After suffering critical maulings for “Cars 2”, Pixar needed to prove themselves again. Can a medieval fantasy like “Brave”, so reminiscent of Disney output, be that return to greatness?
I almost ran away from home once. I was 6.
I still remember it vividly. It was during the school holidays, and my eldest brother had just gotten a puppy from the local animal shelter as a reward for doing well in his exams. While Butterball wasn’t technically my dog, we really bonded. In fact, I got along way better with her than with my brothers. We constantly fought over whose turn it was to play with the pup. My parents got so tired of our incessant bickering (and my brothers’ shirking of household chores) that one day, they gave Butterball away to my aunt. They’d warned us several times to cut it out, but we never took heed. So just like that, Butterball was gone.
Having lost my best friend in the whole world, I was devastated. I pleaded with them to bring Butterball back but they refused. What a horrible family I had, I thought. So tearfully, I packed my favourite toys, a jar of peanut butter and some comicbooks into my dad’s tennis bag, and announced to my parents I would be leaving that very evening. To my neighbour’s house. Okay, so I was new at this whole running-away-from-home business. Now normally, this would be grounds for an ass-whupping, since my folks were strict disciplinarians. Especially my mom. When she entered my bedroom, I half-expected to see the cane in her hand. But she did something totally unexpected. She sat down beside me, put her arm around me and very gently planted a kiss on my head. She never said a word. Then she just got up, and left the room. That memory is seared into my brain for some reason.
What has any of this got to do with Pixar’s latest, “Brave”? Well, it’s a good part of why the film resonated with me. “Brave” is a film about parent-child relationships and the difficulty two generations sometimes have in seeing each other’s point of view. Most of all, it’s a beautiful tribute to the bonds of family. Saying it’s a return to form after “Cars 2” would be damning it with faint praise, but this is unmistakably a triumph for the acclaimed animation studio. It’s not quite up there with their greats like the “Toy Story” trilogy or “Monsters, Inc.” but it’s every inch a Pixar work and that’s saying a lot.
One thing that does set “Brave” apart from all the studio’s other efforts is that it’s the first one to feature a female as the main protagonist. Set in medieval Scotland, it tells the tale of a princess named Merida, who’s torn between individualism and tradition. The strong-willed, free-spirited young lady wants to be her own person, which often puts her at odds with her mother who deems Merida’s conduct rather unladylike. Queen Elinor has been grooming, or at least trying to groom her rebellious daughter into a worthy candidate for betrothal. An age-old custom Merida resents to her core. Cue themes of female empowerment and self-realisation that are stock-standard Disney Princess fare. There’s even a song to accompany this.
Good thing Pixar isn’t all that interested in retracing Disney’s footsteps into such clichéd territory. In their best moments, the studio excels at drawing out human truths. In this case, it’s the dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship. Actually, I can see what Pixar is addressing here easily applying to father-son relationships as well. This isn’t necessarily a “women’s issues” movie, so the protagonist being female does not exclude male audiences. That’s another wonderful talent the studio possesses: the ability to speak to a specific target audience, while being universal enough to appeal to all the rest. That’s why Pixar films are not merely kiddie pics, even though by default they are young at heart.
Having said that, “Brave” does fall into the trap of being a little bit formulaic. This weakness shows up in the movie’s twist. Yes, there is a certain turn of events that none of the trailers or featurettes revealed (and rightly so). I won’t spoil it for you here. I will say that it’s an idea taken from a fairly recent Disney movie, and accounts for most of the criticism “Brave” has been facing. When the twist happens, you can almost feel things shifting into generic mode. The pace slackens, proceedings get predictable, characters become a bit aimless, and then you’re already a few steps ahead of the plot in terms of how the “problem” is to be resolved.
Yet, where Disney or any other studio would have floundered or disappointingly stayed on formula, Pixar manages to turn this portion of the story around, into a moving character piece. Merida and her mother get stuck with one another, and although their predicament is often played for laughs, we see a mutual empathy and understanding developing between them. It’s built up quite well too. So that by the end of film, even if the outcome is never in doubt, it’s no less emotional. When I left the cinema, all I wanted to do was give my mom a big hug. That’s how effective the film is. For me at least.
Directors Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews smartly know when to pull the heartstrings, and when to offset the sappiness with some small but well-observed character beats, or good-natured humour. They’ve got a great voice cast in their service. Kelly Macdonald brings a feisty, youthful spirit to her Merida, making her one of the more memorable leading ladies in the animated world. There’s a sincerity in her voice that makes her both relatable and likable, without being bland. Macdonald plays nicely against Emma Thompson, who brings a stately elegance to her Queen Elinor. She plays her lines with restrained warmth, betraying an inner struggle to get past decorum and just connect with her child.
Billy Connolly as King Fergus is great too. No surprise, since he’s pretty much the go-to guy when you need an amusing elder Scotsman. The other characters are much less well-defined, serving mostly as comic relief — which happily is in generous supply. Like most Pixar efforts, “Brave” is quite funny. I especially loved Merida’s younger brothers, a trio of red-headed hellraisers who’re responsible for a lot of the movie’s physical gags. They remind me of the pill bugs in “A Bug’s Life”.
At this point in Pixar’s history, it’s almost redundant to talk about how gorgeous their films look… but I’ll say it anyway. “Brave” takes eye candy to a new level, as does the animated short “La Luna” (my new favourite). Just Merida’s hair alone is enough to recommend the movie for an Oscar. The filmmakers admitted that this was one of the hardest elements to get right. Their determination has paid off, as her tresses look beyond real; they look like billowing wisps of flame. It’s majestic and magnetic, and totally befitting of a future queen. Then there is the Scottish countryside, rendered with striking detail and an aura of mysticism. No wonder the Scotland Tourism Board is using this film to officially promote their country.
Long after the magic of the animation has worn off, what’s going to remain is the sweetness of the film. It’s probably going to be looked upon as a middling entry in Pixar’s body of work, but dare I say, a more grown-up one too. And that’s something to be proud of. Feel-good family pics are a dime a dozen, yet how often do they inspire you to cherish your family members just a wee bit more?
“Brave” is like that moment in my room, so many years ago. When that little kid first realised you can’t change your family but you can change how you see them.