Here’s the story: Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a princess who lives in Scotland and doesn’t like being a princess. Her mom, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), wants her to wear tight dresses and enunciate and play her lyre like a good princess, but Merida would rather ride on her horse through the woods and climb mountains and other activities not fit for a princess.
Merida and Elinor talk about fate and change quite a lot, which gets old. Elinor tells her daughter to accept her fate, but Merida wants to change it. Merida asks a witch (Julie Walters) to change her mother, but when she transforms Elinor into a bear, Merida has to rescue her mother. It seems like the scriptwriters are trying too hard to highlight a motif.
But it’s easy to see why. This is Pixar’s first princess movie, and the studio has gleefully upended the domestic fate always handed to Disney princesses. Brave is designed to confound your expectations: Merida doesn’t do housework or befriend a flock of woodland creatures or sing songs about feeling lonely. She is resilient and mischievous, and for fun she shoots a bow and arrow.
Notably, Merida doesn’t even have a prince. All of the princes contending for her affection are losers: awkward, clumsy and spoiled. Merida has no interest in these guys, and as it turns out, she gets along just fine without them.
As a survey of Scottishness, the movie works only somewhat. The voice cast includes a bevy of recognizable Scottish actors, including Billy Connolly, Craig Ferguson and Robbie Coltrane. And the film flirts with Scottish folklore by featuring will-o’-the-wisps to serve the story’s fate-changing purposes.
In its depiction of the Scottish people, Brave leans on a few stereotypes. Almost all the characters are loud and crass, love drinking and love beating each other up. It’s unclear whether moviegoers in Scotland will be offended or, in the same way that French audiences embraced Ratatouille, they’ll just be in on the joke.
Perhaps the film’s biggest success is its astounding visuals. The Scottish highlands are beautifully portrayed here, with twisting, lichen-covered trees and hills blanketed in fluttering grass. Rivers and lakes in the movie move and shimmer like real water. The world of Brave seems like a real place.
And the people who occupy this world are deftly realized. Clothing rustles on bodies like actual fabric, hair sways and bounces in the air and, more than any other Pixar film, the characters have subtle facial expressions and move through the world with a realistic weight.
Brave is a decent movie that never achieves Pixar-caliber greatness. The problem may be because of its late-game change of management: Brenda Chapman created the story in 2004 and helmed Brave’s production for years but was fired in 2010 and replaced with Mark Andrews.
Chapman’s story poses a question that Andrews’ movie never properly answers. The central problem in Brave is that a mother and a daughter don’t see eye-to-eye, a problem that will have emotional resonance for audiences. But by choosing to resolve that problem with chase scenes and swordfights, Andrews renders the movie’s whole message unintelligible. Brave tells audience members that for a mother and daughter to get along, the mother should metamorphose and they should fight monsters together. And to mothers and daughters in the real world that means nothing.
One side-note: La Luna, the short film preceding Brave, is great. It’s directed by Enrico Casarosa and, if not worth the price of a whole movie ticket, it certainly sweetens the deal.