In terms of appealing to both critics and audiences, there probably isn’t a safer bet in movies than Pixar. Starting with the original Toy Story, the studio has had one of Hollywood’s best track records in producing movies that are both well-regarded and well-loved. Even if it missteps, the greatness of a Finding Nemo, any of the Toy Story films or Wall-E have definitely provided Pixar all the goodwill they’d ever need. ‘Brave’ takes the studio in a new direction, creating an original fairytale story, one that hearkens back to some it its parent company’s classics, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to some of their previous efforts.
Merida, voiced by Kelly Macdonald (of Boardwalk Empire and No Country for Old Men) is Pixar’s first female protagonist. While she takes after her father Fergus (Billy Connolly), it’s her frosty relationship with her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), which provides the focus of the story. Elinor has never truly understood some of her daughter’s love for activities like archery, which she sees as unfit for a princess. Merida has never wanted the life her mother’s been preparing her for, instead preferring to ride her horse and shoot her bow, at least for a few more years. That doesn’t seem to be in the offing, however, as letters arrive at the castle from three clans, each with a young suitor for Merida’s hand. With her fate suddenly facing her sooner than expected, Merida starts to defy her mother even more, and Elinor becomes more exasperated, eventually leading to a major fight between the two. The clans are offended by Merida showing them up, and things grow tense around the castle, especially with Merida’s three young brothers causing trouble and the clans rather tenuous peace. Merida runs off, and is led to the cottage of a witch by will o’ the wisps, which also appeared to her as a child. After the witch performs a spell that will change Merida’s fate, the relationship between Elinor and Merida changes dramatically, though not in the way that Merida had supposed. As Merida attempts to fix what she’s done, she begins to understand her mother’s point of view, and to see just what each of their willfulness has potentially wrought.
Brave looks like a major step forward for Pixar, at least technically. The film looks fantastic, even if slightly dark in 3D, with the environment coming alive in a way that probably wouldn’t have been possible in the first Toy Story. Merida and Elinor in particular look remarkably real, though they aren’t necessarily designed to look “cartoonish” as some of the other characters are. The vocal work, too, is really well done, which isn’t that surprising, given the number of talented Scots involved in the production. Macdonald, in particular, stands out, taking a character who could potentially seem like a whining brat and making her remarkably sympathetic. The child in you roots for Merida, even as you know, as an adult, that Elinor’s arguments make sense. Pixar’s already tackled parental relationships before, such as in Finding Nemo, and the relationship between Merida and Elinor is one that will certainly make many mothers and daughters nod in recognition. The comedy of the piece is also effective, especially the use of the three young brothers as slapstick figures.
There are a couple of drawbacks to Brave, however. Because of the fairytale-like setting, the film doesn’t seem quite as grounded or realistic as previous Pixar efforts have felt. Even fantastic stories about monsters in closets, rats cooking gourmet meals and robots in love seemed to be extensions of the real world in a way that Brave really doesn’t. While the slapstick works, Brave also seems like its not aiming quite as much for adult sensibilities as previous efforts like Toy Story 3, which told adult stories in a way that appealed to children. Brave seems like a children’s story with some elements for adults. The central relationship between Merida and Elinor is also so central to the movie that other relationships, like Merida and Fergus and Elinor and her husband don’t get explored much. There’s also a little too much “on the nose,” symbols for the main conflict, which made the final reveal a little easy to spot.
But, on the whole, Brave is a more than worthy addition to Pixar’s canon. Merida should take her place as one of the company’s great original creations, and adults and children will have something new to bring them together.