What It Is
The flamboyantly redheaded Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is unhappy to learn that she’s supposed to be wed to a suitor she doesn’t know. She argues with her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), and pleads with her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), to no avail. Merida must follow the rules, even though she’d much rather be out riding her huge black horse Angus, wielding the bow and arrows her father has taught her to use, and enjoying the magnificent 10th-century Scottish countryside surrounding her family’s castle. She’d even rather play with her much younger three brothers than marry a stranger.
So far, the story of Brave sounds pretty regular — even if you remember that it’s Pixar’s very first feature with a girl protagonist. Merida is feisty, smart, and also devoted to her dad, who, you’ve seen in flashback, lost his leg to a magical-monstrous bear while saving her life when she was a child). She’s also frustrated, by the three bad options she has for a husband (one’s too short, another too geeky, another too gangly, all are too conventionally manly, prone to drinking, shouting, and competing). Second, and more importantly, Merida’s vexed by her mother’s stubborn insistence that she do as she’s told.
Once Merida seeks help from a witch (Julie Walters), the film takes a welcome turn. She seeks a spell that will change her fate, but the witch gives her one that changes her more immediate circumstances, as well as her mother’s.
A bite of a magic cake turns Elinor into a bear, bulky and hulking, unable to speak and suddenly unsure of herself too. Feeling guilty about the spell and worried for Elinor, Merida escapes with her to the forest, hoping to secure an antidote and keep her safe from Fergus, who still harbors a grudge against bears. This leads to a series of adventures, running from large male hunters, hiding from nervous servants, and enlisting the help of Merida’s little brothers, who are inclined to adorable, collective mischief and just love it when Merida provides them with extra cakes from the kitchen.
As she helps Elinor sort out how to catch fish, gambol in the sunshine, and sneak back into the castle in order to break the spell, mother and daughter bond in ways they never imagined before: they laugh and roar, they run and jump, they share great accomplishments. This even as they face the possibility that Elinor will not be changed back, and that the longer she stays a bear, the wilder, more instinctively violent, and scarier she gets.
You won’t be surprised to hear that Elinor and Merida find their way back to their family, or that Merida’s expertise with a bow and arrow comes in very handy. You may be pleasantly surprised at the new way they find to be in their family, together.
Why It’s Fun
Most impressively, this is a movie about a mother and daughter, the emotional complications of their sameness and difference, their shared experiences and the difficulties they face living in a world dominated by men and boys. That in itself makes Brave unusual. Both female characters come to appreciate each other, and the male characters eventually catch up to the idea that the girls are awesome. (You might compare it to another recent film featuring a courageous girl hero, The Hunger Games, where the mother was an utter failure, unworthy of a reconciliation.)
That’s not to say that Merida doesn’t learn to conform to some expectations or that Elinor doesn’t come to see that other expectations are unfair and constricting. But even as it brings both mother and daughter back into a social fold, the movie smartly has them expanding the parameters of that fold and appreciating one another’s strengths and brilliance.
It’s also fun because the dialogue is often clever (some exchanges are also speedy, as in old screwball comedies) and many visual gags are surprisingly deft: the little brothers cutting off a sleeping guard’s mustache; the little boys scare the servants with bear-shadows in the hallways; Elinor comes up with some tremendously entertaining gestures and facial expressions as a bear.
Bonus fun: Before Brave, see Pixar’s 2012 Oscar-nominated animated short, La Luna. This lovely film tells a somewhat abstract story about how a young boy learns from his father and grandfather the art and labor that go into maintaining the light of the moon.
Who’s Going To Love It
Fans of lively, well-conceived animation will love the film’s look. The palette is mostly brown and green — save for Merida’s fabulous hair — but the animation is crisp. And while the forest scenes are probably too especially dark with the 3D glasses, the action is quick and the figures inhabit their spaces convincingly.
Fans of fairy tales may appreciate the change-ups this film’s plot offers, not only with regard to gender roles, but also with regard to children and parents, as Merida not only has to grow up, but her mom comes to remember what it’s like to be a girl, at once hopeful and fearful and confused and joyous.
What To Be Aware Of
A couple of action scenes are not graphically violent, but do insinuate brutality, as when the first big bear — with very big teeth — attacks Fergus, charging at the camera before the scene cuts to black, or emotional consequences, as when Elinor as the loud and growling bear almost attacks Merida, and the frame lingers on the bear’s face, wholly upset at herself.
The witch’s cottage is creepy, with shadows and a cauldron and lots of bear-shaped objects. The witch is disturbing too, cackly and mean and mysterious.
An argument between mother and daughter leads to Merida’s upsetting declaration: “Id rather die than be like you!”
Some farty jokes.
Brief drinking and raucous drunken behavior by the tribesmen and Fergus.
9 out of 10
Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures/Pixar Animation Studios
US General Release: June 22, 2012
UK General Release: August 17, 2012