I want to make one thing very clear before I start this review:
I LOVED BRAVE!
Okay, now that that’s out of the way…
2011 was something of a disappointing year for me because it was the year that I discovered that the people at Pixar Studios are as fallible as any other filmmaker. Cars 2 was cute but, ultimately, rather forgettable and it was the first Pixar movie that failed to move me tears. Certainly, Cars 2 was not a terrible film but, when it comes to Pixar, moviegoers just naturally expect more and it was difficult to watch those expectations dashed.
Well, last night, I saw this year’s offering from Pixar, a little film called Brave. I’m happy to say that Pixar has redeemed itself from Cars 2. I loved Brave. It not only kept me entertained but it made me cry as well. In short, Brave is a film that earns its place in the Pixar library.
Set in a beautifully animated version of the Scottish highlands, Brave tells the story of Merida (voiced, quite brilliantly, by Kelly MacDonald), the red-haired daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Merida takes after her extroverted, stubborn father and can’t understand why her refined mother isn’t as enthusiastic as Merida is about things like archery, hunting, and exploring the wilderness.
When Merida finds that, by tradition, she is to be married off to the first-born son of one of the kingdom’s three lords, she devises a plan to prove just how unfair this practice is to her. She announces that the winner of an Archery competition shall be her suitor, However, during the actual competition, Merida announces that she will compete “for her own hand” and proceeds to out-shoot all three of her moronic suitors. After an argument with an enraged Elinor, Merida flees the castle in tears.
Merida eventually meets a witch (voiced in perfect busy-body style by Julie Walters) who offers to cast a spell that will change Elinor. Merida impulsively agrees and then returns to the castle where Elinor is eventually transformed into a gigantic bear.
I have to admit that Brave nearly lost me when Elinor turned into that bear. Pixar’s trademark has always been that they make animated films that feel like live-action films and Elinor’s transformation felt almost too predictably cartoonish. However, as close as the film came to losing me at that moment, the important thing is that it didn’t. That’s due to both the impeccable animation (which managed to give the bear some very recognizable Elinor-like facial expressions) and the strength of Kelly MacDonald’s vocal performance, which brings a true sense of reality to a very unreal situation.
(Perhaps my favorite moment was when Merida hastily explained to her three younger brothers, “Mum’s turned into a bear but it’s not my fault!” That’s exactly the same thing I would have said if I had been responsible for turning my mom into a bear. And yes, I have to admit that as a stubborn redhead, I very much identified with Merida throughout the entire film.)
Merida and the Elinor Bear flee from the castle (and from King Fergus who doesn’t know that the bear is actually Elinor and who is known as the Bear-killer) and start to bond as Merida tries to find a way to turn Elinor back into a human being. It was here that Brave turned into a rather emotional experience for me and it didn’t take long for the tears to come. (What’s a Pixar film without plenty of tears?) So much of Brave hit home for me, from Merida’s desire to be independent to her complicated relationship with her mom and the fear and regret that she feels when she realizes that she might lose her mom forever. Like the best fairy tales, Brave uses a fantastic situation to tell a story about some very basic and simple human truths.
Whenever you review an animated film, there always seems to be one question that has to be answered: will boring old adults get as much out of the film as kids? Well, I know that I certainly enjoyed it but I’m not sure if I’m ready to admit to being an adult. The main thing to remember about Brave is that it’s not Toy Story 3 and it’s not Up. At the same time, it’s not Cars 2 either. Instead, it’s a heartfelt film for kids (and girls, especially) that won’t transform adults into bears.
Finally, I have to note that between Brave and the Hunger Games, 2012 is turning out to be a pretty good year for girl power. For once, we’re actually seeing films where girls can be heroes without being cast as either emotionally damaged refugees (like in the David Fincher version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) or as perpetual virgins just waiting for the right man to come along and give their life meaning (like in just about every other movie that comes out of Hollywood). This is a good trend and I hope it continues.