After you've seen Brave, come back and hear Dana Stevens and Dan Kois discuss the film in our Spoiler Special (You can also download the podcast here):
I feel an almost maternal need to shield Brave (Disney/Pixar) against the snipey backlash that’s already surrounding it in advance of its opening weekend (and before some of the backlashers have even seen the movie). Pixar’s first film to feature a female protagonist and to be co-written and co-directed by a woman has been saddled with an unfair burden during a too-long pre-release marketing push. In order to satisfy expectations at this point, Brave would have to not only revolutionize the depiction of girls and women onscreen, but make its audience laugh as hard as we did in Toy Story and cry as hard as we did in Up. Oh, and could it also reinvent computer animation and rake in three times its budget on opening weekend?
Pixar’s own history of excellence has effectively painted the studio into a corner. If Brave were a straight-up Disney release, people would be hailing it, at the very least, as an end to the princess movie as we know it. Because it’s Pixar, they get to whine, “What? Princesses again?” Yes, Brave’s setting and subject matter are more conventional than is the studio’s wont: A medieval Scottish princess resists her parents’ attempts to marry her off to one of three scions from neighboring clans. And true, it’s not a masterpiece on the order of Ratatouille or Finding Nemo: Brave is minor Pixar, like Cars (the first one) or Monsters Inc. But I really hope that people will give this imaginative little fairy tale a chance, and I can’t wait to show it to my 6-year-old daughter. It’s a rollicking children’s entertainment, gorgeously animated and wittily cast, and also an unusually astute exploration of the complex bond between mothers and daughters, a relationship that’s often either elided or sentimentalized in children’s literature and film.
As the film begins, the flame-haired princess Merida (voice of Kelly Macdonald) has just received a bow and arrow as a birthday present from her father, the blustering King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly). As she’s practicing shooting off her first few arrows, a huge man-eating bear appears out of the woods and menaces the family; in the ensuing battle, the king loses a leg and the bear an eye. Flash-forward to Merida’s adolescence: She’s become a brilliant archer and a devotee of wild horseback rides through the (gloriously animated) deep green forest, but her parents are eager to get her settled into a nice safe kingdom-consolidating marriage. Queen Elinor (voiced by Emma Thompson) is especially insistent that Merida learn to comport herself like a lady, which in Book of Kells days meant sewing, weaving, obediently strumming the lute and keeping your mouth shut. Meanwhile, Merida’s kid brothers, three indistinguishable carrot-topped hellions, have the run of the castle.
After besting all three of her doltish suitors in an archery match, Merida escapes into the woods and is lured by magic will-o’-the-wisps—pleasingly animated as phosphorescent airborne jellyfish—into the cabin of a wood-carving witch (voiced by Julie Walters). Merida pays the old crone to cast a spell to make her mother change her mind about the marriage … and what happens next, what happens for the rest of the movie in fact, must remain behind the veil. All I’ll say is that, if what you’ve heard of the story so far sounds like an overfamiliar fairytale archetype, the movie’s middle act won’t be, unless you’re more deeply read in world folklore than most of us. As my colleague Dan Kois pointed out in our “Spoiler Special” discussion of Brave [above], for a strange dreamy stretch midway through, Brave feels almost like a film by Hayao Miyazaki, as the worlds of humans, animals, and forest spirits first converge with deceptive ease, then prove unexpectedly hard to prize apart again.
The transformation brought about by the witch’s spell isn’t a Freaky Friday-style body switch, but it unseats both Merida’s and her mother’s identities just as completely, forcing the two of them to leave the castle and take refuge together in the woods, where they must hunt and forage for their meals. At once, all of the issues they were battling over—power, femininity, finding the right balance between the realization of one’s own desires and conformation to social values—are made literal, sometimes to comic effect. This middle section of the movie is a bit shapeless structurally—there are too many consecutive scenes similar in tone, pacing, and content, and the story sags a little. But the forest interlude is full of wonderful small moments between the panicked but resilient princess and her awkward, abashed, suddenly dependent mother as the two work together to reverse the spell.
As sensitively voiced by Emma Thompson, Elinor is never an evil-queen villain, but nor is she an idealized self-sacrificing mother. Rather, she’s a particular, individual person, devoted but flawed: She’s proud of her feminine hypercompetence (the kingdom, it’s clear, would collapse into a pile of brawling kilts if she weren’t secretly in charge) but rigidly unaccepting of her daughter’s differences. In the run-up to the scene where the magic spell is cast, Elinor is shown shouting at Merida, ignoring her wishes, and then withdrawing when her daughter’s reaction hurts her feelings: In short, behaving like the frustrated mother of a rebellious teenager. It’s a characterization that’s almost shockingly complex for a movie of this type.
The closer Elinor and Merida get to solving their dilemma, the more Brave turns back into the movie it started out as: a jolly, engaging but not especially original children’s adventure story. Brave has a shortage of the offbeat, antic humor that we’ve come to expect from Pixar movies, and the secondary characters—that is to say, everyone but Merida and her mother—can seem underwritten and one-note. (Why couldn’t the three little brothers have had distinct personalities, each sowing chaos in his own style?) Still, the film’s closing images of Merida and her mother galloping side by side on horseback through the lush green forest struck me as both moving and exhilaratingly new. How often does a kids’ movie end, not just with coming home to Mom, but with setting off by her side toward some awesome new adventure?