California Literary Review

Movie Review: Brave

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June 23rd, 2012 at 10:33 am

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Movie Poster: Brave

Brave

Directed by Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Screenplay by Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi

Starring:
Kelly Macdonald, Julie Walters, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson, Robbie Coltrane, John Ratzenberger

How long is Brave? 100 minutes.
What is Brave rated? PG for some scary action and rude humor.

CLR Rating: ★★★★½

Movie Still: Brave

Princess Merida (voice: Kelly Macdonald) in Brave.
© Walt Disney Pictures


Och Aye! A Bonny Wee Fable

Disney and Pixar have taken an unexpected turn by going more classic than usual, but still with a few new quirks. The arrival of Brave prompts reflection on how rarely their films have featured normal human characters, and how few of those characters have been girls. In addition, the movie has a central theme that is fairly novel even in the long history of Disney – a strong mother-daughter relationship, in which the mother is neither a tragic memory or of the “evil step-” persuasion.

Kelly Macdonald leads the cast of Brave as Merida, a headstrong princess of the Scottish Highlands. She is the firstborn and only daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Raised among the wild heather and misty mountains, she has a deeply romantic soul. This is not your typical Disney princess rendition of romance. In fact, it has no essential connection to losing one’s heart to a prince. Adventure is Merida’s first love, and above all she longs for the freedom to determine her own fate. Her high spirits make her the apple of her father’s eye, but also bring her into constant clashes with her mother, whose sole aim is to cultivate some courtly bearing in the fiery young lass.

With her cherished bow and wild corkscrews of flaming red hair, Merida is not one to be kept down. She is happiest outside the castle walls, exploring the the world atop her trusty horse and “firing arrows into the sunset” (as her father puts it). She is a crack shot and has the makings of a skilled huntress – a blissful Katniss Everdeen, raised in barbarous plenty rather than dystopian famine. Her old dad, a bear hunter of some repute, could scarcely be more proud. However, as she approaches womanhood, the responsibilities of the crown begin to encroach upon her fun.

The kingdom of Scotland, mercifully free of English conquerors at this point, rests on a fragile alliance of warlords. Queen Elinor’s well-meaning efforts are intended to make Merida into a comely bride for one of the neighboring princes, and hence a safeguard of future peace. At the appointed time, the lords of the nearby provinces (Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson) come calling with their eligible sons in tow. Not surprisingly, each of the royal prospects is some variety of un-dashing doofus. Despite her mother’s entreaties to behave, Merida finds it all too ordered and restrictive. Following a blithe refusal of all her suitors, she sets out to reshape her own destiny. Given her bold streak and excellent command of folklore, it is no surprise that she knows exactly how to pursue such a thing. She simply follows the will-o’-the-wisps! Deep in the woods, there dwells an old witch (Julie Walters) with the power to change a person’s fate. Meanwhile, there is more than just a mother’s disappointment lurking at Merida’s heels. A hulking, malevolent bear called Mor’du stalks the woods, feared by all with good reason.

Even with its healthy store of tongue-in-cheek pratfalls, Brave is as traditional a fairy tale as Disney has told in twenty years or so. As such, the narrative follows a classic and fairly predictable pattern, but the small surprises are nicely original and well executed. Through a series of mishaps and misadventures, Merida and her mother come to understand one another in many crucial ways, and the healing of their rift is what ends up driving the story home.

This movie marks a new level of visual presentation from Pixar. Finding Nemo was great, but Brave is nothing short of outstanding. Too often, long-form computer animation nails either the large-scale atmosphere or the tiny details, while somewhat neglecting the other. In this case, everything is flawless from the waterfalls to the texture of the kilts. Somewhere in the middle, Merida’s unruly tresses are an impressive example of how far the technology has come.

In addition, Patrick Doyle has given Brave a stellar soundtrack. Strange as it may be to watch a Pixar film without a single song by a member of the Newman family, you are not likely to feel cheated. Sticking fast to traditional Scottish themes and styles, this score is every bit as rousing and dynamic as James Horner’s music for Braveheart, of which this movie has more than a few fond echoes. There is actually far more Scots Gaelic and Highland bagpipe music in Brave than in Mel Gibson’s film, which beguiled audiences with the more popular – but decidedly Irish – uilleann pipes.

The character work in Brave is excellent all around. Billy Connolly was made for voice acting, at least in the very particular niche of blustery Scotsmen. Fans of his manic, profane comedy can at last share him with their very young kids – the ones too young to remember Muppet Treasure Island. Emma Thompson and Julie Walters are spot-on in any context, and the three boastful lairds played by McKidd, Coltrane, and Ferguson embody everything chaotic and hilarious about good-natured Scottish stereotyping. Kelly Macdonald holds the story down with plenty of heart and defiant good humor. It must be a thematic vindication for her to play a character so imbued with the power to control her own fate. Recall, if you will, the grim conclusion of No Country For Old Men, in which her character learned an entirely different lesson.

The non-speaking comic relief falls to Merida’s brothers, a trio of tiny ginger mop-tops named something like Hamish, Haggis, and Huey. They exist only to raise hell, steal biscuits, and trigger slapstick. Meanwhile, the main antagonist also does much without having to say anything. Mor’du the bear, a figure of mythical menace and a sort of Moby Dick to King Fergus, is downright frightening. The action and danger may test the very smallest of kiddos, but no more than, say, the dragon in Sleeping Beauty. It is still far less disturbing than that sadistic, malformed kid in Toy Story. Every bit of it is good for the minds of growing children.

Having committed strongly to an atmosphere of Celtic legend, the Disney/Pixar machine has taken time out to craft something uncommonly rich, less reliant on gloss and flash. It works beautifully, and the results are there for the whole family to enjoy. Brave is a good mainstream counterpart to another recent film, a visually inventive, but narratively lacking, Irish production called The Secret Of Kells. The enduring popularity of Celtic myths and music will always make this kind of story a safe bet for success, but some must inevitably turn out better than the rest. Brave sits comfortably near the top of the heap, not simply of rollicking Scottish fairy tales, but of what Disney has offered up in recent years.

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