For over two decades, Pixar’s animation studio in Emeryville, CA has provided the world with movies featuring memorable characters, intriguing storylines, and the use of cutting-edge technology. And every year, moviegoers old and young alike have come to expect a quality animated film rivaling the best live-action Hollywood flicks. Hits such as Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, WALL*E, Ratatouille, Up, and all three Toy Story films will do that.
Last year, however, something seemed to change. Although Cars 2 made more money than some countries’ GDP, many critics for the first time gave a Pixar film less than favorable reviews. People wondered whether making a financial profit had suddenly become more important than a quality story with believable characters (of course, kids probably didn’t care in the least—Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen were on the screen). I, for one, gave Pixar a mulligan for the film—but expected them to return to grand storytelling in their next feature, Brave.
So, does Pixar’s thirteenth feature film pass the test? It depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for an incredibly intricate plot with more twists and turns than an episode of Law and Order, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. If you’re hoping for a film in the vein of The Little Mermaid or Cinderella, let me dash those hopes right now. But if you’re hoping to see a film that places a premium on relationships, choices, consequences, and restoration, then this is the one film you need to see this year. And it wouldn’t hurt to take some friends as well.
Brave opens with sweeping views of the Scottish countryside before delving into the life of Merida (voice of Kelly MacDonald), a red-haired teenage princess who rides her horse, shoots arrows, and enjoys the outdoors—just as her father, King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly), does. One thing she doesn’t enjoy, however, is the constant pressure her mother, Queen Elinor (voice of Emma Thompson), employs to get her to behave like a “typical” princess. These lessons are to be put on display as the lords of the land assemble for an age-old tradition of determining who the princess will marry. The candidates presented by Lords MacGuffin (voice of Kevin McKidd), Macintosh (voice of Craig Ferguson), and Dingwall (voice of Robbie Coltrane) showcase their archery acumen for the princess, but are upstaged by Merida herself as she defies tradition and competes for her own hand. The ensuing struggle with her mother leads Merida to determine if destiny is supposed to be her fate. A jaunt into the forest leads to an encounter that puts that question to the test—and unleashes a bravery Merida never knew existed.
Brave moves at a brisk pace—there’s not a lot of time for dialoguing, as Pixar strips the princess story to its essence (with no Prince Charming to be found, this is pretty easy) and brings action to the party—and lots of it—in the second act. In fact, the action is so intense at points that younger children might find it a little too much.
The work and detail of Pixar’s artists is proudly on display in the film, creating an incredibly stunning film that had me wondering at times whether I was watching live-action. Gorgeous countryside shots, distinctive clan tartans, and Merida’s curly red locks will cause many jaws to drop. Patrick Doyle’s Celtic-themed score adds just the right amount of ambiance to the movie without drowning out the message of the film.
At its heart, Brave is a story about relationships—between Merida and her mother, between the four tribes and King Fergus, between Merida and her triplet brothers (who hilariously steal every scene they’re in and keep the story from becoming a rather dark tale). The tension between Merida and Queen Elinor is evidenced in not only their words, but their actions and their demeanors. A telling scene involves the King imploring his wife to role-play how she plans to discuss the marriage tradition with Merida—while the princess defiantly answers her mother’s unheard questions as she takes care of her horse.
Relationship issues come to light in the life of King Fergus as well. Having lost a leg due to an attack by the demon bear Mor’du, he looks forward to the day he can exact revenge. But due to Merida’s desire to change her fate, he stays busy trying to rule the kingdom while keeping the four tribes from killing each other.
It could be said that one of the overarching themes of Brave is simply to obey one’s parents. But for many teenagers in today’s society, that’s the last thing they want to do. They would rather face life on their own with a limited amount of knowledge and deal with issues as they arise. But this isn’t the way God planned it to be. Parents have life experiences they can impart to their kids to keep them safe. They can challenge their kids to be all they can be, yet provide encouragement to do so along the way—something Merida needed from Queen Elinor in the early stages of the film.
At the same time, there is obviously a theme of bravery that needs to be mentioned. It takes guts to stand up for one’s beliefs—and to do so in a spirit of love and compassion. Bravery can be easy to show people on the outside, but a person can only put on a front for so long. Eventually, it will crack and the true self will be revealed. This is where bravery of the heart must be on display, and often manifests itself in surprising ways.
In the final analysis, Brave is a film featuring heart, spunk, and a disarming honesty that is refreshing to see and experience. Audiences will be clapping when the screen fades to black, thankful for the lessons imparted by Pixar.
Be brave and find out for yourself.