Is it a crime to be a minor Pixar film? Apparently so. While it is fair to have high expectations for the animation studio’s output, which has reached great heights in the past, Brave seems to have been hit with backlash that suggests that this is forgettable fare that plays it entirely too safe. Brave has its weaknesses, but overall this is a gorgeous female coming-of-age story about independence, maintaining identity in the face of tradition, and the complicated bond between mother and daughter. It takes the Disney Princess formula in a fundamentally progressive direction if not nearly radical enough in execution.
At first, the story follows a familiar structure. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a princess and her mother Eleanor (Emma Thompson) has spent her entire life slaving to get her daughter ready for the responsibility of being a queen. This goes against everything Merida wants. She has devoted her life to archery, riding her horse and exploring the endless forest around her. She lives for these days. It is apparent that the conversations between the two have long taken a repetitious route of rejection and scolding. When the day comes, Merida rejects custom by boldly claiming her own hand via an archery competition. A particularly intense fight between the two sends Merida off into the woods devastated, and from there…well you will have to see the film and discover its developments yourself.
Female protagonists in children’s films can and have been feisty, independent and true-to-themselves. Yet, despite several of these films being outstanding achievements, at some point we must remove the fact that these stories are all being filtered through romance. This does not have to go away, but there must be additional contexts with which we deal with female characters and their stories. Brave goes a long way in setting us in the right direction. It is easy to take for granted how meaningful it is to see this kind of story being told.
Merida jumps out at the screen from frame one; her fiery red mop-head hair, her rambunctious nature, her obstinacy and passion. She may be an adolescent, but she knows who she is. She does not want to be forced into a marriage and life that do not feel true. It goes past not being in love with the three particular boys. It is the principle of the thing; this is not what she wants. Not only is she not ready, but for the unforeseeable future, she holds no stock in this as an eventuality. Between Kelly Macdonald’s voiceover work and the Pixar animation team, Merida is fully realized. Her movements, mannerisms and speech patterns all have a specificity and spontaneity that make her, without a doubt, one of the most memorable characters the studio has produced.
Brave is ultimately about the relationship between mother and daughter, an under-explored arena in children’s films to say the least. We always seem to be dealing with father and daughter, with the mother often long deceased.
This is where Merida’s character arc lies. She must learn to listen and see through Eleanor’s eyes and vice-versa. The film stresses the lapse in communication between them throughout, and the film’s central event forces them to build the way they communicate with each other from the ground up. Part of growing up is learning not to take your mother for granted. The journey their relationship takes is where the heart of the film lies as well as its strongest bits of humor. The marketing, at least what I was exposed to, was smart in that it managed to keep its central event a surprise.
Many of the complaints against the film are not unfounded; they are just not enough to derail what Brave is doing. It does not make the most of its time. By having a tendency to draw out and repeat scenes (such as the men fighting), it loses a chance to do more with its runtime. I wish it strived for a deeper whole, though it has sections that reach that level. A sharper execution was needed for some of the humor. It never falls flat, but it does not often stick the landing.
The magical aspects are confusing and feel like a rough draft. Suspending my disbelief is one thing, but how the hell do we come to the conclusion that fixing the tapestry will solve everything? Finally, the supporting characters could have been more distinct and were underwritten. When I think of how many memorable characters Finding Nemo has, still a shocking number to process, surely the characters surrounding Merida and Eleanor could have had a bit more to them. Although, the way the film shows the three brothers and the other men shamelessly making fools of themselves as a representation of the kind of behavior men can get away with was a nice touch.
Brave is about a young woman staying true to herself and maintaining the courage to be who she is. It is about the bond between mother and daughter and the evolution of communication and understanding between them. Pixar is always at the top of its game from a technical standpoint and here is no different; the Scottish highlands are endlessly rich and watching Merida’s hair is alone worth the price of admission. Brave is entertaining and heartfelt and a step in the right direction for the types of children’s stories about girls being told. Its only crime is that it is not a masterpiece; I would hope we can forgive Brave for being merely accomplished.