Pixar‘s thirteenth film is magical, scary, moving and incredibly beautiful, while leaving most of the traditions of the fairytale princess genre behind and it make my list of top 5 Pixar movies!
After a dozen films in which girls and women play secondary roles when they appear at all, Pixar has finally let one step up to take the lead, and what a girl she is. Merida (nitpick: that’s not a Scottish or Gaelic name; it’s the largest city in Mexico’s Yucatan) is brash, impulsive, indomitable and fearless; she climbs dizzying cliffs, rides her horse at breakneck speeds through the woods while firing arrows with pinpoint accuracy in all directions, and most courageously, stands up to her fearsomely-controlling mother. This last point is where her trouble starts, and where Brave‘s plot gets going.
Brave’s Scare Factor
Before the opening credits begin, we the young princess Merida as a child and meet her parents – large, loud, gregarious, fun-loving and bold King Fergus, and stately, proper, beautiful and steel-willed Queen Elinor – just before Merida’s birthday party is interrupted by a ferocious and terrifying monster of a black bear. (If you plan to take young children to see Brave, be prepared to reassure and comfort them at this moment. Personally, I think a good scare or two in a safe “make-believe” setting is a good thing for kids; it helps them learn to handle their emotions and provides a cathartic release. That said, I probably wouldn’t take a child under age five to see it in the theatre; I expect it will be a lot less scary on home video.) After the credits, we leap forward a few years; Merida is now a teenager and our narrator, as we and she learn that the time has come for her to step into her role in the ancient Scottish societal structure. She is to be married to whichever of the neighboring princes wins her hand in the contest to be had for this purpose. In a reckless and thoughtless move, Merida attempts to overthrow tradition, a decision that produces terrible upheaval within the kingdom, but she stubbornly asserts her will, finally fleeing into the wilderness rather than accept the consequences of her actions.
This is a testament to Kelly MacDonald‘s voice work as Merida; although she behaves as a spoiled brat who is oblivious to the pain and problems she has caused for her family and country, MacDonald’s warm performance keeps us on her side throughout. Her Merida is always charming and engaging, even when she needs a serious time-out. All of the performers are equally adept at their roles; Billy Connally‘s Fergus is hilarious and sweet, Emma Thompson never lets her stern and uptight Elinor descend into caricature, and the three clan heads (Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd) and their sons (especially Kevin McKidd as the incomprehensible Young MacGuffin) are all note-perfect as oversize personalities. Julie Walters plays the witch as a dotty old lady who clearly doesn’t intend to do harm. She just wants to give the customers exactly what they ask for; it’s not her fault if they aren’t very specific about what they want. (And that’s as close to a spoiler as I’m going to get.) From that point on, the story kicks into high gear, alternating between broad physical comedy, fast-paced action, and charming sequences between mother and daughter as they come to terms with their relationship.
Much has been made of the fact that Brave represents Pixar’s first film with a girl in the lead role; this does not mean that Brave is a “girl movie.” Far from it. Anecdotally, I’ve found that boys love the movie and Merida just as much as girls, and they have no trouble relating to her or her problems. The truth is, boys do not dislike female characters; they dislike the primary story elements in “girl” entertainment, such as the emphasis on fashion, hair, and romantic relationships. Merida expresses much disdain for fashion, her hair is a wild jumble or untamable curls, and the central plot-point of the film is her attempt to avoid a romantic entanglement. This is about as far as one can get from typical “girl” movies such as the many Barbie videos, the Disney fairies, or most of the Disney princesses; I suspect that if they were real people, most of them (except for Mulan and Rapunzel) would be held in outright disdain by Merida, and the feeling would be mutual. Merida has a lot more in common with Pixar’s other female characters like Jessie the cowgirl; she is bold and forthright, speaking her mind and making her own way despite the obstacles. She’s a great character.
Brave’s Portrayal of Men
Some critics have suggested that Brave is hostile to boys; its portrayal of males is purportedly insulting and negative across the board. This is a gross generalization and really doesn’t stand up to examination; King Fergus is clearly on Merida’s side and tries hard to get the queen to understand her perspective. Merida’s triple brothers, the little devil-children, are a great source of comedy relief, and they never turn their considerable power of mischief-making on her. They actively assist her at one key point, and are pretty entertaining about it. Later, the sons of the rival clan leaders get their chance to speak their minds, and they show themselves to be fairer than expected. But all of this is truly a moot point anyway; boys, especially young boys, do not think that way; they aren’t sitting in the theater thinking about the implications and messages and keeping score on whether the movie is representing the genders equitably. They are looking at the action and personalities of the characters, and what they come away with is that this person is powerful and that one isn’t, that this person is abusing their power and the other one is figuring out a way around the powerful one. They have no trouble rooting for a girl or seeing guys portrayed as bumblers. They care about whether it’s funny or exciting or sad. The people sitting in the theater thinking about gender politics came into the theater with an agenda and can be safely ignored.
Brave is rated PG for some scary sequences involving bears and a couple of scenes involving lost kilts; the naked bottoms of men and boys are trotted past us a couple of times, but nothing graphic; in each case it’s intended and taken as the payoff to a joke, not as a gratuitous or shocking display. Kids will laugh at it. Apart from that, there’s nothing really objectionable in the films for most people; some may have complaints about the presence of a witch or the use of magic, but the concepts of allegory and metaphor really apply in those scenes; the witch is a convenient way for the filmmakers to put the themes of the story into literal physical terms, the better to explore them.
Brave Makes My Top 5 Pixar Movies List
In short, Brave easily qualifies as one of the top five Pixar films, ranking somewhere between UP and The Incredibles in my estimation. It’s spectacular to look at; the 3D version is mainly distinguished by additional depth to the scenery, especially in the sweeping aerial shot that opens the film. Not one moment of the film is built around shoving things into our faces in order to show off the effect. The rendering and modeling of the characters and their costumes is amazing. The story is solid, and the whole thing is reminiscent of a Miyazaki film, both in its lush scenery and its characters and their relationships. The witch in particular is reminiscent of a Miyazaki character.
Jim MacQuarrie was born on a chilly gray October morning, one year after Sputnik was launched and four months before Buddy Holly died. His professional experience includes packaging design, telemarketing, lettering comic books, website design, dressing in a chicken suit, photo retouching, and airbrush painting. He has never learned to juggle. He carries a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in my wallet in case he is arrested. He has been caller number nine and won the concert tickets. He has a wife, three children, two dogs, four cats, and no tattoos. His lifelong ambition is to be a curmudgeon.
Want more Jim? Visit his wildly amusing website at www.jimmacq.com
Photo Credit: ©Disney and used with permission
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