Disney’s partnership with Pixar seems to be paying dividends for both companies; Pixar’s latest film — Brave — could easily be mistaken for one of Disney’s “princess” movies. After taking on the Rapunzel story with Tangled as a pair they have left the realm of traditional fairy tales behind, which may be a wise choice with two television series and a number of movies all mining the same territory these days. But despite being an original story, Brave manages to feel like a solid, timeworn tale that also captures the spirit of its Scottish setting.
This being a princess movie we must naturally start with a princess: Merida (Kelly Macdonald), eldest child of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), of the highland clan DunBroch. She is her father’s daughter: bold, proud, and rambunctious, with her unruly mop of beautifully-rendered copper ringlets bouncing around as she fires off arrows at a gallop on her Clydesdale, Angus. I’m not sure Clydesdales are really made for galloping, but never mind about that.
Her mother has other plans; according to tradition she is to be married to one of the princes of the other three clans, none of whom are particularly great prizes. Besides the poor choice of prospects, Merida isn’t particularly inclined to get married at all, or to adhere to her Mother’s conception of “ladylike” behavior. Their conflict comes to a head when Merida impetuously flees the betrothal ceremony and runs into the woods. There she meets a witch (Julie Walters) who gives her a spell to change her fate, but naturally Merida will get more than she bargained for.
Being a Pixar film, it goes without saying that the animation is gorgeous, though the stereography was all but superfluous; save the surcharge if you can. Merida’s hair may be the greatest achievement, but there’s plenty of praise to go around for the highland vistas, the richly textured interiors, and the chilly forest atmospherics.
To the extent that this is a princess movie, it is a superior one in all but the music; this is not a musical, though Thompson does a fair in-story rendition of “A Mhaighdean Bhan Uasal” — in Scottish Gaelic, no less. Julie Fowlis’ participation makes the soundtrack a must-have for lovers of Celtic folk music, but there are no stick-in-your-head catchy numbers here.
As a story, however, Brave beats the usual Disney fare in a walk. Brenda Chapman’s story manages to explore the very real tension between girls’ self-determination and societal expectations while being respectful to both. There are few movies in any genre being made with such a tenderness that this one has at its core.
Tellingly, there is no particular evil to be faced down and defeated here — a basic story template that absolutely dominates Disney’s princess fare. Over the decades they may have moved from a (sometimes literal) Prince Charming coming to rescue the princess from the enemy to allowing the princess a more active role, but they’re still oriented around an axis of opposition.
For all its rambling, slapstick energy and a pair of action scenes acting as bookends, Brave is a far gentler — not to mention wiser — movie than most children’s fare.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.