Brave starts off so strong it was bound to disappoint eventually. The same can be said of its production company, Pixar, which has captivated our imagination for over fifteen years with the likes of Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003), and Up (2009), but has proven somewhat lacking in creativity of late, pumping out competent but perfunctory sequels, such as Toy Story 3 (2010) and Cars 2 (2011), and now an apparent remake of Disney’s Brother Bear (2003).
I’m getting ahead of myself though. Set in medieval Scotland, Brave begins with a classic generational conflict, that of arranged marriage. In a tradition designed to bind the nation’s four clans, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) host a competition to determine their daughter’s future husband, but the teenage princess, Merida (Kelly MacDonald), wants to choose her own fate, rejecting the royal values passed on by her mother in favour of tomboyish activities like horseback riding and competing with Katniss and Hawkeye for kick-ass movie archer of the year.
Yes, for its first fairy tale, Pixar gives us yet another coming-of-age yarn in which a little girl is told to behave like a little girl but would rather the empowerment inherent to acting like a little boy. Given our marked predilection for individual freedom, I wonder how much the concept of forced matrimony can resonate with a contemporary North American audience, but I like how it plays into the universal dichotomy between what parents think is best for their children and what kids want for themselves.
Refreshingly, the old ways are presented as altruistic if somewhat stifling, and none of the suitors turns out a gold-digging fiend. In fact, Brave features no villain in a classical sense, which proves an interesting innovation in its own right. All the antagonists are victims of sorts, either of their own carelessness or of a spell gone wrong (as spells are wont to do). We get a witch, sure, but the old woman comes across more as a well-meaning klutz than a cruel opportunist. By the same token, Mor’du, the ferocious bear to which Fergus loses his leg, can hardly be blamed for its actions.
You see, Merida and Elinor’s relationship constitutes the film’s sole focus, which is great because directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman nail the dynamic between a strong-willed mother and her likeminded daughter, capturing not just the antagonism created by their generational gap but also the regrets and missed opportunities that come with a lifetime of healthy defiance. I love the scene in which the queen and princess express their frustrations separately, ranting to their respective companions (the King and a royal horse) until they reach the true heart of the matter: “Listen!”
I wish Brave had stayed on this track, but, through circumstances I dare not spoil, one of them gets turned into a bear, and the movie just about loses me. Now, I understand that the fantasy plot had to kick in at some point if only to keep the kiddies entertained, and the transformation does fit the established themes, providing a context in which our heroines have to redefine the way they relate to each other. My issue lies in the device robbing us of the main attraction: Merida and Elinor’s verbal sparring. I would have much preferred seeing the women overcome their communication barrier organically to watching a cartoon bear knock stuff over with tired slapstick.
In light of the gorgeous designs and animation (love the hair), I suspect I might have proven more receptive to this shift if Brave didn’t feel so disjointed and, well, bare. Some blame the Disney acquisition in 2006. There is, after all, a familiar feel to the anthropomorphic mammal’s movements and expressions. Others reproach Chapman getting the boot halfway into the production. The stated reason for her removal pertains to her ambitious vision encompassing too many concepts and characters. Forgive my idealism, but wasn’t ambition Pixar’s bread and butter once upon a time?