The newest film from the hallowed minds at Pixar, Brave is set in the mystical highlands of medieval Scotland. It is truly a film of firsts for the studio, featuring their first ever female protagonist, their first ever fairy tale, and the first time they have completely rewritten their animation system in their 25 year history. It is also important to note that it is their first original film since 2009’s Up. Brave definitely feels like a departure for the studio in many ways, and some adult fans of the studio’s output may leave this film a little shell-shocked.
The film’s protagonist is Merida (Kelly Macdonald), the free-spirited princess of DunBroch, who loves archery and exploring, and hates all things prim and proper. Her father, the carefree King Fergus (Billy Connolly), encourages her to follow her whims, while her mother, the level-headed Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) wants her to be a traditional lady. In accordance with tradition, and to solidify the diplomatic ties between the kingdom’s four clans, Elinor has invited the first-born of each of the other clans to compete for Merida’s hand. Arranged marriages are common fodder for fairy tales, and Merida is resistant because she wants her freedom (not because she is going to be married to the “wrong” man, as so often is the case). She flees DunBroch, encounters a witch, and attempts to “Cheenge her faaate” with predictably disastrous results.
Pixar has a reputation for cleverness, but there isn’t too much of that on display here. Because Brave is foremost a fairy tale, it mostly sticks with the conventions of the genre as we know them, to best serve the story the film is trying to tell. People expecting the immersive world-building on display in earlier films may be disappointed, but Pixar has always been primarily about story. Everything in Brave serves the story, and while this tale employs a few weak plot devices, there still exists some wondrous moments on par with any other entry in Pixar’s oeuvre.
Brave is also the most overtly dark film Pixar has done to date. Many of their films (The Incredibles, Wall-E, Toy Story 3) have dark or disturbing concepts lying just under the surface, but Brave is much more direct. Not only does it delve into family relationships and obligations head first, but Merida’s actions have consequences tied to war and death. When too many films today have ambiguous stakes, Brave spells it out very clearly. To compensate for this, Pixar has indulged in the kind of humor more typical of kid’s fare. Slapstick and some body humor are a plaid that Brave wears proudly, and again, adults expecting more gravitas from the studio will wince, kids will just laugh. Again, not groundbreaking, but I found myself chuckling more than I would have expected.
The film is absolutely gorgeous, often transcending congenital animation styles and nearing that of a painting in motion. Rather than the clean modernism we see in most computer animation, Brave feels completely organic in construction, previously only possible by hand. A note about the 3D: it has never been Pixar’s focus, and I had some problems with backgrounds being murky and blurred in 3D. I’m not sure if that’s what they are going for, given the foggy setting, but it doesn’t quite work.
Pixar fans will always want more of the same, but Brave is a solid attempt at a new style of storytelling for the studio. If you love the classic Disney filmography, you shouldn’t be disappointed, and even if it becomes considered a ‘less than’ from Pixar, that’s still better than 97% of other kids films. A visual feast like this should not be missed.
Brave opens today in Philly-area theaters.