on June 24, 2012
Pixar Animation Studios has always been known for their unique approach to filmmaking. They have always put the story first and foremost, something that so many other studios seem to take for granted. They also know the rest of the ingredients to add to make their films stand out from the rest: Great characters, lots of heart, and a goodly quantity of humor.
While not continuing the 21st century tradition of turning the fairy-tale on its head, as in the case of "Shrek", "Brave", feels like a rediscovered story by Grimm's with an unmistakably Pixarian flavor. Legends and myths abound in Scots folklore, and the writers at Pixar didn't have far to go in order to come up with their own story, one that is at once relevant, quite original, and yet entirely congruous with one's expectations of the perfect fairy-tale. As fresh and surprising as any of the studio's previous successes, I enjoyed it immensely, and could watch it many times over without growing tired of it. It's hard to find a real family film that everyone can enjoy together, but this one comes pretty to close to that ideal.
In the ultimate cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for, the film, set in 10th century Scotland, concerns Princess Merida, a feisty, strong-willed, adventure-seeking lass, skilled with both a sword and a bow and arrow, who would rather practice archery and ride through the woods with her horse, Angus, than follow the path desired for her by her parents; or more specifically, her mother. Determined to avoid her fate, she runs away, and manages to find a way to alter her destiny. To make a long story short, this ill-chosen wish sets off a chain of events that threaten to destroy everything Merida holds dear and the entire kingdom of DunBroch along with it.
This fresh take on a typical princess character pleasantly surprised me, as well as the fact that the emotional core of the film, as well as most of the plot, stems not from a romantic relationship between prince and princess, but from the mother/daughter relationship between Merida and Queen Elinor. Anyone who is a daughter like I am will easily relate to how complicated the bond can be between a mother and her child, and this film portrays that unique bond beautifully. Without giving too much away, it is their love for each other and their clashing of personalities that ultimately moves the entire film forward, and the changes they both experience throughout the course of the film give them both a better understanding of each other, and emphasize the importance of empathy, bravery, courage, family, and love.
Not content with just being an entertaining theatrical experience, the film goes into a level of moral and emotional depth that even fans of Pixar may be unfamiliar with. It takes a very special film to bring me to tears, and I was moved quite often. Not to say that "Brave" is strictly a tear-jerker, because it is not. I'd estimate that there is more action, adventure, and humor than in any other Pixar movie to date.
There is no doubt that "Brave" is one of Pixar's most beautifully animated films. The amount of detail is simply brilliant, and computer technology being what it is today, there are times when the visuals on screen almost rival the real world. I've never been to Scotland, but the richness and beauty of the country expressed in the film makes me feel as if I had. The landscapes are simply breathtaking, and so photo-realistic you might feel as if you've just fallen into the wilds of the Highlands; I'm sure that more than one viewing would be needed to absorb it all. The rendering on the hair and fabric is especially lifelike, and certain scenes involving non-human characters might make you do a double-take, they appear so true-to-life!
Composer Patrick Doyle's score is appropriately Scottish in flavor, combining the expected Gaelic melodies (jigs, reels, and such like), with more modern, atmospheric, incidental scoring. Sprightly where it needs to be and brooding where it doesn't, it perfectly enhances the movie to the point that it feels as organic as the moss on the trees. The gentle lullaby, "A Mhaighdean Bhan Uasal", sung by Emma Thompson, is one of the stand-out pieces, and serves as the kind of musical representation of the love between Merida and Elinor. I also quite enjoyed "Song of Mor'du", a sort of Scotch drinking song, heard mainly in the background, but reiterated often throughout the rest of the score. There are also three other songs: "Touch The Sky" and "Into The Open Air", performed by Scots songstress Julie Fowlis, and "Learn Me Right", sung by Birdy, with Mumford and Sons, which, while not written by Doyle, fit expertly into their places in the story and aptly enhance the film.
Now, a good animated character needs a good voice to bring them to life, and the entire cast is all very well-chosen and very well-acted. Comprised mainly of Scottish and English actors, including Billy Connolly as King Fergus, Emma Thompson as Queen Elinor, Robbie Coltrane as Lord Dingwall, Julie Walters as the Witch, and the incomparable Kelly Macdonald as Merida herself, it would be hard to find another group of people so perfect in their roles. Macdonald is wonderful as the flame-haired heroine, and Thompson simply shines as the equally obstinate but caring mother. Billy Connolly is a great counterpoint to her more level-headed and dutiful Queen, but gets far less screen time than either of the two female protagonists.
To sum it all up, "Brave" is a beautiful, touching, exciting, and refreshingly original film, one that is entertaining on so many levels and can stand proudly alongside any of Pixar's previous masterpieces. I would rank it as one of my favorite (if not my favorite) Pixar film, and would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.