Movie Review: Brave
By Matthew Huntley
June 28, 2012
Disney/Pixar’s Brave sets itself up as a conventional family movie about a young girl who feels persecuted by tradition, patriarchy and social injustice. Referring only to the movie’s first half, we’ve seen this type of conflict before, from The Little Mermaid to Titanic. In fact, the movie’s heroine, a fiery Scottish princess named Merida, looks a lot like Kate Winslet’s character from the latter movie, with flowing, red curly hair, and she too complains about all her decisions being made for her. Merida’s mother, Queen Elinor, is always correcting her daughter and sounds like a broken record as she ceaselessly pontificates, “A princess always does this…a princess never does that…”
This situation is an easy way for us to identify with the main character and her cause. We get it: she wants to be her own person and be granted the freedom to make her own choices. The screenplay is more or less blatant in this regard, and I assumed that after Merida storms out of the castle when she and her mother fight over potential suitors for her betrothal, the young lass would meet a man in the forest that wasn’t “worthy” of her background and then demand she get to marry whoever she wants.
But the movie doesn’t go that direction at all. It takes a surprising and unexpected turn, which I hesitate to even touch on it because it wouldn’t be fair to all the unsuspecting audience members. Fortunately, none of the trailers or ads reveal this aspect of the plot, and it was a sigh of relief to find the writers and filmmakers taking the material somewhere different, which, in this case, is a good thing.
The story takes place in a romanticized, fairy tale version of Scotland (it doesn’t bother to tell us the year; we simply infer it’s “Once upon a time in Scotland…”). When Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald) is a little girl, she and her mother (Emma Thompson) play hide and seek and are close and loving. But things start to change when Merida makes it clear she’s not like most girls. She’d rather practice archery than play with dolls, and her face lights up when her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), gives her a bow for her birthday.
By the time she’s a teenager, Merida is an expert archer and horse rider. She dreams of a life when she can live outside the confines of her royal heritage and we get one of those perfunctory sequences where she rides off into the sunset while the lyrics, “Chase the wind and touch the sky,” play on the soundtrack. So you can imagine how angry she gets when her mother says she has to marry and live life according to what’s proper, not what she desires.
But when the potential suitors from the neighboring clans fail to make an impression, Merida runs away and follows a series of blue wisps, which, according to Scottish legend, reveal one’s fate. The wisps lead Merida to a conniving witch (Julie Walters), who fronts as a wood carver. Merida agrees to buy her entire stock in exchange for a spell that would “change” her mother. Change her how, I cannot say, but it’s not in a way most viewers will be able to anticipate.
At this point, the second half of the movie gets underway, as does its energy and our excitement for watching it. I admit my heart sank in the beginning when I thought the Disney/Pixar wonder machine had hit another bad patch following the disappointing “Cars 2.” But as the plot of “Brave” gained traction and became more complicated and less predictable, my affection and admiration for it grew. It makes me wonder whether the entire narrative was originally conceived on a safe path before someone from Disney/Pixar stepped up and said “we’re better than this.”
Whatever the film’s development history, the end result contains a good amount of tension, poignancy and humor, which proved effective and entertaining. There even comes a point when the story could end one of two ways and the filmmakers leave both possibilities open until the very end, giving us added incentive to keep watching it.
Across the highly revered Disney/Pixar spectrum, Brave falls somewhere in the middle as far as quality, craft and sheer beauty are concerned. It’s no Ratatouille or Up in regards to imaginative storytelling, but it’s fun and exciting all the same. In terms of presentation and appeal, it’s geared more toward younger viewers, but its message, however hokey – “Our fate is in us; we just have to be brave enough to find it” - is universal and adults should find it sweet and heartwarming, especially if they have kids of their own.
Looking back on the movie, I’m curious how much better it might have been had its first half been as whimsical as its second. Given Pixar’s track record, we know the studio has it in it to make a movie that starts out great and stays that way from beginning to end. Brave starts out fair and works its way up to very good, which, for light, summer entertainment, is acceptable, but I’d rather hold out for greatness all the way through.