Brave (2012)

Starring the Voices of: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, John Ratzenberger, Patrick Doyle.

Director: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman; Co-directed by Steve Purcell
Rating: PG (for some scary action and rude humor.)
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Release Date: June 22, 2012
Home Video Release Date: November 13, 2012
North American Box Office: $230.1 Million

Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures

Written by: Brenda Chapman (Story); Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, and Irene Mecchi (Screenplay).

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★★★1/2 (out of 5 stars)

After taking it on the chin a bit with the disappointing Cars 2 in 2011, Pixar have finally unveiled their long-awaited, female-led Brave after a year of constant promotional efforts.  Presented as a captivating adventure with an empowering and potentially iconic lead character, Brave was positioned as the film which would allow Pixar to reclaim its crown as the Kings (and Queens) of Animation.  Pixar fans and apologists can rest easy, Brave is great entertainment and a well-made film.  However, it fails to land in that rarefied air of Pixar’s finest achievements and that is honestly something of a letdown.

Comparing Brave to other Pixar offerings is a bit unfair.  However the problem Brave, Cars 2, and anything this studio releases going forward is that the Pixar brand is synonymous with some of the most beloved films of the past 20 years or so.  This is the studio that has produced 2 of the 3 animated feature length films to ever be nominated for Best Picture (Up, Toy Story 3) and the billions of dollars in box office totals and merchandising sales of its films and characters is of historic proportions.  With Brave, it is refreshing to see Pixar, or anyone frankly, embrace a heroine as the centerpiece of its film.  And with Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), Pixar may have realized a character who easily could have a franchise of films built around her.

Set in 10th Century Scotland, Merida is a skilled archer whose father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), could not be more different.  Merida embodies a precociousness that aggravates her mother and makes her father proud, but that same determination causes Merida to push back against conventions and customs.  Her mother has arranged for Merida to marry a suitor from one of three local clans and Merida’s husband will be decided through competition at the annual Highland Games.  Needless to say, Merida is outraged at the Queen’s actions.

Not desiring marriage, Merida finds a way to enter the competition herself as the first-born of her own clan and after having a rift with the Queen, runs off through the forest, guided by little entities known as Will O’The Wisps. Following these curious little creatures leads Merida and her horse, Angus, to the home of an elderly witch (Julie Walters).  And as is so often the case when witches get involved, a spell goes awry, and Queen Elinor is transformed into a bear.

Essentially stuck with her mother bear as a traveling mate, Merida and the Queen begin to rekindle a relationship until Merida sees the spell starting to change her mother’s temperament.  Merida not only must get home, but also find a way to reverse the spell before the Queen transforms into a bear permanently, and perhaps even assist her father as he risks losing his kingdom because the clans are on the verge of war.  All from Merida’s simple act of defiance and rebellion.

Brave may sound complex and layered, but I suppose it is really a simple tale told in basic form.  On the one hand, the potential for a story like this to be insightful, inspiring, and meaningful is obvious and frankly, expected from a studio that has reached those heights almost effortlessly in the past.  When Brave only states the obvious and opts for quick comedy and lip service emotion, it is easy to cringe and exhale out loud.  Constantly I had to remind myself that Brave is not Up, Wall-E, or Toy Story 3, and is its own distinctive story.  On those terms, Brave works as a film that is enjoyable and light-hearted, more relative to the above average princess-themed Disney animated films of the past several years.

Fighting the comparison battle notwithstanding, Brave is beautifully rendered on screen and the film is quite stunning to take in.  The screenplay, as basic and simple as it turns out to be, will agitate some, but I found the film worked just fine on its own terms. Certainly, Merida touched a nerve with my 6-year old daughter, who talked about her long, flowing red hair and her skills as an archer.  As my wife answered questions about archery and whether or not our youngest can have a bow and arrow set for Christmas (we opted for no at this point), I thought about the connections Merida makes with her mother and recognized that Brave could potentially foster discussions between teenage daughters and their mothers as well.  Rebellion is part of growing up and Brave considers, but never really delves into, working through that phase of youth.  Perhaps that is where Brave misses its chance; to speak on a higher level to older daughters and sons about how to properly balance the actions and desires in wanting to be older and more mature, while still shouldering respect for your parents, peers, and those who came before you.

But again, Brave is not trying to be anything more than what it is and works just fine as a good and solid family film.  Well-voiced and breathtakingly animated, technically the film is an exceptional achievement and packs mild action and adventure, with an enigmatic female lead character that sadly, remains still all too rare in the movies.  Brave is predictable and will perhaps play as rudimentary for older viewers, but I know my 6-year old was riveted and hardly blinked.  For her, Brave was fantastic and immersive for 90 minutes and I, for one, appreciate that Brave spoke to her so well.

Now, does anyone know where you find kid-safe arrows and archery equipment?

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • Brave is a fine film for the family to experience and enjoy in a theater or at home.
  • Many will be pleased to see Pixar’s cautious step forward after Cars 2 is a good one and will likewise be pleased to see a strong female heroine front and center in a big budget animated feature.
  • Dazzling animation and impressive visual effects will allow audiences to overlook the predictability of the story being presented.
NO
  • Those with heightened expectations from the strong trailering and pre-release buzz will be letdown somewhat by just how light and airy the film truly is.
  • The familiar, paint-by-numbers story makes Brave appear quite thin, even at just over 90 minutes.  What saves it is the impressive visuals and terrific work by Kelly Macdonald in giving life to Merida.
  • Brave hinges on a fair amount of melodrama in its mother/daughter story that squashes the true emotion that this film promised.  For many, this may amount to a shoulder shrug, even for older kids who view this and can relate better to its subject matter.