In some corners, the new Pixar film “Brave” is regarded as something of a disappointment, a lesser effort from a studio that has churned out one timeless animated classic after another since 1995.
But don’t be fooled: “Brave” is a very good film — perhaps not as groundbreaking as the “Toy Story” films or “WALL-E,” but an excellent adventure story with fun characters, an interesting setting, complex themes and beautiful animation. The long, wild red hair of the film’s protagonist, the princess Merida, is so richly detailed and vivid that it’s almost worth the price of admission by itself. Every time Merida’s hair appeared on screen, I thought, “That’s the most amazing hair I’ve ever seen in a movie.”
“Brave” is a coming-of-age story concerning the rebellious Merida’s reluctance to be married off to the son of another clan, and her desire to ride horses through the forest, excel at archery and have the same freedom to roam the family castle and pilfer snacks that her mischievous younger brothers have. Much has been made of the increasing interest in archery among our nation’s youth due to “The Hunger Games,” but “Brave” makes archery look pretty cool: If I had seen this film when I was 10, I probably would have returned home begging my parents to buy me a bow and arrow.
The film’s setting is the Scotland highlands during the 10th century, but filmgoers of all ages will likely relate to Merida (well-voiced by Kelly Macdonald) and her refusal to accept the role that society has laid out for her. Her father, Fergus (Billy Connolly), is more sympathetic to her plight, while her mother (Emma Thompson) is stricter, constantly lecturing her on the importance of good posture and trying to teach her more refined skills, such as how to play the lute.
What distinguishes “Brave” from other, more mediocre princess films, is its strangeness. I knew very little about “Brave” heading in, other than the fact that it’s the first Pixar film to feature a female character in the lead, and was constantly surprised by its narrative, which is full of mysteries and secrets, many of which have their roots in Scottish folklore and history. There are will-o’-the-wisps, a giant demon bear, a crafty old witch, strange rock formations and ancient spells, as well as a gathering of clans, during which the sons will compete for Merida’s hand. About midway through the film, I realized that I had no idea where it was going, though I remained fairly confident it would end happily. For instance: I was completely surprised when Merida’s mother, the queen, was transformed into a bear. I don’t know what I was expecting from “Brave,” but this wasn’t it. And the movie is full of these sorts of little surprises. In some ways, it resembles a film by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, such as “Spirited Away” or “Princess Mononoke,” where human, animal and spirit worlds mingle and intersect in unexpected ways.
“Brave” challenges viewers by having its hero do something that’s borderline unforgivable: Merida asks the witch for a spell that will change her mother, and thus change her fate, and the witch gives Merida a cake to feed to the queen. Following through on this plan is obviously a bad idea, but Merida does it. The rest of the film is spent figuring out how to change her back. What’s interesting is that the movie takes time to flesh out the queen’s feelings, her reservations about forcing Merida to wed and her newfound fear of her bear-hunting husband; she is not a villain, dead set on ruining her daughter’s life, but a proud and caring parent with conflicted emotions on how best to raise her child.
“Brave” has been marketed as a film about an adventurous girl, but it’s really a movie about an adventurous mother and daughter, and the second half of the film explores the ways in which both characters change and grow: Merida begins to take responsibility for her selfishness and recklessness, while her mother begins to recognize her daughter’s need for independence.
“Brave” is certainly a more delightful feminist fairy tale than the summer’s other big offering, “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and serves as a welcome antidote to Disney’s irritating Princess brand. The film’s final third isn’t quite as rewarding as its earlier passages, and the climatic battle is a bit of a letdown — a big fight between two bears, while Merida and the men mostly look on. But the vast majority of the film is an enchanting treat, and if it makes you feel like taking up archery, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.
“Brave” is preceded by a lovely short film, titled “La Luna,” that is very much worth watching.
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