Princesses have become something of a cottage industry for Disney, a company more than willing to take fairy-tale fascination to new levels of dress-up. Perhaps the most courageous thing about Brave, then, is how it shows princesshood not as a station to aspire to, but a burden to be freed from.
The princess in this case is Merida (Kelly Macdonald), Scottish princess of Clan DunBroch. While her mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), tries to teach Merida virtues befitting her royal stature, Merida prefers to gallop off into the wilderness, honing her archery skills and climbing rugged cliffs. When Merida’s mother and father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), decide that it’s time for her to marry a prince of another clan—the typical end-goal for most fairy tales—Merida sets off to find magic that will change her destiny and win her freedom. Of course, it backfires, and she winds up casting a spell that turns her mother into a bear, and she has to work to reverse her spell while maintaining her independence.
Along with the negative view of princesshood, Brave is unique in that the mother/daughter bond is the center of the story. Usually, in children’s stories (and animated Disney cartoons in particular), it’s the absence of a mother that’s the character’s defining quality. (You basically have to go all the way back to Dumbo and Bambi to find a Disney cartoon where mothers figure prominently—and it doesn’t work out so well for them.) Yet the relationship between a mother and daughter is one of the most profound, lifelong bonds—and also one of the thorniest—and it’s worthy of examination.
Unfortunately, Brave doesn’t always live up to the potential of its rich subject matter. This is especially disappointing considering that, if anyone could grasp the complexities of the way mothers and daughters relate to each other, it should be the folks at Pixar, whose past movies can be earnest, heartfelt, suspenseful, and hilarious, often simultaneously. This is the company that turned an almost-octogenarian into an action hero in Up. Instead of finding a similarly unexpected angle on its first movie with a female protagonist, Pixar instead falls back on well tread territory, with princesses, angsty teens, and parents and children who just don’t see eye-to-eye.
It’s not that the characters are lacking. Merida is everything you could want in a heroine: strong, confident, clever, a crack shot with a bow and arrow, and a tangle of wild red curly hair. Elinor may seem at first like a prim nag—always telling Merida to tone it down and mind her manners—but eventually the virtue of her elegance and refinement becomes clear, and her compassion shines through. It’s easy to see how Brave intends them to be both rivals and perfect complement for each other. The movie leaves you hoping for resolution, not siding with one over the other.
It’s the forces that push Merida and Elinor apart and pull them together again that Brave is at its weakest. It’s as if the creators had this relationship, but no real story in which to insert it. (In other Pixar films, story is prized above all else.) Story turns in Brave aren’t always character-directed, and plot points can feel contrived. When the narrative is backed into a tight corner, magic beings literally appear and tell Merida where to go. When Merida is looking to reverse her spell, a witch gives her a “riddle” to solve that’s so obvious and surface-level, it’s more of a slightly obscured set of instructions than a riddle. You get the sense that things were happening just to move the movie along.
Which is not to say that everything in Brave is a disappointment. While the mother/daughter drama may be weak, the body-switching comedy is first-rate. Elinor’s attempts to be ladylike and exhibit proper human manners while in bear form ranks up there with some of the funniest scenes Pixar has produced. Similarly, the interactions Merida and Elinor have with her father and the other clans of men recapture that Pixar charm, being at once funny (as only frequent outbursts of testosterone-fueled violence can be) and a little subversive (a comment on the male-fueled hierarchical society).
And, like all Pixar movies, Brave is beautiful to watch. The way Merida’s wild curls pop against the lush Scottish greenery, or the way the sleekness of Elinor’s bear fur becomes rougher as she gets more ferocious, all has a mystical, fairy-tale beauty about it. Extra features included in the Ultimate Collector’s Edition—which includes the movie in every format, including a 3D Blu-Ray, a regular Blu-Ray, a DVD, and a digital copy—are worth combing through to see how the Brave world was put together. The creators have a knack for singling out the most interesting details to build features around, from the foot-thick moss found growing on rock in Scotland to how Merida exactly got all of those wild springs in her curls (it took something of an animation breakthrough to get it right).
Still, one could wish that beauty was in service of a better story, with fewer instances of magical deux ex machina. Moms and daughters deserve better.