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Review: 'Brave'

Overall, Brave is an entertaining and even groundbreaking piece of work, both for its gutsy heroine and Pixar’s new ‘Presto’ animation system, responsible for Merida’s fiery red flowing locks.

Image ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Disney/Pixar’s Thursday night Brave screening began with a bagpiper making a circuit through the theater to get us in the mood for the about-to-begin movie. Unfortunately the ad for the Brave video game and the promos for upcoming Disney TV programs that came next were a bit of a mood-breaker.

This is more like it – the traditional pre-feature Pixar short. It’s Enrico Casarosa’s La Luna [] featuring dad and grandpa introducing junior to the family trade – sweeping the moon clean of falling stars. Dad and grandpa both have their own way of going about it, and each one thinks his is the best – but their offspring has ideas of his own…

Brave is a generational tale too, the story of a young princess, a kick-ass Celt and wild child named Merida (voiced by Kellie Macdonald) who couldn’t be less interested in the life her royal mom Elinor (Emma Thompson) has mapped out for her.

This may be Pixar’s first female protagonist but Disney’s had no shortage of fairy tale heroines, from the demure Snow White tothe determined Rapunzel in Tangled. It’s interesting how these gals become more assertive as the decades roll by, and they don’t come more headstrong than Merida.

Looking for a shortcut to change Elinor’s mind, Merida winds up changing her species instead; she should’ve thought twice before slipping her an enchanted muffin from a witch (Julie Walters) whose woodland cottage is filled wall-to-wall and ceiling-to-floor with ursine wood toys and carvings. (The bear swiping a paw at the salmon attached to a spinning cylinder could’ve come from Gepetto’s workshop.)

Elinor’s lumbering confusion over suddenly becoming an eight foot tall fur-covered mammal is classic animation slapstick. Human facial expressions and body language are expertly mapped onto the bear’s enormous bulk as she stumbles around her now too-tiny quarters while trying to maintain her royal dignity. (Interestingly, Elinor is the second Disney character in less than a decade to turn bruin: Kenai suffered the same fate in 2003’s Brother Bear.)

There’s no handsome hero to come to the heroine’s aid or join in her quest here. (Merida’s three suitors are world-class yutzes.) Never mind the ticking-clock deadline before Elinor is forever doomed to be a bear in both body and mind: Brave is a mother/daughter story. The two women (okay, one bear and one woman) must literally and figuratively mend their torn bond before the parent can return to human form.

Overall, Brave is an entertaining and even groundbreaking piece of work, both for its gutsy heroine and Pixar’s new ‘Presto’ animation system, responsible for Merida’s fiery red flowing locks. Its only flaw might be the occasionally jarring shifts from one tone to another: lyrical imagery (breathtaking 3D aerial shots over and through forests and mountains), scary action (King Fergus’ angry, unknowing pursuit of his fur-covered wife, an attacking demon bear) and physical or anachronistic humor. (The witch’s potion-into-cauldron version of an automated phone tree is a guaranteed laugh-getter.)  Those shifts in tone are in all likelihood the result of Mark Andrews taking over as director from Brenda Chapman who originated the project. (Andrews and Chapman each get a ‘directed by’ credit in the film’s titles.)

Where would Disney animation be without animals expressing human emotions? Apart from body language, it’s all in the eyes: for the most part animals don’t have  flexible eyebrows or visible white around the iris. (More than once the ursine Elinor turns dangerously feral, followed by an aghast ‘what have I done?’ expression once rational again.)

At film’s end, when in one of its most subtle yet elegant moments it appears that Elinor’s human awareness has vanished forever (spoiler: it doesn’t), her irises expand just enough for the whites of her eyes to vanish. The effect itself will probably go unnoticed by most folks, but everyone will understand what just took place.

Speaking of feral vs. rational animals, this is something I’ve been wondering about after seeing Madagascar 3: why is it that all the circus animals are stylized, two-legged critters speaking various-accented English – except for Julien’s girlfriend Sonya, a realistically rendered, inexpressive bear incapable of any sounds except naturalistic growls? Is this some sort of anti-ursine prejudice on DreamWorks’ part?