Merida (voice of Kelly MacDonald) is a bow-and-arrow-shooting, sword-fighting, horse-riding sort of girl who does not enjoy all the rules — sit up straight, project when you talk — that her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), imposes on her. She is particularly horrified when she finds out the point of all these princess lessons: to marry one of the sons of the kingdom’s clans. She learns this not long before they all show up to compete for her hand. But in hearing the rules of the competition, Merida thinks she’s found a loophole: The first-born can compete to win her hand, and she, Merida, is the first-born of her house. So she competes (and wins) for her own hand. Merida thinks she’s scored a victory, but her mother is agast. Merida’s father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), can only keep the crowds entertained with his bear-hunting tales for so long. The clans will want an answer to who gets Merida’s hand, and the marriage is key to the tenuous alliance keeping the clans together.
As can happen when a princess is in the middle of some turmoil, magic appears and offers a chance to change the situation. But as with so many princesses (and princes and other fairy tale types), Merida doesn’t exactly stop to consider the fine print of employing hocus pocus to get what she wants.
Yes, that’s a vague description, but I didn’t know much more than this about the plot going in, and I think that’s for the best. The movie starts out as a fairly conventional modern princess tale, and the second-act action offers a nice course change from where you think the movie is going.
That said, Brave is still — for Pixar — a rather conventional story. It is somewhere north of Cars in the Pixar hierarchy but not the kind of delightful charmer that Ratatouille, WALL-E and even Up are. (For that kind of unexpected magic, get to the theater early enough to see La Luna, the sweet short that plays before the movie.) It is not, as Pixar movies can be, a joy of a film. But it is a solid story that offers lots to be enchanted by for children and their parents.
In a lot of ways, Brave reminds me of The Incredibles. Both are movies nominally about the extraordinary — superheroes in The Incredibles and a princess and magic in Brave. But both are, at their hearts, about familial relationships. The Incredibles had smart things to say about marriage and family life. Brave looks at that most fraught relationship, the mother-daughter relationship. Elinor and Merida talk past each other, both thinking the other just doesn’t understand what’s best. Then the movie makes them work together and they start to see each other’s motives and understand each other’s emotions. It sounds like an ordinary thing, but consider that in real life it can take a daughter decades to really understand her mother. The movie doesn’t make the mother an ogre or the daughter a brat. We are invited to see both sides, even if we ultimately identify with one or the other. My 12-year-old stepson saw Elinor as someone trying to forceher daughter be “proper” for the sake of following rules; I found myself thinking about how much work she put in trying to give her daughter the tools to be successful. That being another hallmark of a Pixar movie — everyone can relate to it.
Of course it’s not all family drama. There’s a fair amount of comedy — thanks in part to Merida’s triplet troublemaking younger brothers. And the movie looks beautiful — crisp and rich, with colors that seem to glow. Merida’s wild waterfall of orange hair is particularly well done. It really shows how far this kind of animation has come. You see not just a blob of color but a bouquet of different shades and textures.
Pixar has produced some perfect movies, movies that are flawless and that you know are flawless as you are watching them. With this as their standard, it can seem like a failure when a movie is merely pretty good. But Brave isn’t a failure. It is a very nice fairy tale for the modern child, told with lovely images and solid vocal performances. B+
Rated PG for some scary action and rude humor. Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell with a screenplay by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman and Irene Mecchi, Brave is an hour and 40 minutes long and is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.