Brave stands as Pixar’s most mature work to date. Pixar itself is quite mature, although in that context I mean “old.” Brave proves the 26-year-old studio is aging with poise and self-reflection — a wise, accomplished … mature artist passing down knowledge to adults and, more importantly, children. The collected works of Pixar teach the School of Life.
To many critics and friends of mine, Brave does not seem bold or ambitious, for they observe the film only in light of the studio’s previous works, particularly the consecutive string of masterpieces: Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 (the only threequel rightly deserving of such praise). In concept alone, Brave is built with familiar fairy tale parts. However, co-directors and writers Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell tweak the structure in a number of daring (one could say ‘brave’) ways, executing a story with all the visual flourishes natural to the studio’s computer wizardry. But it is the seamless storytelling — in this case, spinning a simple yarn in an economic and universal fashion — that is so Pixar, qualifying Brave as yet another classic animated feature.
The film’s wonderful protagonist shoulders all this ‘ambition’ the detractors accuse as absent. Whereas we call something “ambitious” only because of its blatant potential to not make money (there are other artistic justifications, of course, but this is the fundamental endgame), what could be a more risky pitch than the tale of a sexless tomboy subverting romantic tradition with feminist ideals?
Princess Merida (Boardwalk Empire’s Kelly Macdonald) must face the chivalric custom of choosing a suitor to marry. To her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), the day recalls elegance and prosperity and lifelong security. To Merida, the mere thought of arranged marriage rouses her into a cross-country frenzy of archery, horse riding, hiking and free rock climbing. You know, girls. The father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), would protest to such distaff indecency if not for his own Ahab-esque obsession over a bear that bit off his leg in a fight when Merida was a wee child.
The hearty humor sneaks up on you and drives the film’s lengthy but breezy exposition. As three houses compete for the princess’ hand — the leaders of which are voiced by Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd and Robbie “Hagrid” Coltrane — their brawls and constant one-upping prove ceaselessly entertaining, not unlike the laughs that Up and Toy Story 3 delivered with ease. After missing the bullseye in Merida’s competition, the fuming son of Lord Macintosh hurls his bow into the crowd of spectators behind him. A disembodied hand from the very back catches it on a snap and a muffled voice exclaims, “I got it!” This is not groundbreaking humor, but it flows like a winning comedic routine, thanks to the efficient direction and malleable animation. There is a lot of slapstick, but it is damn beautiful slapstick. Merida’s three little brothers, none who say a word, scurry throughout the castle, terrorizing Cleavage Lady (self-explanatory) as the nonexistent camera glides around the architecture. In our era of ‘blue’ social comedy, how refreshing it is to laugh at friendly jokes built on artistic ingenuity and not self-aggrandizing pop culture references.
Naturally, Pixar programs this thing with effects NASA is probably dying to grab. The Scottish highlands look immaculate, as does the rendering of water, particles, shadows and light. That impenetrable fog perpetually looming over the British Isles actually feels inviting, at least to this American. Computer-generated humans have also evolved eons since Toy Story. The dimensions and proportions of nose to eyes to ears and so on remain like caricatures — as symbolism, fun and peaceful dreams demand — but the artistic engineers imbue an individual humanity to these characters. You can see it in their eyes.
Or hair. Merida’s fiery locks are an engineering marvel and they punctuate a remarkable character’s demeanor and independence. Sick of her mother enforcing a staged way of life, Merida lashes out like any teenager. The consequences, however, shock them both; to repair this mutual debacle, Queen Elinor must appreciate Merida for who she is and vice versa.
Some critics have misconstrued the film’s message, including my beloved Roger Ebert who charges the filmmakers in making “her a sort of honorary boy.” They overlook the stunning message finally christening the Disney pantheon. From the obvious Cinderella to the sinisterly safe Mulan, all of the “Princesses” have always ended up with their Prince Charming. Disney, the only distributor to reach such an international audience with female protagonists and inspire millions of children with every release, has made their first comprehensive feminist statement. Love champions all else: love for family, friends and even yourself. That last point is where commercial children’s entertainment often fails. Grow comfortable with who you are and live through your own passions. Love will find you, when you welcome it. It is funny but much more sad this “feminazi” propaganda — what some extremists consider those fighting in favor of the renewed women’s rights movement — is just something you would hear on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Princess Merida is the greatest Pixar character since Wall-E, which puts her alongside Woody, Buzz, Dory and … pretty much no one else. Disney can even exploit her for merchandising, which her Toy Story and lesser Cars counterparts know too well. I am sure little girls are already buying or more likely demanding the Princess Merida doll en masse. Hopefully they can understand why there is no Prince.