Review: Brave (2012)

Brave marks a series of firsts for the premier animation studio Pixar. It is the first time the studio has tackled a fairy tale, telling a familiar story set in the Scottish Highlands during the early medieval period. It is the first time the studio has used its new PRESTO animation system, which allows them to render more complex visuals than ever before, such as animating all 1500 locks of the main character’s red curly hair. Most importantly, it is the first time the main character in a Pixar film has been a female.

All these firsts considered, Brave is a surprisingly conventional film, more akin to Disney films of the past than Pixar’s output over the years. Some critics have meant this comment as a detractor, but I mean it in no such way. Disney has always been known for adapting classic fairy tales and suiting them well to child audiences, and as Pixar is now doing the same, it makes sense for them to take on the more universal, simplified tone of classical Disney.

Unlike the Toy Story sequels or The IncrediblesBrave has a modest story that works partially as a showcase of fantastic visuals and partially as an exploration of the fundamental relationship between mother and daughter. The story follows Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a feisty young Scottish princess with a knack for archery.

When her traditional, ladylike mother (Emma Thompson) and gruff warrior father (Billy Connolly) decide to betroth Merida to one of the eldest sons of their ally clan leaders, Merida rebels. She would much rather take on her father’s role of battling forest creatures and rallying the clans than play the constricting, difficult, powerless part of the proper lady and wife. Thus, in an effort to stave off her fate, Merida flees to the forest with her trusty steed and comes across a witch whose magic can change the course of her life.

To say more about the film’s plot would ruin the surprise of some of its developments, something other critics have been too cavalier in doing. What I can say is that Brave has incredible visuals and is Pixar’s most gorgeous film to date. Every character design is unique and appealing, every vista is gorgeous and teeming with natural life, and every red lock of hair on Merida’s head is vibrant and alive.

The visuals turn medieval Scotland into a magical land, where bears roam, waterfalls gush over cliff sides and giant druid stones stand tall against the sky. PRESTO is a powerful animation engine, and Brave is a showcase for its visual power.

Beyond the visuals, the characters are quite appealing. They are traditional types: the tomboyish princess, the gruff lovable father, the overbearing mother, the rascal troublemaker brothers, but they are each given a life of their own.

Of all these types, Merida and her mother are obviously the most interesting. Their inability to communicate their opinions and feelings to each other is at the heart of the film, and speaks the truest to the reality of filial relationships. Merida herself is somewhat one-dimensional in her aims and the writers never give her the ability to articulate exactly what she desires beyond the abstract concept of freedom, but as this is a fairy tale, the limitations of the character are appropriate. She ends up being an admirable, impressive, and, yes, brave character, and, as a Disney princess, she is far preferable to Ariel or Sleeping Beauty.

One of the things I found most surprising about Brave was how much humour it has in it. There are enough laughs here that the film could qualify as a comedy. While the omnipresence of humour amid the serious is nothing new in Pixar, the comedy in Brave can seem almost disjointing at first, as if it doesn’t belong in its medieval setting, a typically dour world. However, as the film progresses, the characters are developed and the jokes continue to hit, the humour becomes one of the film’s essential aspects. Merida’s three pint-sized troublemaker brothers are particularly entertaining.

Brave had a troubled production. Prince of Egypt filmmaker Brenda Chapman conceived of the story and she worked as director during the early stages of production. However, along the way she disagreed with Pixar on the film’s creative direction, and Mark Andrews, a co-screenwriter of this year’s John Carter, was brought in to direct the project to completion.

Whatever faults Brave suffers from, be it its simplicity, its lack of scope and its limited characters, it’s hard to imagine these were the result of the film’s production hiccups. However, I’m curious what the film would have looked like had Chapman been allowed to direct the film through to the end.

Whatever that film would have been, the Brave that is currently in theatres is another impressive production by Pixar. If it isn’t as deep or as thematically satisfying as some of Pixar’s past productions, it is still a worthy film with lush visuals and a surprisingly emotional conclusion.

Brave (2012)

Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman; written by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi based on a story by Brenda Chapman; starring the voice talents of Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd and Craig Ferguson.

7 out of 10