Is it brave for Pixar to tackle the conventional fairytale?

It’s impossible to mention Pixar in conversation without combing the studio’s entire catalog.  This is necessary considering their sterling reputation for crafting the finest animated films of the modern era.  Despite a couple of clunky hiccups (Cars 1, 2) Pixar tells stories that appeal to the masses with enough nuance to appease the critical population.  It’s an outrageously high bar.  Their newest effort Brave never reaches those heights, but should it be lambasted because of conventionality?

Merida (Kelly Macdonald) is a young princess in the Scottish highlands.  She isn’t your typical princess however.  Her hobbies include archery, climbing stunning rock faces barehanded and horseback riding – not your standard royal fare.

Brave_poster-405x600Her wild spirit keeps her close to her father, King Fergus (comedian Bill Connolly), who admires the guile of his daughter.  It’s a thorn in the side of her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson,) who works tirelessly to prepare her for her future duties as Queen.

Merida is furious when her mother breaks the news that she must choose between three potential suitors as her future husband.  The suitors come from different Scottish clans full of brutish, bumbling fools ready to beat each other senseless at a moment’s notice.  In a frenzy Merida flees into the woods on her trusty steed Angus where she encounters a very industrious witch/wood carver.  Merida is granted one wish which she uses to change her mother.  The change is a tad more drastic than she expects when she transforms the Queen into a mighty 10-foot tall bear.  This might be an easy fix if King Fergus hadn’t lost his leg to a demon bear and will kill any like-creature on site.

So, it’s up to Merida to reverse the spell before the second sunrise renders it permanent.

Sounds like standard Disney fare, no?  For much of the film that is exactly what it is.  Brave is basic fairytale formula, one that has been seen a thousand times but it comes with a few exceptions.  Director Mark Andrews and his team of animators have crafted a tale of feminist rebellion for the modern age that is surprisingly refreshing.  Merida is destined to be the Queen of the Disney Princesses.  She is imbued with an independent spirit that has never been seen in a Hollywood fairytale.  She’s not driven by domestic instincts.  She would much rather climb mountains than chase a boy.

Merida’s relationship with Queen Elinor is also handled wonderfully.  The Queen’s struggle to corral her daughter for the traditional royal duties keeps the two at odds.  Her unfortunate transformation forces the pair to connect without bickering because, of course, Merida doesn’t speak bear.  This leads to some tender moments as the two fish in a stream and build a shelter for a safe night’s sleep.

The gripe I have is the film just isn’t as funny as past Pixar efforts.  From Toy Story to Wall-E their films always find humor in the little moments.  Brave is strangely lacking here, mostly opting for large-scale slapstick.  I love a good football-to-the-crotch as much as the next guy but it can get a bit tiresome.

It may not be a 2-hour knee-slapper but Brave sure is beautiful.  The character design is exaggerated and interesting while the Scottish Highlands are the most stunningly rendered vistas ever put on screen.  And Merida’s red hair is just…amazing.

Pixar has a knack for finding the right voice talent to compliment the stunning animation without the need to attach a big name star.  Brave continues that trend.  Kelly Macdonald has a very expressive tone, giving Merida enough gravitas to carry the film as a 14-year old.  Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson as the King and Queen are also stand-outs.  Maybe it’s just the perfect-pitch Scottish accents but I can’t wait to listen to an actor commentary on the Brave Blu-Ray.  Best. Accent. Ever.

Brave will lose points for following a formula and it shouldn’t.  The film finds creases in the fairy tale that keep it fresh and light.  If you are the mother of a daughter, take her to see it.  Brave offers a great message in a very tidy package. Is it Pixar’s best effort? Not by a long shot and that’s just fine.


Brave opens today in theaters everywhere.