your Dragon.
And, 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.)
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.
Merida takes more after her rough-hewn 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 shoots 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).
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). I’m sure many reviews will spoil where the fairy lights lead Merida now, and even what happens as a result — 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.
Intriguing ambiguities and tensions run through the film. On the one hand, “traditions” can be altered or broken; on the other, “legends are lessons” that “ring with truth.” The world of unseen powers can be both benevolent and dangerous; resorting to magic, especially to manipulate others, is dangerous and wrong, but there seems to be a larger grace at work. 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 without a benevolent power at work, Merida and her family would have been undone.
Of course, it looks magnificent. Merida’s unruly cataract of kinky red hair 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.
It’s not flawless. 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 regarding what it thinks about the arranged betrothal and her method of dealing with it. And darn it, The Bow and the Bear 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. Might be too intense for sensitive youngsters.