by Raj Ranade
One of the many remarkable things about Pixar is how the company’s acquisition by Disney, maybe the most massive homogenizing corporate force in American entertainment, has only made their movies weirder. Since 2006, this team has made movies about dystopian environmental decay, the meaning and nature of art, and facing up to death and the gnawing existential void – and somehow, they’ve managed to make these movies in a way that appeals to children, critics, and the box-office in equal measure. And so the oddest thing about Pixar’s latest film Brave at first may seem to be its lack of oddness. This is a generically-titled story of princesses, castles, archery, fairies, and witches. It’s the kind of thing you might have attributed to Disney boardroom intervention had it not been for the last six years. But in true Pixar form, this clever movie does manage to surprise you. The first half here comes on like a Scottish Mulan, but it’s a bait-and-switch – Brave gradually turns into something more like a brogue-filled Joy Luck Club.
The center of Brave is Merida (voiced by Kelly McDonald), a headstrong young princess with a head of hair that is the film’s mostly dazzling special effect (seriously – while the faces and bodies of the film’s characters are exaggerated cartoons, those fluorescent orange-red locks are damn near photorealistic). As an archery-obsessed tomboy, Merida continually butts heads with her exceedingly proper mother Elinor, who puts her through endless lessons on queenly behavior wants to her married off to an eligible suitor as quickly as possible. All standard story territory, sure enough, which initially suggests a girl-power plotline where Merida might get to put her arrows to use against something more dangerous than a canvas target. But you get a clue that something different is going on here after a particularly public instance of acting out by Merida. Elinor tosses Merida’s bow in the fire, but just after Merida storms out in tears, Elinor realizes her mistake and fishes the singed bow from the flame, shedding her own tears of remorse.
Elinor isn’t a figure of fairy-tale evil but of flawed humanity. So is Merida, for that matter, as we see when she encounters a witch and ends up unleashing a spell that causes a cleverly symbolic transformation in her mother. And it’s here that the movie turns into a story about children realizing that their parents are real and imperfect people, parents realizing that they can only control their beloved children so much, and people attempting to make amends for the damage they’ve caused. It also becomes an enchantingly mystical film here, with luminous forest spirits and ancient ancestors passing on lessons to a new world (there’s a very clear influence here from one particular Japanese anime classic).
Brave admittedly has trouble measuring up to the ultra-high standards set by past Pixar movies. When the film strays from its emotional core, it gets caught up in somewhat uninspired slapstick involving Merida’s uncouth dad and unruly baby brothers, and the big climactic fight is way more interesting in symbolic terms than as action filmmaking. (I look forward to seeing how the 18-34 male demographic, lured in by trailers promising horseback archery action, will respond to the running gag where Merida’s fighting skills seem to be just about useless in any real situation they’re applied to.) Furthermore, while Merida is a decent enough role model for little girls everywhere (this is in fact Pixar’s first film with a female heroine), there’s also an odd strain of resigned pessimism attached to the feminism here – the way the movie resolves suggests that women should follow their dreams but should also be realistic about how much they can push against the constraints of their society. (It made me think about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s viral Atlantic article about whether “having it all” is impossible for high-powered women – and in this kind of movie, it probably shouldn’t!)
But there are still more assorted moments of genuine truth and wonder here than in most of the movies made by Pixar’s competitors. The key difference here, as with all of Pixar’s movies, is a total lack of condescension to their audience. A lot of animated movies these days attempt to appeal to “the whole family” by pitching their story’s complexity at the pre-school level and maybe tacking on an arch pop culture reference or six to appeal to the older crowd. But movies like Brave are layered enough to appeal to different generations on different levels – there will be enough daughters who see Brave that will appreciate it just as much when they are mothers themselves.