"Brave" Scores a Near Bulls-Eye
Recently, Pixar President Ed Catmull was quoted as saying Disney Feature Animation would not be doing fairy-tale movies, to the outcry of many fans of Disney and animation everywhere. After watching Pixar’s Brave, I have to wonder whether Catmull’s directive was to avoid showing Disney up at their own game. Brave is a very well-done, thoroughly enjoyable movie that shows some nice evolutionary growth of the Disney animated fairy tale film, and the “Princess” sub genre in particular. Unfortunately, like Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, Brave doesn’t add enough to avoid the feeling that we’ve seen a lot of this before. As we’ve come to expect from Pixar, it’s perfectly acted and animated, and it’s plotted with care and heart. However, we’ve also been conditioned by Pixar to expect greatness, and the moments when it seems to be merely echoing other similar films come just a bit too frequently for Brave to ascend to the expected heights.
The lead of Brave is the princess Merida (Kelly MacDonald), a free-spirited teenager whose penchant for unladylike activities like archery often bring her to loggerheads with her strait-laced mother Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), has issued a call to the other three clans of the kingdom, inviting each to send their firstborn to compete for Merida’s hand. Irked at being treated like some kind of carnival prize, Merida upends the entire ceremony by out shooting all her suitors. The ensuing fight with her mother drives Merida from the castle to the nearby forest, where magical Will of the Wisps lead her to a strange witch in the woods (Julie Walters). As with many fairy tales, Merida learns too late to be careful for what you wish for, as she makes a fateful deal with the witch to “change her fate.” The result is a terrible curse, which I opt to leave unstated because the twist has been successfully hidden in the trailers so far and is one of the best surprises of the movie. I will add that the curse sends her off on a journey across the land to set things right, and links her to the monstrous demonic bear Mor’du, who bit off her father’s leg in an encounter years earlier.
At its very best, Brave feels like it’s forging something new, as untamed as Merida’s wild (and gorgeously rendered) hair. At these moments, it comes close to the recent Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. There’s a potent mixture of an appealing leading character backed by a fine supporting cast, with just a touch of magic to nudge the story off into interesting directions. The archery scene from the trailer is one example, drawing on powerful archetypes to create a heroine that really stands out from the crowd at Disney and Pixar. It made for a wonderful trailer for the movie, and it still stands strong in context. The wild forests of Scotland and their ghostly Will of the Wisps are highly reminiscent of the untamed lands in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, and forms a fine backdrop for Merida’s unusual hero’s journey. If nothing else, it’s nice to see a Princess who doesn’t want or need a Prince in her tale. Her development through the film incorporates the standard-issue “follow your heart” self-actualization, but tempers it with lessons on accepting the obligations that you have to others. Brave also fully redeems Scottish brogues in animated films after Mike Myers’ affectation in the Shrek movies made many subsequent ones rather suspect. The fact that they’re almost all done by genuine Scots certainly helps. Kelly MacDonald gives a spirited, charming performance as Merida, and I’m quite fond of Billy Connolly’s boisterous King Fergus. Emma Thompson makes the most of the relatively thankless role of Queen Elinor, whose major function is to be uptight and make Merida’s life miserable. Her Scottish accent slips every now and then, but she still manages to bring across the depths of warmth and affection for her family even as they exasperate her. The spirited arguments between Elinor and Merida also have a powerful ring of truth to them, and the moment when they both cross lines that they shouldn’t feels genuine and real and truly uncomfortable to watch.
However, it’s the echoes of those earlier movies which ultimately keep Brave from true greatness. While its best moments yield the same emotional highs of movies like Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin or Princess Mononoke, there are a few too many others when Brave just feels like it’s merely echoing them, feeling much more derivative as a result. Despite their modern affectations, those movies all tapped into the Jungian collective unconscious to make the old tales feel new again. Too often, scenes in Brave feel like they’ve been lifted from other Disney fairy tale films, not tapping that collective unconscious as much as they’re just riding the coattails of their predecessors. It’s hewing too closely to formula instead of striking out in truly new directions. One of the climactic scenes of the movie is an almost direct quote from one of those movies, and even if it is still tremendously effective at tugging at the emotional heartstrings, it wasn’t successful enough to keep my brain from noticing the visual quote. I kept thinking, “Oh, that reminds me of…” instead of getting swept up in the story the way I do with the movies Brave was reminding me of.
I also think Brave suffers a bit from the same inconsistency in tone that hamstrung many of Disney’s movies after the initial three “Renaissance” movies. King Fergus is an entertainingly boorish bear of a man, but he’s still entirely credible when he puts his war face on to do battle with Mor’du. Not so fortunate are the three competing lords, Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane), Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), and Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), who never manage to rise above the buffoonish. They and their sons are just a little too hard to take seriously, although they never sink to the levels of Terk and Tantor in Disney’s Tarzan or the execrable Mushu in Mulan. I’m also not entirely convinced that Brave‘s semi-serious take for the witch was the best choice. She is definitely not played for menace, as with Ursula from The Little Mermaid or Jafar from Aladdin, but she’s also not played strictly for laughs. In the end, she comes off as a half-daffy, half-serious plot device whose motives aren’t unscrupulous or mysterious, but just puzzling, and whose role in the film ends up being a lot smaller than it feels like it ought to be. It’s also a minor thing, but I feel like the Will of the Wisps were supposed to have the same subtle sense of menace of Miyazaki’s tiny forest spirits in Princess Mononoke, and they don’t quite get all the way there (although, to be fair, “doesn’t do something quite as well as Hayao Miyazaki” is perhaps the best criticism/left-handed compliment you can get).
Despite whatever criticisms I have for it, I still found Brave to be quite satisfying in the end, and a more and better evolution of the Princess movie than The Princess and the Frog. It’s probably only Pixar that can be criticized for producing only a very good movie and not a great one, but as I said, the studio has conditioned us for greatness. The press screening was in 3D, and while it was fine and unobtrusive, I would recommend against it. The glasses make everything darker and murkier, doing an injustice to the lovingly rendered lush greens of Scotland and making some scenes barely visible, and the added sense of depth does not compensate for the losses. Brave is preceded by the utterly charming, genuinely magical short “La Luna,” in which a son is inducted into family traditions by his father and grandfather. It is an absolutely triumph, even if it manages to capture a wild sense of magic more effectively than the feature that follows.