It seems that ever since Pixar’s latest production was announced, Brave has been the subject of a number of labels. It’s the studio’s first period piece, their first fairytale movie, and their first film with a female protagonist.
However, like the best of Pixar’s work, the film itself transcends such labels and recaptures the magic that many fans felt was missing in Cars 2. On the other hand, from a studio that has brought toys to life and depicted love between robots without necessarily having to give an explanation, this is actually its first feature that deals in actual magic, taking place once upon a time in tenth century Scotland.
Our heroine is Princess Merida, a hot-tempered teenager who loves archery, and frequently rides out to have adventures in the Highlands, much to the dismay of her regal and elegant mother, Queen Elinor. The Queen wishes her daughter would be more ladylike, and hopes to tame her by marrying her off to one of the less-than-eligible first-born sons of neighbouring lairds, Dingwall, Macintosh and Macguffin.
Unimpressed by her choice of husbands, and by the fact that she’s being rushed into marriage, Merida and her mother fall out in a big way. The film is very much about the occasional disparities between a parent and a child, and Merida discovers what bravery really means when magic intercedes in their already troubled relationship.
For those with certain expectations from the studio, I should say that there isn’t a moment to match tear-jerking scenes from WALL-E, Up or Toy Story 3, and nor do I think this one will breach many fans’ top five favourite Pixar movies. Given the quality of most of its films up to this point, however, that’s hardly a negative. Pixar seems to be at its best when touching upon themes of family, particularly with regard to parenthood, and it’s absolutely back on form here.
It’s almost a tradition that Pixar trailers tend to give away very little about their corresponding movies. In this case, the trailers and marketing have largely gone no further than half an hour into Brave, and you’ll understand why when you see the film. For me, the trailers did just enough to make me want to see the film, and so the twist in the tale came as quite a surprise, after what some might view as a slowly-paced opening act.
Even more surprising, despite the very handsome trailers, is just how gorgeous this film truly is. It’s traditional that big movies with lots of spectacle tend to have accompanying reference books about their artwork, and this is the first movie I can remember seeing that made me want to go out and buy The Art Of.. tomeimmediately, just to look at the development of the visuals.
The Scottish Highlands are so lovingly rendered and marvellously recreated that it’s impossible to imagine that they were going to be almost completely covered in snow until a certain point in the production process. Pixar showcases the details magnificently, with shots that are reminiscent of the swooping helicopter sequences in live-action epics like The Lord Of The Rings. This is, by far, the best-looking film it’s ever made.
Against this backdrop stands Merida, whose distinctive ginger hair was designed specifically to be seen apart from the gloriously meticulous detail of the Highlands, no matter where she was placed in any given frame. It’s not a Scottish stereotype, but a nice bit of visual storytelling that her fiery mane is so uncontrollable, despite Elinor’s best efforts to groom it into submission.
The mother-daughter relationship is really the heart of the movie, and the voices of Kelly McDonald and Emma Thompson bring this to life wonderfully. One of my favourite scenes happens early on, when Merida and Elinor are simultaneously pretending to talk to one another, in different rooms, about what they want and not quite seeing the other’s own point of view. It very literally reminded me of the voice acting process, of actors standing in different rooms and recording dialogue, and the scene highlights the quality of the vocal performances.
Alongside the emotional core of the film, there are comedic family dynamics at work elsewhere. Merida’s dad, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), has some nice interplay with Lords Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane) Macintosh (Craig Ferguson), and MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), but each has a funny and distinctive dynamic with their own children. Most enjoyable is the way McKidd also voices his character’s son, Young MacGuffin, with an incomprehensible Doric dialect that is consistently funny without being over-egged or mean-spirited.
The thing that really stands out is that it’s not a carnivalesque depiction of Scotland, but an authentic love letter to its national personality. The obvious attraction is its wealth of storytelling, as Pixar has always placed story first and foremost. You see that in King Fergus, who lost his leg in a battle with a legendary bear known as Mor’du, and tells the story to absolutely anyone who will listen, even though they all know it by heart.
There’s no such repetition in Brave, a Pixar fairytale which manages to emulate that familiar sense of Disney-ness from classic animation, while also blazing a trail in animated landscapes and consistently feeling very original. In Merida, it’s created an all-new Disney princess, bucking trends and subverting expectations in the more modern tradition, while her creators focus on rediscovering the magic that made us fall in love with their work in the first place.
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