Over the last few years, animated movies have strived to update the notion of the “Disney Princess” beyond the type of character who croons ballads while they simply wait for a Prince Charming to gallop in and give their lives some sort of meaning.
Disney’s 2010 revisionist telling of the Rapunzel story, Tangled, got the ball rolling when focusing on it’s leading lady that still continues to day with female-lead movies like Turning Red and Moana. But strangely lost in this surge of strong female role models was Pixar’s Brave, the closest the studio has ever gotten to emulating the Disney model of frustrated princesses claiming their own destiny.
How come? No one really seems to bring it up much, but did you know it won the Oscar for best animated feature that year? I certainly didn’t! Has this highland tale of teenage angst and magic bears been unfairly over shadowed by the gargantuan success of the House of Mouse’s pop culture phenomenon, Frozen, released barely one year later or is it that rarest of things: a Pixar misfire?
In a picturesque medieval Scotland (no unrelenting filth here), the time has come for 16 year old tomboy, Princess Merida, to be married off to the son of the chief of one of three clans; but beyond the fact that the suitors are hardly what you’d call marriage material, the teen strains against all of her responsibilities to the kingdom.
While her burly dad, King Fergus, finds this all something of a gas, her mother, Queen Elenor is horrified and pressures her willful daughter to conform for the good of the kingdom and the typical tensions rise thanks to the helicopter parenting in a time before helicopters even existed. Things reach their breaking point when, during the highland games that are staged to pin down Merida’s husband, she takes part for her own hand and easily smokes her suitors thanks to her superb archery skills.
Eleanor is incensed as Merida’s behavior could lead to serious problems between the clans, but when the argument gets so heated that the angry teen slices up a tapestry featuring the family, Merdia storms off in a massive huff and stumbles upon the hut of a witch who has a lucrative woodcarving business on the side.
The witch agrees to help Merida with a spell to “change” her mother with an enchanted pie, but the two obviously have different ideas to what changes need to happen and after ingesting the pie, Elenor is transformed into a big-ass bear while still regaining her human brain, but unfortunately her vocal chords. Desperately hiding her from her bear hating father (the legendary demon bruin, Mor’du, rudely gobbled up one of his legs), Merida tries to find a way to reverse the spell which comes – like all spells – with a time limit before everything becomes permanent.
Brave was something of a shake up for Pixar who, at the time, were overly fond of using the buddy movie trope in most of their titles. Not only was the movie their first, female led movie (Dory the fish doesn’t count, sorry), but the animation giant rewrote their entire animation system for the first time in 25 years, which paid off in spades when you consider that Merida’s luxurious, unruly, red curls probably took more processing power than the entirety of the original Toy Story. The movie looks impossibly lush and the character designs are genius with the wethered, Scottish clan leaders especially benefiting from multiple chins and crazy hair that gives everyone an instantly recognisable personality. Helping this along immensely is the voice cast blending a bawdy Scottish brogue to proceedings that includes Billy Connolly, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd and Craig Ferguson; with Julie Walters on prime, scene stealing fir as the witch who is utterly obsessed with her wood carving side hustle.
However, doing the heavy lifting is Kelly MacDonald staying on the right side of petulant as the spirited Merida and Emma Thompson as her well meaning, but controlling mother and is here where the film finds it’s center as it explores the gulf that appears when mothers and daughters don’t get on. It’s a subject that Pixar would go on to explore in a far more contemporary setting in the superior Turning Red, but even though the tale of transforming into a red panda trumps the tale of transforming into a bear, the drama if Brave still hits that sweet spot as the two females struggle to reconnect despite the twin barriers of one of them being a teenager and the other being a 1000 pound wild animal.
However, if I’m being brutally honest, there’s two things holding Brave back and the first is the movie is oddly uneven. The humor, when it hits, is spirited and witty with the mischievous antics of Merida’s three, twin brothers hitting the hapless servants like a force of nature scoring some big laughs and a scene involving the witch’s cauldron acting like an answering machine bordering on genius; but it often rubs a little awkwardly against the rest of the humor and often feels like it’s been drafted in from another film. Similarly, as the movie literally has no antagonist to speak of, the movie slams in a demon bear to give the ending a more traditional punch.
However, possibly Brave’s biggest hurdle is that it’s treading so far into standard Disney territory that you sometimes forget that it’s been made by the studio that broke the mold with films like Toy Story and Wall•E and when it veers into familiar stuff like Mulan (young woman claiming her destiny), Robin Hood (proving a point via some smug archery), The Emperor’s New Groove (character arc via animal transformation) and even The Fox And The Hound (that last minute attack from a bear the size of a Mack truck) it just makes the line even more blurred.
Thankfully, that good old Pixar charm still manages to push through and make you invested enough to force those tear ducts to quiver just the right moments – I was even invested enough to emit a genuine bark of shock when Merida sliced the family portrait in two and when her hurt mother throws her daughter’s beloved bow into the fireplace in retaliation.
So not exactly God-level Pixar then, but it’s far better than it’s seeming lack of legacy would suggest meaning that this touching and warm mother/daughter tale is Scot to trot.