In its surprisingly short existence (Toy Story came out in 1995), Pixar Animation Studios has rewritten the book on animation in general and computer animation in particular. When the plucky little company entered the big time less than 20 years ago, digital animation was a soulless enterprise suitable for trendy soft drink commercials and little else. Pixar not only contributed to a great leap forward in technology, it revitalized the animation industry by refocussing on the art and craft of storytelling.
A few years ago, the company was absorbed by Disney, leading a lot of fans to fear for the company’s future. Such fears proved unfounded, with Pixar taking over Disney’s animation efforts and sharpening all of the Mouse Corporation’s annual output—from the purely Disney (The Princess and the Frog) to the perfectly Pixar (UP). Now Disney and Pixar have stamped their names on a project that plays to the strengths of both companies—the glorious family fantasy Brave.
Reviewing a Pixar flick actually presents a few challenges. With virtually no exceptions (OK, so Cars 2 wasn’t exactly one for the ages), Pixar films are all classics. Audiences know going into the theater that the animation will be flawless, that the story will be superbly crafted and that the voice talent will be thoughtfully chosen. So, we can dispense with all of that right off the bat. Brave is a lushly detailed, technically dazzling film that you and your family will love and probably purchase on DVD to put on the shelf right next to UP, Wall•E and The Incredibles. If that’s all you’re interesting in knowing, you can fold up this newspaper and go purchase a ticket right now.
If you’re interested in going off in a more philosophical direction, let’s continue. ... Brave represents a major seismic shift at Disney. It is, on the surface, yet another in the company’s long line of fairy tale princess movies (starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs back in 1937). Set in ancient Scotland, the film spins the story of redheaded Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald from “Boardwalk Empire”), the wild-child offspring of quaintly barbaric King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and dutiful Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). For the sake of the kingdom’s fragile peace, our gal’s set to be married off to some random prince, who will be chosen by a Highland-games-style competition. So far, so Disney.
What sets Brave apart, though, is the amount of thought that has gone into the film from a story standpoint. Savvy without being winkingly self-referential, Brave takes basically all of Disney’s animated history and turns it on its ear. For once, we are presented with a heroine singularly uninterested in matrimony. This princess isn’t enamored by palaces and princes. She just wants to run around the forest with her trusty bow and arrow. This delights our boisterous king, but it throws our uptight queen into near-conniptions.
Tomboys aren’t all that out of place in the modern Disney era, but Merida represents something more. Unlike her recent compatriots (Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Snow White in Snow White and the Huntsman), Merida isn’t simply a retooled fairy tale heroine given a sword to perfunctorily wave in the climactic battle scene. From the ground up, Merida is an original creation. This allows the filmmakers to truly say something with her character.
Unwilling to be hitched to some dopey prince (Brave provides our protagonist with a particularly unappealing lot of Prince Charmings), Merida runs away to her beloved woods. There, she encounters a barmy witch (Julie Walters, giving great voice), who offers to change Merida’s destiny. As you might well expect, this magical bargain leads to plenty of complications and more than a few lessons learned.
What makes Brave so appealing for adults (and young people who can handle the film’s darker and scarier moments) is the way it shatters all of the Disney preconceptions. No talking animal sidekicks or musical numbers here. Why, Merida actually has the temerity to dis the traditional Disney princess dress. She hates the flouncy, pastel-colored things. (Which is hilarious considering Walmart is already shilling Merida dresses in its toy section.) In the Disney universe, this is akin to sacrilege. A Disney princes who wants neither pink dresses nor royal weddings? Uncle Walt is probably rolling over in his cryogenic chamber.
Of course, none of this gender-role reinvention would matter if Brave weren’t a solid, entertaining film. It definitely is. The story it presents is original, fresh and timely. And yet, it feels like a classic bedtime story filled to the brim with magic, action, comedy and intrigue. None of it comes across as calculated or false. This is a film that sincerely wants to take a familiar genre and give it a good shake. When’s the last time you saw a movie—let alone a cartoon—that focussed its energies on actual mother-daughter bonding? Has Disney ever released a film that involved a female writer, director and producer? Is there a difference between a strong female character and a female character who is strong? Brave has got the answers in the form of a tough, self-reliant heroine who doesn’t break the long-standing Disney mold so much as spring, fully formed, from a new and improved Disney mold. And that may prove to be the bravest thing about this movie.