by Steve Habrat
After last year’s lemon Cars 2, Pixar has returned to form (sort of) with Brave, a thunderously exciting and comedic offering that falls victim to childish antics that never have the dual appeal for adults. Lacking zero complexity, Pixar opts for a simple story and keeps things light this time around, reluctant to show their emotional strength. Brave also lacks the vision that made their previous offerings so irresistible and unforgettable, seeming somewhat bland in comparison to tasty offerings like Wall-E, The Incredibles, Up, and Toy Story. Yet Brave, with its enthusiastic voice work and detailed visuals, still manages to get on your good side with some clever moments of slapstick humor that will have you chuckling due to their unpredictability. It also features an immensely likable main character in Merida, an archery obsessed tomboy who likes to allow her unruly explosion of red curls bounce around her face as she rides through the woods shooting arrows at targets. I admit I was worried that I may not care for this feisty free spirit but I have to say that she is a real charmer.
Brave takes us to the 10th century Scottish highlands where we meet Merida (Voiced by Kelly Macdonald), the archery fanatic daughter of King Fergus (Voiced by Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Voiced by Emma Thopson). Merida happens to be a tomboy who loves riding her horse through the woods and firing arrows at several targets she has placed around a trail. She also gets a kick out of climbing up the sides of mountains to drink from waterfalls. Merida is a firm believer in pursuing one’s own destiny rather than having her life planned out for her by others. Her behavior horrifies her mother, who demands that she learn to act like a lady before three neighboring clans arrive in their kingdom for a competition that would allow one young man the chance to win Merida’s hand. The clans arrive and each clan leader offers up his first-born son to compete for Merida, even though she is disinterested in the entire event. Merida grows restless during the competition and she erupts in an outburst that infuriates her mother. Merida runs off into the woods where she finds herself face to face with a witch (Voiced by Julie Walters) that offers her a spell that would change her controlling mother. The witch conveniently forgets to add that there is a small side effect that changes her mother’s appearance too. Meanwhile, the clan leaders begin to grow restless over who will win Merida’s hand, slowly stirring up war between King Fergus and the neighboring clans.
Pixar’s first fairytale does come with quite a bit to admire even if it is reluctant to tackle any heavy topics. I can honestly say that Brave had me laughing from start to finish. I loved how rowdy the film was even if things do get a little too out of hand at times. Brave has tons of shouting, drinking, eating, singing, fighting, brawling, and more shouting, sometimes driving the viewer to a headache but it is all in good fun. You’ll get a bang out of King Fergus as he stomps oafishly through the frame, devouring chicken legs and chugging cup after cup of ale. The heads of the three clans, Lord Dingwall (Voiced by Robbie Coltrane), Lord Macintosh (Voiced by Craig Ferguson), and Lord MacGuffin (Voiced by Kevin McKidd), are all equally boorish and disgusting in their own right but they do manage to grab a whole slew of giggles. The one interesting aspect of Brave is that the film is not hiding the fact that it is advocating female empowerment. The men are made out to be clueless and battle hungry in addition to their already hearty appetites. Yet the men are compassionate to the women and they do respect them, which does make Brave’s message a bit perplexing. I understand that Merida wants to break away from what is expected of a lady but I thought we were over this old fashioned defy-conformity-and-do-what-makes-you-happy message by this point.
Brave is, after all, a ladies show and the guys are just there to fill some space. Merida acts as a firm role model for young girls, a less gritty and animated Katniss Everdeen for five-year-olds. Director Mark Andrews pushes Macdonald to really emphasize the Scottish brogue, making her a bit cartoonish at some points but that actually adds to her appeal. She is the liberal answer to her conservative mother Elinor, who is tied to old-fashioned behavior and unwilling to accept anything less. She warns Merdia to keep her bow off the table and that she better grin through the pain of a corset. A blow-up between these two worlds is the only moment that Andrews really cranks the emotional intensity up a notch or two. When the spell is cast upon Elinor, the plot takes an unexpected twist that worried me at first but then really gains some momentum and keeps the laughs flying. The other female character that I was intrigued with upon first meeting her was the witch, who is introduced halfway through the film and then never heard from again. I kept wondering when the story would return to her and develop her further. Alas, she magically disappears.
While I enjoyed all the main characters in Brave, there was a trio of scene stealing tykes that won me over early on and kept me in stitches every time they scampered into the action. I’m talking about Merida’s three trouble making younger brothers who gag over their dinners while plotting ways to make off with trays of sweets brought to them by their servants. Wait until you see the scene where they have to steal a key off one servant, who stashes it in her cleavage. The Pixar team manages to deliver one hell of a pay off in the final stretch of Brave, offering more satisfying action than most of the other blockbusters that have taken up space in the theater this summer. Yet the Pixar team seems unsure over how to make a film that is aimed at younger girls and the message to send to that demographic. It falls back to something that would have really been saying something before the Women’s Liberation Movement but today, it just seems lazy, especially after what Pixar has accomplished with some of their other work. It may not be the best of Pixar’s bunch and you may yawn over what it trying to say underneath all the yelling but Brave still manages to be one of the better films in a summer that has been filled with duds.