A film so proficient in technical scope and detail, it’s unfortunate to say that Disney•Pixar’s Brave doesn’t quite live up to the narrative standard set by its predecessors, most notably the Toy Story franchise and 2009’s Up. Both films raised the bar for animation storytelling, in-depth characterizations, and sequences that both jolted and awed. So, is it really a surprise why I left my screening somewhat disappointed when we have these two benchmarks in animated film-making to measure Brave against? Before I launch into my review, let me say this: Brave is not a bad film; in fact, the teleplay itself is quite original. It’s simply that there are too many rifts in the screenplay — both the dialogue spoken and the way in which the tale unfolds — to truly call it a bona fide success. I was also rather puzzled why our heroine, the first ever Disney•Pixar female protagonist, wasn’t more sympathetic and, dare I say, likeable.
Set in the ancient Highlands of Scotland, Brave tells the story of one Princess’s desire to…essentially…remain young forever. Princess Merida, voiced with youthful conviction by Kelly MacDonald (Boardwalk Empire, No Country for Old Men), wishes to be free from the traditional constraints that have befallen many Princesses within the kingdom, most notably her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). When a Princess comes of a certain age, the three clan lords of the kingdom present their firstborn sons before her, who then compete in a tournament for her hand in marriage. Because the kingdom never wishes to return to a state of war — caused by the power-hungry eldest son of an ancient Scottish king, who attempted to control the kingdom by brute force — the procurement of marriage between a clansmen and a member of the royal family keeps the peace until the end of days. What this means for Merida is that her destiny is not her own, and she is but a slave to the protocols regulated by this established rule. Naturally, our heroine rebels, but it is the way she does so that I find most disturbing.
Putting aside the Scottish mythology, wonderful orchestral score, and authentic texture of the Scottish landscape for a moment, Brave’s narrative boils down to: “dysfunctional family gone haywire.” I admire the mother/daughter schism that is at the core of Brave’s story, but I just wish the film could rationalize the methods Merida takes to not only rebel from her preordained fate, but those by which she comes to hurt her mother. Without spoiling too much of the plot in this review, too often I found Merida to be highly irrational, self-centered, and downright cruel. I’m always a proponent of breaking traditions and rebelling if it serves a purpose, but Merida’s actions blind her from the pain she is causing her parents without first understanding what it is they expect of her. Queen Elinor, who plays the “bad cop” parent to King Fergus’s “good cop” one, is frustrated by Merida’s total disrespect of her lineage and her duty. To me, Merida never is willing to compromise and sit down and talk with Elinor. She never lets her mother get a word in, and when Queen Elinor does finally get her say, it’s twisted as if she’s the vilest person on the planet. Look, I know the film is meant to accurately and honestly portray the real-life struggles between “always-right” mothers and “rebellious” teenage daughters, but if both characters are to share the blame for their stubbornness, why is that Merida comes off so much more devious and narcissistic? This being Disney•Pixar’s first female-led film, I wish Brave’s screenwriters would have upped Merida’s likeability factor a tad more. With beloved Disney•Pixar heroes like Woody, Carl Fredricksen, and Sully, to name a few, it’s a bit of a shame that Brave’s leading lady is so gosh-darn spiteful. I wanted to stand behind Merida’s convictions all the way, but I ended up rooting for Queen Elinor instead.
The supporting cast consisting of King Fergus, the clansmen, and their sons do provide some humor, but they lack the depth of some former Disney•Pixar standouts of the past. The best comedic moments in the film come from the scenes featuring Merida’s triplet brothers, gleefully mischievous children that never turn away from the sight of a sweet cake. The sequences in which the boys provide mayhem demonstrate the high level of animation detail that was brought to this project by supervising animators Alan Barillaro and Steven Hunter. I was marveled by the expressiveness of the triplets in the film, mainly because it’s so difficult to totally capture a child’s emotion without getting too goo-goo, gaga about it. Lastly, Julie Walters serves up a raucous cameo with her character, the Wise — don’t call her a witch — Woman. When Merida encounters the Wise Woman in her enchanted woodland abode, thanks to the navigation help from the forest spirits known as the Wisps, one wishes the scene could go on forever. The Wise Woman is so adamant that she’s not a witch, despite all signs stating otherwise, that we chuckle during this scene and by the way Julie Walters puts a spin on the “witch” stereotype. The scene both pays homage and pokes fun at the classic Little Mermaid moment where Ariel essentially strikes a deal with the Devil, AKA Ursula, in order to be free and on her own, binding contract and all! I was sorely disappointed that the Wise Woman wasn’t featured more prominently in the film, because her scenes are the best and most classically “Disney.”
From a technical standpoint, there is very little to criticize about Brave. Musically, it’s heavenly. I fell so completely in love with the song, “Touch the Sky,” sung beautifully by Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, that I wanted to immediately revisit the moment in which the song is showcased, over and over again. That moment, where Merida zooms with her horse across the beautifully textured Scotland landscape and climbs up to the waterfalls above for solace and a slice of freedom, is the highlight of Brave. Just that once, I was so enraptured by Merida’s rebellious spirit, by Patrick Doyle’s authentic Scottish score, and the beautiful imagery layered before my eyes, that I became excited about the possibilities that lay further along in Brave. It’s unfortunate that this musical moment took place so early in Brave, because I was expecting the film to reach the heights of those towering waterfalls, but instead it only managed to make it a ways up the hill.
How can I discuss Brave’s level of animation without first talking about Merida’s intricately designed hair? A disheveled hair-do has never looked so gorgeous before. It’s twangy, wispy, and yet has a wildness to it that perfectly captures the free-spirited nature of its wearer. Merida’s hair becomes a character of its own, so large and flowing that it grips your undivided attention without a hint of reprieve. I only wish Merida herself was as much of a draw as her giant, natural headpiece.
Brave’s ending does make up for a mostly uneventful second-half of the film — it’s a sweet moment that will probably elicit many tears from across the various age groups, but it’s one of a handful of poignant points in the film that’s of the caliber we tend to associate a Disney•Pixar film with. Because the narrative is so focused on the mother-daughter fracture between Queen Elinor and Merida, we rarely get to appreciate the stunning Scottish landscape or its deep sense of myth and lore. Even the music takes a back seat at times to the insular narrative. I admire writer/director Brenda Chapman for coming from a personal place with this story — she drew from her own trials and tribulations of handling a rebellious teenage daughter — but it’s a bit overreaching when you have so many visual facets to work through and explore. Brave often feels like an expensive remote-controlled car that you aren’t allowed to take outdoors. The story is so tight and focused that you feel claustrophobic in a film whose elaborate setting begs to be traversed. If Brave is the future of animation design, count me in! However, I would like the next Disney•Pixar effort to return to form as both unconventional and wide in scope. Although things are a bit too familiar in Brave, plot-wise and texturally, it’s a fun hour and a half spent at the movies, with an ending that gratifies the angsty teenage soul in all of us.