For the last year, journalists, academics, and mothers have been speculating about Pixar’s Brave, the first film from the studio to feature a female lead. When images of this heroine emerged showing cascades of wild red curls and a bow and arrow, there were ripples of hope. Perhaps this film would depict adventure, strength, and courage fitting a young heroine, even if she is, in a sense, just the newest Disney Princess. I was cautiously optimistic before, but having seen Brave, I don’t think I’ve ever left the theater feeling so confusingly neutral about the film I just saw.
Brave tells the tale of Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the adventurous daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), who loves horseback riding and archery and despises training to fulfill her role as the princess. When the time comes to solidify the alliance between the clans of her family’s kingdom through Merida’s own betrothal, she bucks tradition and competes for her own hand in the Highland Games. Her stunt causes a falling out between her and her mother, who fears that this failure to play by the rules will bring the four tribes of the kingdom to war. Wishing to change her fate, Merida runs into the woods where she meets a witch (Julie Walters) and buys a spell to change her mother. In a lesson about specificity and being careful what you wish for, Merida ends up with more problems than she bargained for. It’s sort of like Freaky Friday.
On the level of basic story coherence, Brave sends unclear messages. Really, the film should be called Humble. The lessons learned are not about finding courage. Everyone in Merida’s family is brave to the point of foolishness. Instead of learning about bravery, Merida and both her parents have to learn to bend their own wills for the good of the community, admitting that they might not actually be right all the time. Otherwise, no one in the film seems to have much adventure or much growth. The trailers made the story look like an epic voyage, but Merida never ventures far from her own castle. Instead of changing her fate, she just postpones the inevitable and contends with family dysfunction, and pretty immaturely.
I did appreciate the development of the father-daughter relationship in the movie. Merida and Fergus have a warm relationship characterized by a shared sense of adventure and the king’s clear pride in his girl. The mother-daughter relationship is more interesting for most of the film, but when conflict arises between Merida and her father, it is all the more striking because the two are so similar and seemingly so close. The relationships feel authentic, even if the dysfunction often made me tense in scenes that were supposed to be funny.
Though the story is disappointing, there are some genuinely enjoyable elements of the film as well. The soundtrack is beautiful, as is the animation. The sweeping scenes of the Highlands are stunning. There are far too many bears in the film, but the up-close shots of them are fantastically detailed. While there’s more potty humor than is really necessary, many of the visual gags of the film work delightfully. Specifically, the ladylike queen transformed into a bear lead to both silliness and, strangely, a better understanding of the character. I laughed out loud several times. The voice acting lends a great deal to the film as the Scottish accents set the tone for the story as well as create some running jokes.
Thus, the lackluster story and the beautiful craftsmanship balanced each other out in a way that left me feeling unmoved but not totally let down. What’s most disappointing is that, like I said, my thoughts on this film are pretty neutral, earning it 3/5 stars.
Brave was directed by Mark Andrews. It runs 100 minutes and is rated PG for some scary action and rude humor.
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