With its newest release, Pixar squarely tackles the classic Disney fairy tale. And whether you love, like, or are indifferent to this movie will depend a lot on how you feel about the genre in general. While there are definite Pixar touches in the quality of the storytelling, it does not attempt to break free of the format whatsoever.
Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a young Scottish princess, daughter to King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). The "kingdom" isn't much, per se, but is more a loose affliliation of four clans, bound together by the promise that the eldest born from one of those other clans will have a chance at Merida's hand (and so the crown will rotate through the four families as the generations pass).
Of course, Merida is something of a tomboy, and chafes under both the obligations of her station and the pestering of her mother trying to train her to them. Her father is a great warrior and she just wants the freedom to play with swords and bows. As is requisite in the modern fairy tale, our princess is not particularly interested in a prince.
As you can see, the narrative framing is pretty standard, and it is easy to worry that it'll tread the same ground as Mulan, with Merida eventually showing her worth as a warrior. Fortunately, despite some behind-the-scenes conflicts, Brenda Chapman (originator and first director) and Mark Andrews (who eventually replaced her as director) have enough of the Pixar mojo to make sure they take things in somewhat surprising directions.
The advertising for Brave has been surprisingly good at not giving away the actual story, so I won't, either. Suffice it to say that Merida is young and impetuous—and when, after a big fight with her mother, she comes across a witch in the woods, she is too quick to take her up on an offer for a potion that will, as the tagline for the movie says, change her fate.
As a result of this, Queen Elinor is put at risk, and Merida must figure out how to save her. Surprisingly, Merida's martial inclinations end up being barely relevant to the ultimate resolution, and Brave is a better movie for it.
The Pixar label has become a heavy burden for a movie to thrive under, and the immediate question many ask is, "where does Brave fit into the list?" Everybody's list that ranks the Pixar movies is different—and while I suspect Brave won't make it to the top of that list for many people, neither will anyone hate it.
Being a fairy tale means dealing in archetypes and relatively simple morality choices, and that doesn't leave a lot of room for complex characters or a multiple-pronged story. While the jokes are generally solid, the secondary characters in this movie don't really exist outside of them.
On the other hand, without being revolutionary, there are two really solid elements in Brave that warrant praise. First is a real sense of peril and suspense. Think the battle at the end of Sleeping Beauty: loud, intense, and in your face in a way we tend to shield young moviegoers from these days. There are two serious incidents bookending the movie, and both have a naturalism that gives them weight, and the outcome of the first allows for doubt that the second will come out completely OK.
The second thing deserving praise is that Merida is the prime mover throughout the movie. She gets herself into trouble and she is allowed, to the extent she succeeds, to get herself out of it. There are no fairy godmothers, no Prince Charmings, no prophecies foreseeing her life, and no Evil Queens manipulating her to her doom (though, again, a witch enables her to choose poorly). That level of self-determination is surprisingly rare in fantasy, and especially so for female characters.
As mentioned, there are some intense scenes. If you have children along who don't handle such things well, that should be a consideration, otherwise Brave is the best princess movie in quite a while, and it shouldn't turn off boys at all.
A final note: Attached to the movie is the obligatory new Pixar short. In this case, it is "La Luna," a truly delightful bit of whimsy about a boy taking on the family trade.
Brave is a Disney Pixar release.
Wide theatrical release Friday, June 22.
Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Starring: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson
Running time: 100 minutes
Rated PG for some scary action and rude humor.
Alex's Rating: 8 out of 10
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Alex Stroup works in Web functional design and married his way into this Disney thing. He currently focuses on movie reviews for Disney theatrical releases and other family-friendly films.