Following last year’s Cars 2, a disappointment for audiences and critics alike, Pixar Animation Studios rebounds with a grand, fun, suspenseful tale of a brave lass in ancient Scotland. And Pixar being Pixar, the screen bursts with luxurious color and detail, including gorgeous renditions of the Scottish Highlands’ flora and mountain vistas and fluid expression and movement from the story’s human and animal characters.
Following in the classic hand-drawn animation tradition of Pixar’s corporate partner, Disney, Brave is a princess movie. But Merida, the of-wedding-age daughter of King Fergus and Queen Elinor, rejects princess norms. An independent girl, she’s got a Hunger Games-style talent for archery and a love for plunging through the forest on her great black horse, Angus.
Merida’s spirit manifests itself physically and visually through her fiery eruption of red hair. The queen’s attempts at making her conform to proper princess behavior include a circulation-constricting dress and a headpiece that suppresses that wild hair. Doesn’t work.
At this point in modern Hollywood history, the feminine empowerment angle that dominates the first half of Brave is a bit old. Even so, the writing-directing team of Mark Andrews (Pixar’s The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Toy Story 3) and Brenda Chapman (Disney’s The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King) keep the tempo high as they prepare the way for the magical fun and high drama to follow.
Merida’s instinctive dislike for the demands upon a young lady of her status reaches crisis stage when the time comes for her to choose a husband from the sons of the clan lords. It’s a time-honored tradition that has kept peace in the Highlands for centuries.
Upon the presentation of the sons of the lords at the castle, the princess recoils at the sight of her clownish young suitors. The lords are a trio of coarse caricatures, too, but at least she needn’t marry the oafs.
The ceremonial presentation of the suitors and an archery challenge for Merida’s hand turn disastrously wrong for the princess and everyone else. The movie’s tone shifts from bright to dark as the reluctant bride-to-be jumps on her horse and rides away.
Her abrupt absence precipitates more chaos and the threat of war.
When Brave turns the page past exposition, things get really interesting. Desperate to be rid of her royal duty to marry, the princess isn’t careful about that which she asks. In a virtuoso whirl of a scene, a witch, a spell and untended consequences ensue. Merida faces the likelihood that she will lose a loved one forever because of something she herself has done.
Like animated Disney classics Snow White, Cinderella and Pinocchio, Brave is many things in one movie. Pixar’s filmmakers flex their versatility and storytelling, moving from lighthearted slapstick to high adventure to tragic moments when hope is all but gone. The film takes its audience from laughter to tears. There’s also a lot of good stuff between the two.
A bear on the loose in the castle creates multiple sequences of delightful physical comedy. A battle in the forest against a supernatural beast brings suspenseful action. A well-chosen cast of actors — Kelly Macdonald as Merida; Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson as the king and queen; Julie Walters as the witch; and Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd and Craig Ferguson as those crazy clan lords — completes the picture by adding voices to highly distinctive animated characters. A worthy addition to the Pixar gallery, Brave puts the studio back on top.