We are now unable to watch a Pixar movie with an objective eye. We’ve elevated their movies to near perfect-gem status, diamonds in the rough of hyperkinetic animated movies. It’s easy to see why, though, as easy as it would be to believe, it didn’t begin with Toy Story in 1995. They built their reputation over time; I’d say it was solidified around Finding Nemo in 2003. That’s when we realized they weren’t just crafting good stories that fill the hearts of both children and adults but also creating art. Not the pretentious kind of art, but the kind of art that gives you joy. Just look at this list of films from 2003-2010: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3. That list blows my mind. There has never been a run like that in movie history*, and especially not in animated movies. Now, with Brave, it seems the critics have begun to give up on Pixar, decrying Cars 2 last year as the first in a decline in quality. But I was pleasantly surprised that Brave doesn’t fit that description.
Brave is about a young Scottish princess named Merida (voiced by the sublime Kelly MacDonald) who refuses to conform to the expectations that befall a princess, much to the chagrin of her stately mother, Queen Elinor (the proper Emma Thompson), though her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly, and he’s great fun), certainly doesn’t discourage her tomboyish ways. Merida enjoys horse-riding and archery, and she’s not too fond of etiquette or corsets. She’s especially not fond of her mother’s decision to invite three clans to the castle to decide who Merida should be betrothed to. In Merida’s rebellion, she incurs some dark magic upon her family, the nature of which I wouldn’t dare spoil for you- let’s just say things get hairy. The detail with which Pixar executes this debacle is priceless.
Much has been made of Merida’s starring role in this saga, as she is Pixar’s first lead female protagonist. I think this is a faulty way of looking at it though; there have been many great Pixar women (though admittedly less than the men), including Jessie from the Toy Story movies**, Helen from The Incredibles, and Dory from Finding Nemo. I would go so far as to say the women in that list were arguably more the heart of their respective movies than their respective men. It would be better to point out that this is the first Pixar movie that focuses on womanhood rather than manhood. Specifically, it focuses on the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and while men obviously figure into the story, Merida hardly has need for them. This is refreshing, not in a feminist sort of way, but only because it’s nice to have a movie that doesn’t focus on romance. Indeed, the most nuanced thing about the movie is the relationship between the two women, Merida and Elinor.
What Brave lacks in subtlety it makes up for in sheer entertainment value and beautiful visuals. The characters are endlessly amusing. Merida makes a fine, empathetic protagonist. We’re with her every step of the way, and we feel her pull away from propriety. Though she and Elinor are the only characters that remotely approach reality, everyone else is ferocious fun- the king, his clan leaders, and especially Merida’s younger triplet brothers, red-haired imps*** who have a seemingly omniscient grasp of the castle’s halls and secret passageways (remind you of any other red-haired lookalikes in magical fiction?****). The cinematography is gorgeous. The Scottish highlands have always been a beautiful subject in the movies, and Brave renders them attractively. When Merida rides through the hills and the forests, we find ourselves wanting her to keep that freedom she so longs for.
I’d say that Brave is hardly a decline in quality for Pixar, though perhaps if the filmmakers hadn’t settled for such a pat solution for the drama between the clans, Brave could have been a truly great new fairy tale. As is, though, it’s on par with A Bug’s Life or Monsters, Inc., which are quite good company. I was occasionally moved, very rarely disappointed, and never less than entertained. Brave is a very good movie- we can stop worrying about Pixar’s decline. They got this, guys.
*I’m totally willing to be proven wrong on this point. Without in-depth research, this certainly feels like a true statement.
**Click the link and cry with me. Make me feel better about my tears…
***Shoutout to my boy Tyrion Lannister from A Game of Thrones– “imp” is no longer an insult.
****I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say these Scottish princes grew up to be the Weasley twins. You watch Brave, and you tell me they don’t have a Marauder’s Map of their own.