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Brave (2012)

June 29, 2012

 

written by: Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman & Irene Mecchi

produced by: Katherine Sarafian

directed by: Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

rating: PG (for some scary action and rude humor)

runtime: 100 min.

U.S. release date:  June 22, 2012

 

There are three noticeable firsts in “Brave”, the thirteenth feature film by the talented folks at Pixar. It’s the first since 2009’s “Up” that is not a sequel. It’s the first that delves into the fairy tale genre, something inevitable considering its ties to Disney. It’s also the first Pixar film that has a female protagonist, a point that has received quite a bit of press since the film was announced as “The Bear and the Bow” back in 2008. Those three firsts had me excited to see the latest Pixar film, especially that last one – which is ironic, since it’s been reported that the film’s opening weekend would be predictably lower for a Pixar film, primarily because it wouldn’t appeal to male moviegoers.

Well, never mind those sexist statistics. I found “Brave” to be a thoroughly enjoyable deconstruction of the typical Disney princess depiction we’ve been subjected to for decades. While it is tonally uneven at times and its supporting characters (apart from the protagonist’s mother) are pretty one-dimensional, the CG-animated film is an immersive visual delight. Surrounding what is essentially a touching mother/daughter tale, there is an absorbing message of selfishness and independence that may get viewers a little teary-eyed,  it did indeed for me (gasp!) – and I’m a guy.

Set in the 10th century and situated in the beautiful Scottish Highlands, where three reluctantly allied clans are led by King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) in a faraway kingdom. The time has come for their teen daughter, Merida (Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, “No Country for Old Men“) to be betrothed to a suitor from one of the three clans: Dingwall, MacGuffin and Macintosh. New of this does not go over so well with Merida, whose long and curly fiery locks match her stubbornness and independent nature – she won’t be married off to anyone! She’d rather spend her time in the dense woods, shooting arrows while on the back of her galloping horse Angus.

 

 

Although she’s technically a princess, her warrior spirit wants little to do with the destiny her mother has tried to prepare her for since birth. It doesn’t even matter to her if the peace of the kingdom is reliant on her choosing a suitor. She’ll have nothing to do with such an out-dated practice.

The breaking point in Merida’s relationship with her mother comes when she enters herself in the Highland Games, which is designed to determine who will have her hand in marriage. When Merida publicly declares that she will take her own hand and do whatever she pleases with her destiny, while effortlessly besting all her adolescent suitors in archery, it’s an embarrassment to the Queen. In an emotional scene, both mother and daughter have it out, resulting in a heated Merida storming out into the forest.  There she follows a curious blue light, a Will O’ the Wisp that leads her to a not-so-wicked witch (an enjoyable turn by Julie Walters) with a bear obsession. It is here, in this witch’s cottage where a turning point in the story takes place. In her desire to change her mother, Merida makes a rash decision that does indeed change their relationship. It is also here where I’ll stop.

Pixar has gone through great expense to keep the major structural story change of “Brave” hidden from everyone in all their trailers and marketing approaches. So, it’s only fair that I do the same.

 

 

Co-directors Brenda Chapman (“The Prince of Egypt”) and Mark Andrews (who co-wrote “John Carter”) also wrote the screenplay to “Brave” with Steve Purcell (creator of “Sam & Max”) and Irene Mazzi (co-writer of “The Lion King”), which bucks the traditional tropes of fairy tale genre, especially those involving princesses. The big transformation they’ve written provides some genuine comedic moments that might not go over so well with some viewers, but it succeeds in bringing this bickering mother and daughter together, forcing them to work out their problems during a challenging adventure. The approach is unique, but so is an animated film that focuses on what is typically a contentious relationship in a teen girl’s life. As the two characters find a solution to their troubling circumstances, they come to a greater understanding and respect for who the other person is.

While the writers have a heartfelt tale at the core of their story, there are also some apparent misfires in the script.  Even though it feels like the film already went through several narrative changes, “Brave” still feels tonally uneven, as mentioned above. There’s a Brothers Grimm style darkness that adds engaging mystery and legitimate frights, but there’s also light comedic bits (jarringly juvenile at that, at times) injected throughout that feel like forced levity. Clearly, they don’t want to lose the kiddos sitting in the theater, but at no point in the past has Pixar ever blatantly placated to their younger viewers. At least not that I can recall. Then there’s also the matter of the flimsy depiction of the supporting roles, most of them men who come across as oafs, especially King Fergus. He may be strong and a great hunter, but he’s a bit of a man-child, leaving Queen Elinor to bail him out of the royal duties required of his title.

Despite these weaknesses, I particularly enjoyed a backstory that’s regarded as legend, which has ties to a ferocious bear named Mor’du that we’re introduced to during the film’s opening. The way that specific part of the story was depicted had me wishing the story would’ve focused on more of a compelling fable than the silly humor present throughout.

 

 

In typical Pixar fashion, the film is gorgeous with detailed attention given to character design and a delightful cast. It’s fun to hear Craig Ferguson, Kevin McKidd and Robbie Coltrane portray the leaders of the other three clans, but the movie belongs to Macdonald, who make Merida an easy to follow protagonist, especially since she isn’t perfect and tries to rectify her wrongdoing. I could go on and on listening to Madonald’s accent. Between Macdonald and the way Andrews and Chapman handle her character, I find myself eager to rewatch “Brave” and revisit the girl with the fiery mane, which matches her volatile personality.

Speaking of watching “Brave”, I’m sure the 3D is just fine (as with most Pixar movies), but I opted against it and found the 2D to be simply captivating in its depth and richness. Like every Pixar film, what you’ll see before the movie is an animated short. Here you’ll find Enrico Casarosa’s Oscar nominated short, “La Luna”, a sweet and magical tale about three generations of moon sweepers.

It’s become the norm to compare any new Pixar movie to all the previous ones, in order to determine where it is ranked in the studio’s vault. That’s not really fair, especially to a movie that’s not a sequel and one that is doing something different with gender depiction. The title “Brave” may not mean what audiences expect it to be. Merida’s bravery comes when she learns to step outside herself and understand the implications of her actions and fully appreciate the place she has in the lives of those who love her.

 

 

RATING: ***

 

 

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