Last night I saw Disney/Pixar’s Brave, so I thought I’d give it a review. The story is the tale of young princess Merida, the feisty and (of course) red-haired daughter of bawdy Scottish Warrior-King Fergus and his elegant queen Elinor. From her youth, Merida shows a natural inclination to athletics and the outdoors and dislikes the more lady-like rules and pursuits imposed upon her by her mother. Elinor, however, has her eyes on the future and is exasperated by her daughter’s refusal to behave. As we discover, Merida is by tradition to be pledged in marriage to one of the first-born sons of the lords of the realm, and the young men are arriving shortly to compete for her hand. A humiliating (for Elinor) incident on the day of the betrothal games and a fight between mother and daughter lead Merida out into the forest, where she encounters an old witch. This results in some well-meaning magic that has very unintended consequences. Merida’s mother is suddenly in peril if they can’t work together to break the spell.
How you evaluate Brave largely depends on what you compare it with. Some reviews I read have a problem with the story and argue it lacks originality. If you compare it with other Pixar films, the story is certainly not as original as a Toy Story or Up, for example. As a fairy tale-type story, complete with magic and morals, the story here does borrow from well-known motifs: a witch in the forest, an enchantment, a princess whose hand is to be won. But the story does make some departures. Truly, I can’t think of a single other animated movie whose focus is a mother-daughter bond. In movies like this, mom is usually lucky if she hasn’t been killed off before the opening credits. Here, Merida and Eleanor have a chance to walk in one another’s shoes as they go on their quest, and both grow as a result. The best part of the movie for me was that it celebrates this connection, and does so effectively. I left wanting to give my mom a great big hug.
Where the movie was weak to me is in supporting characters and the development of some minor plot points. Unlike the standard Disney movie or some of the best Pixar fare, this isn’t an ensemble cast. Merida calls upon her three little brothers and her faithful horse in times of need, but she doesn’t have a true sidekick. The lords and their sons were entertaining, and I almost wished we saw more of them. Merida is understandably rebelling against a forced marriage, but she (and we) don’t really get much of a chance to see the young men’s personalities until the very end, when it turns out they aren’t so different from her after all. The film also didn’t have a well-developed villain in the Demon Bear. I like my villains with a good sense of threat and while we get a little insight into why he’s so darn cranky, to me it didn’t seem like he posed much threat to the kingdom. In fact, it seems more like the kingdom has an axe to grind against him! As far as minor plot points, I’d like to see more background for the villian’s story but also for the kingdom itself. The history between the king and the lords and, indeed, the story of how Merida’s father became king is kind of dropped suddenly into the film’s final act. I was surprised that wasn’t more fully developed, but perhaps this is fodder for a prequel somewhere down the line. Also, how did I come away from a Disney/Pixar film without one single “quotable” song?
Among all animated films, Brave reminds me most of Beauty and the Beast. There are many parallels: An enchantment that must be broken, a strong bond between parent and child, and a rebellious heroine trying to be heard in a world of tradition and masculinity. Brave lacks some of the subtlety and richness of this earlier film and of its siblings under the Pixar banner. However, it is well worth seeing. The story is familiar yet sometimes unexpected and the animation is pure art. (In one landscape scene, I actually forgot I was watching an animated film. I also spent much of the movie amazed by the texture of Merida’s hair.) I don’t often see movies in the theater, but this is one worth checking out on the big screen, and maybe again when you can get it at home.