It seems particularly appropriate that the first thing to flash across the screen after the production company logos in the animated film Brave is a title screen with the words “Disney Presents.” The animated production giants Pixar and Disney have collaborated on some of the best movies of the past decade. I have always been under the assumption that Pixar does the real creative heavy-lifting on the story and design side of their movies while Disney is more responsible for the marketing and distribution. However, those duties no longer seem to be separated as Brave feels a lot more like Disney than Pixar.
The thirteenth Pixar feature film proudly boasts the studio’s first female protagonist – Merida (Kelly MacDonald) a Scottish princess with curly, red locks. Within the first minutes of the movie Merida feels a lot more like the strong-willed, tradition-breaking princesses of Disney’s canon than anything that Pixar has previously produced. The major themes in Brave receive a lot less exploration than they deserve, the plot turns on fantastical elements like magic, and talking animal companions are sprinkled in for comic relief – all elements that fit more comfortably in Disney films. I bring this up not to criticize the work of Disney; however, the long-running animation studio has a style that is significantly different than their acolytes at Pixar and the combination of the two made Brave feel more schizophrenic than coherent.
Merida is a free-spirited princess of the Scottish Highlands who prefers shooting arrows atop her horse to the mannered activities expected of a princess. With her coming-of-age imminent, her parents have decided to marry her off to the suitor that wins an athletic tournament. Her father, Fergus (Billy Connolly), is the jolly king who is happy to lead an army into battle, but afraid of being the bad guy to his own daughter. Merida’s mother, Elinor (Emma Thompson), is more of the authoritarian in the family as she seeks order in the family and earnestly tries to give her daughter everything a princess deserves.
After Merida stubbornly refuses to abide by Elinor’s wishes, the mother and daughter erupt in a screaming match that is not unfamiliar to anyone who has been a teenager, leading Merida to flee into the forest while her mother is left in tears. Magic forces guide the young princess to a woodland cottage where a witch (Julie Walters) uses a woodcarving business as a front for her supernatural activities. Merida makes a non-specific request that the witch “change” her mother and hurries back to the castle with a magic pastry before fully listening to the instructions on how to use it.
What happens next is hard to discuss without revealing major plot spoiler, but let’s just say things do not go well and Merida must use the rest of the narrative fixing her mistake and restoring her relationship with her mother. Once the twist is revealed, we are treated to the most Pixaresque moments in the movie as Merida and Elinor gradually begin to understand each other through a series of montages that are underscored with music from Scottish artist Julie Fowler. It is a significant improvement over the first half of the film, although it stays mostly on the surface of the mother-daughter relationship.
Unlike previous Pixar films, the minor characters in Brave are not given much in terms of thought or development. The three primary suitors have personalities that match their physical appearance and nothing more, making it inauthentic when they join Merida’s cause to choose their own mates. Merida’s mischief making triplet brothers would have been funnier if they didn’t feel like rip-off of the penguins from the Madagascar movies. Luckily Merida and her mother are fully fleshed out, thanks in large part to fantastic vocal performances from Kelly MacDonald and Emma Thompson. MacDonald’s natural Scottish brogue adds a youthful quality that nicely contrasts with the maternal tendencies perfected by Thompson.
The story may be relatively weak in terms of the Pixar oeuvre, but the visuals may be their best work yet. Merida’s meticulously drawn red locks contrast the luscious green hues of the Scottish meadows. The placement of the camera in this animated universe is magnificent tracks around castle corridors, floats up to the top of a jagged cliff, and gets remarkably close to its characters to show the attention to detail. The scenery never gets cartoonishly bright, maintaining a wonderfully balanced color palette that nicely reflects the tone of the film. If nothing else, the film is a glorious treat for the eyes.
There is more to Brave than the visuals, though. On a personal level, I related to the parent characters more than I ever have in a Pixar or Disney film. Perhaps this is a sign of my own oncoming life changes or a particular affinity for Emma Thompson’s performance. Or it is that I have a parental attitude towards Pixar animation studios – I’m still proud of them for a valiant effort, but I know they are capable of so much more.
Bottom Line: Brave feels more like a Disney movie than Pixar and the blending of the two distinct styles feels schizophrenic.