Brave marks the first time a Pixar film has featured a female protagonist, a revelation that seems somehow disappointing given the company’s unparalleled access straight to the sweet-spot of the brain’s empathic, happy-making center. Yet, it’s true: Pixar has totally snubbed the ladies. With over a decade of instantly recognizable boyscouts, boy-toys, and boy-bots under their belts, the animation gods had a tremendous amount of make-up work to manage with Brave’s Princess Merida. Brave needed to not only feature a return to the strong storytelling of their past features (in the wake of the dismal, toy-schilling Cars 2), it also had to give us a fully-dimensional woman with her own tale worth telling. While I love my Disney Princesses, if Pixar had followed up a dozen beautiful tales of friendship and adventure with a full-tilt happy ending sap-fest aimed at hawking amulets at little girls, I’d have flipped my lid. We didn’t need another lips red as the rose, overly curious hair-brusher, talented songstress, or snappy chick in an over-the-top ballgown stumbling upon true love; we needed a real girl. Luckily, Pixar’s a smart brand. They rose to the challenge and delivered a wildly wonderful female protagonist with strengths apart from merely being able to assert herself in a male dominated world. Merida’s a killer archer, yes, but more than anything she’s a young woman actively addressing the expectations of her society and her mother, seeking to decide her own fate, and struggling with how to achieve that and remain happy.
The more I think about Brave, the more I find myself loving all its little details. The story is an original one, but in the hands of the Pixar imaginarium, it feels like a tried and true bit of folklore already time-honored and lovingly worn. In the lush majestic Scottish highlands, we’re introduced to Merida and her family: loudly lovable King Fergus, decorum-focused Queen Elinor, and three troublesome triplet brothers. The time has come for Merida to be married off to a first-born son from one of the neighboring lands, and she’s not having any of it. While part of Merida desires nothing more than to let her hair down, gallop aimlessly through the woods, climb cliffs, and loose arrows; the story doesn’t let her simply cite “being a tomboy” as her reason for putting off the seemingly inevitable. The truth is one she admits: she’s just not ready. It’s not time yet. She hasn’t grown up, and she needs time to form her own identity, to spend time on her own, and pursue her own interests instead of settling into a life of royal domesticity. Merida scoffs at the mere notion, citing her unscheduled wedding date with evident disdain as “the day she becomes her mother.” It’s a repellent idea to her, and one she seeks to prevent at all costs. After taking desperate measures, however, the film veers in a direction wholly separate from the comedy of manners that came before. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that where the first half places the pieces, the second upends the board for a surprising, urgent adventure.
While it’s true that Brave fits comfortably into the fairy tale world of the Disney brand, and many will cite an adherence to ‘convention’ as a reason why it doesn’t quite meet their expectations for Pixar’s emotional rollercoasters, I’d urge you to give it a close look and admire all the small details that are contributing to the very sense of something effortless that many are scoffing at. Where past Pixar outings have offered us glimpses into imaginative spaces that challenge elements of the world as we see it (inside the toy box, inside the aquarium, behind the child’s closet), Brave will undoubtedly be discounted for its grounded, human elements. Its landscapes read (ironically) as too real, too genuinely cinematic to truly leave a stunned impression. They’re not majestic, brightly colored cartoon spaces, they’re craggy mountains, lush, gorgeously rendered trees, branch-blocked footpaths and flaming, intricately created hair (practically a character itself). With Brave, they’ve sought the aesthetic of the epic and have created sequences that seem made for crane shots: inviting expansive landscapes, castles that rise out of the mist, intricately detailed storybook scenes designed to make the eye wander.
The details of the characterization, too, are loaded with lovely subtleties that speak volumes. When Elinor shoves Merida’s hair under a wimple for the ceremonies, she insists (silently) on drawing out a single lock. It’s part of her identity, and part of her rebellion. Elinor displays her own stubbornness in the opposite direction, doling out etiquette instructions long after its appropriate for her to do so (that will make sense later). Their relationship becomes integral to everything at work in the film, and where Tangled began to mine the wealth of material at play in the often antagonistic relationships between parents and daughters of so many fairy tales, Brave successfully constructs a push pull dynamic both natural and tragic. Merida exerts a fair amount of effort bitterly hating everything her mother seems to stand for, yet Elinor’s not as happy about the things she must introduce her daughter to as she seems. Even when the elements working to teach them their individual lessons become a bit heavy handed, the familial bonds depicted here are smartly dealt with. So, is it the absolute best movie Pixar has made? Probably not. The story could be a little stronger, the backup characters could use a little more depth. It is, however, a very consistent, lushly beautiful, very worthy addition to the oeuvre and one deserving of quite a bit of love. Ignore the doubting critics, if you can. They’re like those helicopter parents who ground their kids when they get an A instead of an A+. Brave’s a solid A, and one you’d be remiss in dismissing.