Released this June, Brave is the thirteenth film from Pixar. For me it has proven to be the lucky thirteen rather than an unlucky one, as thanks to the local second-run theatre, I have finally managed to break my streak of somehow not managing to see any Pixar films on the big screen. I even was able to view it in 3D, which if nothing else made the panoramic shots even more breathtaking. Pixar, as is their wont, continues pushing the boundaries of computer-rendered animation in this film, making their fictionalized version of the Scottish highlands highly detailed and heavily populated with trees and other foliage. The scenery is beautiful, and so is the character design; Pixar also tests their limitations here with curly hair that moves in a realistic fashion, and fabrics and clothes that look and move realistically.
The film was written and partly directed by Brenda Chapman, who was removed from the film partway through and replaced by Mark Andrews. There’s been speculation why, but I haven’t seen anything official, and Chapman has stated that the final film is true to her vision. Certainly there is no point at which it feels disjointed from its directorial switch; the film feels like a unified whole.
The film’s approach to historical accuracy, however, is cheerfully piecemeal.
While Brave feels and plays out very much like a traditional fairy tale, it is not based on a pre-existing story, but rather one written by Chapman. The story is centered around Merida (Kelly Macdonald), firstborn daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida, like her father, enjoys exploring the countryside and practicing archery. But as Merida is the eldest child in the family (she has triplet younger brothers who provide much of the comic relief of the film), Queen Elinor has to drive home the importance of a princess studying her lessons and showing proper decorum, and it puts a strain in their relationship. The conflict comes to a head when the heads of the three other clans in the area come to present their sons as suitors for Merida’s hand in marriage. Merida runs away, and seeks to change her fate by enlisting the services of a witch. She gets more than she bargained for, of course.
The story feels like a traditional fairy tale in a lot of respects, other than having the tomboyish Merida as the Princess. But it’s deeper and a bit more complex in its motivations, with a strong core of familial love at its heart. The characters and their interactions with each other constantly ring true; the arguing and fighting and apologizing all feels very natural. It’s also a fairly exciting story once it kicks into its second act, and has a few light moments of humor as well, often from the triplets or from the three clan lords (voiced by Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, and Craig Ferguson, who all have fun characters). I’ll confess I laughed the most at Julie Walter’s witch, though.
When Brave had its first run release, I saw a lot of mixed reviews for it. None truly bad, of course; just some that were lamenting that they couldn’t give it a higher rating. There seemed to be a few reasons for this, and having seen the film, I don’t feel that I agree with these reasons. A lot of it seems to have been from expecting a bit of a different film, as much of the complaints boiled down to “it doesn’t feel like Pixar”. Perhaps it’s because I still have several Pixar films that I need to see, but this didn’t feel like a problem for me. Most of the Pixar films I’ve seen, barring perhaps The Incredibles, could be loosely classified as comedy adventures. Brave on the other hand is closer to high fantasy, with just a dose of humor now and then. But for all that it’s a bit of a different tone, it’s still done particularly well, and to me that was always the mark of Pixar — a family film that’s truly for all ages.
Poking around a stone henge in a fairy tale seldom leads to good things.
The other issue people often voiced was a question of novelty. It was cited more than once that people have grown used to Pixar showing them a different world, while Brave is on more familiar territory. While I can somewhat see the validity of the complaint — the fairy-tale like setting is certainly more common — I’m generally inclined to be more interested in the originality of the story more than the setting, and in how well done it is. And Brave tells a story that, while hitting some of the same notes as other films and stories, feels substantively different. And it does it very well. I’m not going to knock it for being “just another fairy tale” any more than I would knock The Incredibles for having similar themes to the Fantastic Four franchise (it predates the movie, but not the comics and cartoons), or Monsters Inc. for having the same “child meets the monsters in the closet/under the bed” motif as Little Monsters. Or, for that matter, Toy Story for the “toys come to life when unobserved, and one frets about being displaced” theme that it shares with The Christmas Toy and its Disney-Channel-aired spinoff series The Secret Life of Toys. My point is, “unique” is difficult. Mostly when people talk about originality in themes they’re really talking about it being a less-crowded theme, or one where they simply don’t know about the predecessors. In either case, it feels to me like arguing shades of gray and insisting it’s black and white. I’ve heard it said there are ultimately only seven different stories, and everything else is just changing the details. The real question when it comes to originality is whether the details are different, and whether it’s done well, and Brave absolutely succeeds on both of those fronts, just as Pixar’s previously-acclaimed films do.
It feels a little odd having to defend a film that’s as good as Brave, especially when most of its “detractors” are only making mild criticism and still rank it as a good film. But it’s something that I could see weighing this film’s reputation down, and I wanted to address it. Because when viewed simply for what it is, Brave is a beautiful, adventurous fantasy film with lead characters that are both charismatic and believable. Is it the greatest of Pixar’s films? No, but that’s a hard target to reach. And it is still a great film. Don’t let the naysayers tell you you’ve seen it before just because it’s a fairy-tale themed film; you haven’t. To the best of my knowledge there isn’t a fairy tale with this plot, and certainly not any major animated film. And it’s a very entertaining plot with a few surprises along the way (at least, if one manages to avoid spoilers, which I’ve tried to avoid giving here). And the characters in that story feel like real characters; nobody’s perfect, they all have their moments where they make bad, rash decisions — but they’re also all ultimately likeable. It’s a difficult line to walk when dealing with a “rebellious child” theme, but Brave pulls it off with both the lead heroine and the parents.
Brave is a great film, and a worthy addition to Pixar’s legacy.
Post-script: The theatrical release of Brave is preceded by a Pixar short film, La Luna. It’s well worth checking out; it’s whimsical, a little funny, and a visual treat.